[Viewpoint] The need for building trust

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[Viewpoint] The need for building trust

I made a business trip to Stanford University in California late last month. It gave me a good opportunity to sense the mood of American society a year into President Barack Obama’s administration. The society remains depressed, still incumbered by the 2008 financial meltdown. One private university professor complained of a pay freeze while a peer at a state university complained of a pay cut. The Democratic government cannot be entirely blamed for the prolonged economic plight but the public needs a scapegoat, as shown in Obama’s falling popularity.

During my stay, I read an interesting column by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Titled “Politics in the age of distrust,” Brooks said the first year of the Obama administration was focused on contentious health care reform. The Democratic administration with its unique leader Obama at the helm pushed for a big-bang approach to wipe out the years of rigid conservatism under George W. Bush. But unfortunately, the extreme effort backfired. The government has only magnified public distrust. Brooks advised a “weak and feckless approach” by proceeding with reforms in a more incremental way and building trust along the way.

All new administrations face a tough first year. Public expectations are high and the new government is eager to meet them. But most end the year dejected. In order to initiate a policy successfully, a government should understand the political environment no matter how imperative and justifiable its agenda is. It more or less would squander a valuable year with needless disputes when pushing a controversial policy. At the end of the day, it would find itself estranged from the public. President Obama is not alone. We have first-hand experience with the first years of the Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak administrations.

President Lee appeared to have left the bumpy road of his first year and set himself on the right course last spring by declaring a “public-friendly, moderate policy.” His administration unveiled a set of financial support measures for the poor, working class and small businesses such as microfinancing, housing loans and deferred payment of student loans. The measures were aimed at luring back voters who cast their ballots for a “moderate” government in the 2007 elections. The government also gained confidence on the foreign front by winning the G-20 Summit in November and a multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor project for the United Arab Emirates, rekindling faith in strong leadership from someone who, as Soul’s mayor, transformed the shabby Cheonggye Stream area into a tourism landmark and revamped the public transportation system.

But just because one works aggressively day in and out, the results do not always turn out successfully. A government is required to combine the administrative task of policies with the political task of social integration. To do so, it needs an action plan to facilitate policy. Before activating the plan, it must scrutinize whether the policy is workable under current circumstances and display flexibility if necessary.

Our society is quickly evolving in multidimensional ways. In a society with multiple layers of different interest groups, every issue can be met by confrontation and challenge. Conflict among different ideological, regional and class groups amplify, exposing rifts not experienced in a more homogeneous society. It’s like a family gathering during the New Year’s holiday, when members often discover strange tension permeating the air due to disagreements in interests and ideas.

Controversies over Sejong City and judicial rulings are examples. More conflict is on the horizon with the June 2 gubernatorial elections, an expected inter-Korean summit meeting and a potential constitutional amendment. With such a difficult agenda ahead, it is essential for the government to attain public trust. Public trust is spurred when the government obtains support by having sound leadership and constructive communication with the common people. To make its policy reap meaningful fruit, the government must read the political environment well, then enhance communication and gain the public’s trust.

While traveling, I saw the smash hit sci-fi movie “Avatar.” In the film, the Na’vi clan members touch one another and say “I see you,” meaning they want to connect with you. Connection and trust must proceed in order to deliver one’s genuine feeling. Most agree that the government works hard, but it lags in its efforts to communicate and win trust. The last two years should be devoted to fulfilling those areas and helping to form a more mutually respectful society.

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

by Kim Ho-ki
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