[Viewpoint] Defining a ‘moderate pragmatist’

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[Viewpoint] Defining a ‘moderate pragmatist’

Looking back, we can now understand what President Lee Myung-bak meant by “moderate pragmatism.” This was the philosophy we expected from Lee when he was running for president. At that time many were tired of the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s excessive fixation on ideology and its stubborn, ideologically charged policies.

On the other hand, former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak offered a step away from debates on ideologies - he restored the Cheonggye Stream and made bus lanes. He looked like a fresh figure to the people back then. With Lee’s election, the people expected the tiresome ideological conflict in the Blue House to ease and the people’s livelihood to improve.

Because of these expectations, even many progressive voters who cast their votes for Roh in the 2002 presidential election felt closer to Lee. In this sense, the “moderate pragmatism” that President Lee adopted recently is nothing new, but can rather be seen as a return to the people’s earlier expectations for him. Nonetheless, public opinion about his perceived change in stance is not positive or friendly. When conflict between ideologies is as fierce as it is now, it is actually not that easy to stay moderate. Conservatives criticize Lee for abandoning his principles, while progressives disregard this as a cheap trick.

Because of such difficulties, for moderate pragmatism to work properly as a principle by which to handle state affairs, the president must show systemized and consistent change is possible. He should show that the change is not a temporary and strategic response to the ruling party’s defeat in the recent elections and the demise of former President Roh, but a fundamental transformation of his stance on social integration and communication.

President Lee’s style of governing the country has certainly changed recently. He listens to a wide variety of people and visits markets and schools more often. A people-friendly policy has become his main focus, and his handling of personnel affairs, which used to cause controversy, seems to be improving. However, despite such efforts, a majority of the people are confused by the term “moderate pragmatism.” That is because it is hard for them to believe that the new governing style of moderate pragmatism is really a systemized program. It looks like moderate pragmatism is not a principle that can be applied to politics, the economy, society and diplomacy, but only a temporary measure that will change according to the situation.

President Lee’s recent remarks and actions look more like spontaneous and populist moves, rather than a result of a clear objective or a consistent principle. The president mentioned cutting fees for dormitories at boarding high schools, ordered an improved system to give out loans for university fees and examined imposing different fees for violating traffic laws to benefit those who drive cars as part of their jobs. It is important for the president to show his interest in issues concerning the people’s daily life.

The problem is, however, that it seems like these remarks have not been prepared and adjusted beforehand, but rather spit out unexpectedly. For this reason, some criticize moderate pragmatism as not a systemized framework but rather an excuse for random populist moves.

Moderate pragmatism must come to mean an escape from the stubborn fixations on ideology. But it must not mean a lack of principles or consistency. For moderate pragmatism to earn the trust of the people, the president must show that it is not a temporary measure but a credible alternative created as a result of serious thinking about ways to ease conflict in our society and the hardships of the people.

What is needed now is not to stage a populist event or two, but to help the people realize that the principle of moderate pragmatism is consistent and systemized.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Won-taek
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