[Viewpoint] Witnessing the start of a new era

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[Viewpoint] Witnessing the start of a new era

To a political and social science scholar, it was interesting to see the fluctuations on the political landscape as the world grappled with an unprecedented synchronized economic turmoil over the last year. It was a good opportunity to study the political consequences for individual countries as well as their implications for the future of capitalist globalism. Moreover, we were able to assess whether global society was now at a key juncture, like the one that separated neoliberalism and capital globalism that had been dominant since the 1980s, versus the Keynesian and labor movement of the 1950-1970 era.

Since late last year, the world’s biggest economic powerhouses - the United States, Japan and Germany - were mostly absorbed in national elections.

Three distinctive features stuck out from the results.

First of all, the economic downturn generated different political impacts. In the United States and Japan, more progressive-minded administrations triumphed, whereas conservatives gained the upper hand in Germany.

In Western Europe, which historically has a strong liberal labor flavor, conservatives have been dominating from the turn of the century.

In contrast, traditionally conservative Americans and Japanese have grown more liberal.

Ideological lines in Europe and the United States have gotten less distinctive. America’s liberal Democratic Party and Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union are alike in many ways. Both advocate a mixed economy that calls for greater role of the government and public sector in a predominantly free market system.

Second, the election results reflected disillusionment and distrust in incumbent governments and the politically entrenched.

The defeat by the Republicans in the United States and Liberal Democratic Party of Japan reflected voters’ frustration and weariness in the incumbent administration while the fates of Free Democrats and the Left Party in Germany were prompted largely by public revulsion over the existing political power structure.

Since the mid-1990s, voters headed to the polls not with a desire for new leadership but to punish the ruling power.

Third, populist vows, like creating or saving jobs, struck a chord with the public and helped define elections.

Overhauling the ailing automobile industry became President Barack Obama’s top priority while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan vowed to review the status of American troops in Japan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel focused on employment policy throughout the campaign. Health care reform in the United States, child allowances in Japan and tax cuts for the middle class in Germany all worked to help boost popularity.

Our society today stands against the backdrop of such global political phenomena.

President Lee Myung-bak has made a dramatic about-face in his conservative political course by shifting to engaging, practical, people-friendly policies. His approval ratings were helped by offers of grace periods for student loans, microloans for self-employed businesses and telecom fee cuts.

Many acknowledge his turn toward the less-privileged has a widespread effect, serving as a starting point for a new course for his government.

But practical and engaging policies alone cannot promise bright economic prospects. They will likely be eroded by skyrocketing housing and private tutoring costs amid a sluggish job market even after the economy picks up.

To counter intensifying social polarization we need more fundamental changes.

The government needs to develop a strategy to cushion any side effects from aggressive fiscal spending to help jump-start the economy and aid the public during the current difficult times.

The yet fragile global economy demands a radical turn in its political paradigm.

Modern history is poised to close its chapters on the socialist and neoliberalism periods, turning to a new era of consilience, a melting pot of different views and ideologies.

Lines between conservative and progressive will blur and converge as seen in President Lee’s incorporation of policy holdovers from the liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Now it is time for politics to change and join the trend.

We need to see politics move beyond the outdated collision between the right and left and instead stage a constructive policy battle between neoconservatives and neoliberals over issues like unemployment, growth engines and social inequalities.

The future of our society and economy depends on such a new political vision.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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