[Viewpoint] The pit of populism

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[Viewpoint] The pit of populism

The political scene is in turmoil. And while a certain degree of disarray is to be expected in the final year of a lame duck president’s term, this time around things are different. The political instability is not due to the usual challenges from pro-North Korean forces or anxiety over a North Korean attack. It is the by-product of the internal dynamic forces of a democratic system.

Politicians across the spectrum have formed a chorus calling for new initiatives that better reflect the desires of the people. Following the defeat of the ruling party in the April 27 by-elections, one senior party official commented that he didn’t see any voters during the campaign period. They just stayed at home. Today, politicians are trying to lure them off their couches and out of their apathy by making sugarplum promises ahead of general elections in April and the presidential election in December 2012.

But the mania of populism may not be a purely political problem. Former Bank of Korea Governor Park Seung attributed the phenomenon to a crisis in the country’s growth model, in which the lives of the masses are worsening despite growth in the economy. We have long been accustomed to the steady rewards of economic expansion. Now we are faced with an unprecedented situation where living standards deteriorate even with growth. Both the conservatives and liberals are somewhat understandably stumbling about in the face of such an unfamiliar challenge.

If we refer to history and examples from abroad, two choices are possible in such a dilemma: an extensive reform and relief economic program like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to cope with the Great Depression, or a scatterbrained dive into the pool of populism.

Korea’s chosen the populist route.

Populism is triggered when the political and socio-economic systems aren’t running smoothly. It is a thoughtless, knee-jerk political reaction during a period of unrest amid indications that something’s wrong with the social order. It thrives when the middle class goes dormant or social polarization deepens, symptoms overshadowing our society today. Provocative promises from leaders can spark strong emotional responses from an unhappy public, as was seen in Germany, Italy and Argentina in the past.

But a populist movement is not as dire as some in the media are saying.

A populist movement changed the American corporate management model from a family-run to an executive system and democratized the elite-dominated Congress in the late 19th century. If our populism moves our society in the same direction, even arch neoconservative Irving Kristol would approve.

But in reality, the populism debate in our society is largely illusory. It is more of a political show in which cures are sold to the public without any attempt to diagnose illnesses. What matters to politicians is who, not what, is right. We cannot expect solutions to any problem with such a fast and easy approach.

In a nod to American author and consultant Peter Drucker, we need to find the “right question” in order to come up with the “right answer.” We should first ask if free school lunches or half-priced college tuitions are demands of the public or just populist gimmicks from politicians. We cannot arrive at any solution without visiting such a question.

The risk of indulging in populism is that it can jeopardize representative democracy. Seoul City’s attempt to put the plan of free school lunches to a referendum is an example of the dangers of populism.

It is a tempting political strategy for the ruling party because it is outnumbered on the city council. But going directly to the people in a referendum basically voids the people’s votes for that city council. It’s a form of authoritarian rule.

Representative politics is best handled by coordination of interests through dialogue and compromise. That is the heart of a democratic system. Without debate and compromise through parliamentary processes, policies would be at the mercy of bureaucrats or the market.

Fortunately for our society, there’s no charismatic autocrat waiting in the wings, or a gullible public. The pro-welfare faction has taken over the ruling party. We may see a new debate on a model for the welfare system beyond the ideology of left or right.

But before that, the ruling and opposition parties must set the rules. If all they care about is who gets credit, and not what gets done, we may never climb out of this pit of populism.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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