[Viewpoint] A simplistic political vision

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[Viewpoint] A simplistic political vision

“How could they possibly not know?” I wondered as I looked at the Grand National Party’s confusion after the by-election defeats. The alarm bells warning the Lee Myung-bak administration and the GNP have been ringing for a long time.

The administration and the ruling party must have had more than enough information, but they appeared to be unaware of the worsening public sentiment. This means something has gone seriously wrong. It’s because President Lee and the GNP, no matter what information they have, have interpreted public opinion the way they wanted.

The GNP’s reaction to the recent rise of the “Gangnam leftists” reflects that attitude. The term has attracted the conservatives’ attention because the southern Seoul district of Gangnam has long been a stronghold of the GNP and the home of the rich. The conservatives were shocked that leftists existed in the Gangnam area.

Behind their surprise is the ideological way of seeing the supporters and critics of the administration as conservatives and liberals respectively.

Former GNP Chairman Ahn Sang-soo had referred to Venerable Myeongjin, the former administrative leader of Seoul’s Bongeun Temple, as “a leftist monk in a rich temple in Gangnam.” That reflects the view that leftists are not supporters of the GNP.

With such a simplistic view, the GNP and the government have no choice but to believe that criticism toward them was only coming from the left. That’s how the gap between the people and those in power emerged and widened.

It was probably useful to label political opponents as leftists in order to attack the previous liberal administration when the GNP was the opposition party. But the tactic is no longer working - and is actually hurting - the GNP as the ruling party.

The Lee administration stressed that it was pragmatic when it attacked the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration, but it now finds itself caught in its own ideological trap.

The government and the ruling party, therefore, have been judging important policies the directly affect people’s lives through an empty ideological prism. The recent debate within the GNP on the tax cut is an example.

The conservatives argue that the tax cut will allow the economy to grow and subsequently increase jobs for the benefit of society. But employment and fair income distribution are not really a part of the current growth environment. And yet the conservatives are approaching the issue as the right wants to cut taxes while the left wants to increase it. The simple ideological division is far from a serious attitude toward resolving the public’s social problems.

The free school lunch program is another example. Instead of attacking the plan as being an idea of the left, the ruling party must pay attention to why society might need a free school lunch program.

The North Korea policy is more sensitive to ideology. The government and the ruling party have labeled the critics of the Lee administration’s North Korea policy as leftists or blind supporters of Pyongyang. But there must be some people who oppose the current government’s North Korea policy because they do not like the hard-line stance that has increased military tensions.

The critics may also feel uneasy that China is expanding its influence over the North by building a special economic zone while the inter-Korean ties are frozen.

But the moment you oppose the current government’s North Korea policy, you are labeled a leftist.

A few yeas ago, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” by George Lakoff was a popular book among politicians. Lakoff said political language defines the perception of our world and is thus important in framing our political debates as well.

He said political language constructs a corresponding frame and that people will see the world through that frame.

In other words, the political language of the left and the right has trapped the GNP and the administration in an ideological straitjacket.

This may be the reason behind the government and the ruling party’s lack of communication. Because they were trapped in an ideological framework, they have failed to read the public sentiment and respond properly.

The GNP’s most urgent task is escaping from that frame. Will it be possible for the GNP to “not think of an elephant”?

*Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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