Ahn’s simple-mindedness“Democracy is the worst form of government,” declared Britain’s famous statesman Winston Churchill at the House of Commons in 1947 as opposition leader after he was defeated in parliamentary elections despite his exceptional leadership during the Second World War. Considering Churchill’s heroic status and his defeat at the polls, his criticism of democracy could be excusable.
But in fact, the great man was not simply whining. In full, his quote went like this: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracy is riddled with flaws and fallacies, but it’s better than other governmental systems such as monarchy, aristocracy, autocracy or totalitarianism. Churchill was championing democracy despite his own downfall in witty and ironic rhetoric.
We tend to take what we are familiar with for granted. Anyone can see the flaws in democracies, especially their own. Voters in even the most advanced countries generally complain of poor political standards and their distrust of politicians. Apathy and mistrust in politics and the people that play them is deep in Korea. One of the by-products of that cynicism is the ascent of independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, a newcomer to politics.
Ahn is a dark horse who galloped into the presidential race on the public’s longing for a new way of politics. His lecture last week at Inha University to describe his vision for political reform naturally drew great interest. But I was surprised when I heard the gist of his remarks from reporters who attended the lecture. I looked up the video clip of his lecture to double-check what they told me. What I saw dumbfounded me.
What he described was disappointingly simple, divisive and lacking in logic. For example, Ahn proposed to cut the number of legislators in the National Assembly from 300 to 200 citing the United States and Japan. He drew comparisons with incomparable countries. The U.S. runs on a federation of self-governing states and Japan on a two-house system. When compared with the average of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development members, the number of Korean lawmakers is actually below the 350 average. But few politicians propose to increase the number of legislative seats due to widespread public skepticism of politics.
I was even more upset by the mood at the presentation. Ahn asked sarcastically if the legislature could not make laws because they were lacking in numbers? And if not, what have they been doing all these years? The student audience applauded rapturously. It may sound smart to scale down the activities of money-squandering politicians and shut down political parties to spend their subsidies on increasing jobs for young people. But that is both unreasonable and unrealistic. It is, in fact, purely anti-politician demagoguery, feeding vain sentiments and hopes to hungry people.
What Ahn promises is panaceas that sound good but don’t have any roots in reality. He was criticized from various corners. To critics who said he was resorting to populist rhetoric, Ahn retorted that they were underestimating the public and described his campaign as a revolt against vested political powers. He scored well in defense. The more aggressive he played, the more enthusiastic his audience became. According to a poll, more than 60 percent supported his idea of cutting the number of legislators. There are few politicians who can argue against such a popular idea. They are feeble in the fact of populism.
The biggest weakness of democracy, in fact, is populism of this sort. It has posed a dilemma for political science since Aristotle theorized democracy. The history of democracy is rich in examples. It runs on the basic principle of pleasing the majority by promising them anything they want to hear. Politicians should try to satisfy voters, but not through demagoguery aimed at stirring people’s emotions to get votes.
Former President Kim Dae-jung said, “Politicians must bear the attitude of a questioning student,” but at the same time, be equipped with a businessman’s realism. Populism is a businesslike trade for votes. Populism is dangerous because it can tip politics to one side. Ending his lecture at Inha University, he cited John Locke’s famous quote, “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
But he failed to explain the reality of the great philosopher’s theory. Locke’s championing of individual freedom and democracy came to reality only after historical tipping points like the French Revolution and experiments over the span of three centuries. Ahn is no theorist or prophet. He is but a political novice running for the highest office who needs to explain more to the people to prove he is not just a rabble-rouser.
* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Byung-sang