Civil democracy is the answer

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Civil democracy is the answer

The presidential campaign posters are up around the country. The front-running candidate’s slogan is “A Prepared Female President.” We’ve seen that one before, albeit without the word “female.” The No. 2 candidate’s slogan sounds like a traffic regulation: “People Come First.” The No. 3 candidate’s slogan could be an essay topic: “Imagine Korea Federation.”

The posters are simple and plain, but all include a bunch of free offers, like a circular for a discount supermarket. Can you resist these tantalizing offers? “Extension of retirement age to 65,” “free medical care,” “half-priced tuition,” “employment subsidies,” “permanent employment,” “youth employment quotas,” “less private educational costs,” “expansion of the middle class” and “jobs revolution.”

Voters still feel something is missing. There is no sign of improvement for the economy, and none of the candidates have presented a bigger picture or a new direction in which to lead the nation.

Both of the two leading candidates - Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party - are promising basket-loads of freebies, so it is hard to distinguish their policy directions. They offer promises of welfare from one hand and “economic democratization” - whatever that means - from the other, making voters confused. Their offers have their differences, but not many voters are bothering to make the distinction. Voters are simply attracted to freebies in general and will choose the ones that appeal to their individual situations. Or they will get bored with them.

As their offers start to lose appeal, the two camps are fighting over mistakes and faults from the past. Moon is criticized as being responsible for the blunders of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, while Park is denounced as a co-conspirator in every failure of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Such raw criticism is accompanied by such harsh epithets as “the face of the pro-Roh faction” and “the daughter of the military dictatorship.” The dignity of our political parties and the quality of these campaigns are undeniably below par.

I can’t get out of my mind a moment from the opposition candidates’ debate. Ahn Cheol-soo asked Moon Jae-in, “What do you think is the spirit of the times?” Moon responded, “Welfare and economic democratization.” I was disappointed because Moon gave such a bland answer when he was given an opportunity to present his political philosophy and world perspective. Park wouldn’t have been much different. When she was given a chance to state her priorities on television, she said, “It’s national integration.” She advocates a cooperative community by healing wounds and resolving discords, but even that idealistic idea may not be enough to solve the complicated equations of our age.

Welfare and economic democratization are means, and national integration is a goal, so the latter may be closer to the “spirit of the times.” However, a true zeitgeist has to include the value of defining a goal and the means to achieving it.

My answer is “civil democracy.” Every administration advocates democratic values. But if you look inside, there are flaws in each of them. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was an “activist democracy” with former democratization movement leaders. Those passionate activists dominated politics with their overflowing hormones. The Lee Myung-bak administration shunned civic groups and had no time for politics or citizens. The people were treated like employees applauding their hard-working owners and managers. The ultimate owner of this “employee democracy,” the president, must have felt puzzled when he saw the raging anti-U.S. beef protests from the Blue House.

Before the two candidates attack each other, they need to look at themselves. Roh’s “participatory government” pushed away the citizens in the beautiful name of participation. The Lee administration pledged to “serve the citizens” but pushed a lot of working-class people off the wagon of prosperity. So a civil democracy is the answer, as it would give administrative authority to the people. There is no right or left in civil rights. We need to have a thorough social design to renew the citizenship damaged in the 25 years of democratization from the income gap and social and political polarization. National integration, welfare and economic democratization would be at the center of the blueprint.

Not long ago, a European labor activist visiting Korea told me a heart-warming story. In a slow economy, workers cut down their working hours to share the burden with those who would be laid off otherwise. “How can we work comfortably in the workplace when co-workers are laid off?”

That does not work in Korea. The two faces of citizenship are rights and responsibilities, but citizenship in Korea is focused on rights only. The candidates promise to grant more “rights” without clarifying who is responsible for what. Our politics are still backward.

It’s a bit late, but Korea has entered an era in need of a social design. The core is citizenship that prioritizes responsibility over rights. For example, the responsibility of citizens has disappeared in the discussion of welfare and economic democratization.

Tax increases are essential for welfare programs, and concessions from conglomerates, labor unions and high-income earners are necessary for economic democratization. The groups that monopolize the manufacturing and labor markets need to be singled out and asked to make political concessions, and groups that receive benefits should make a pledge for social integration.

That will lead to national integration and civil democracy through compromise. A bill of rights is a declaration of responsibilities. Citizenship evolves through concession. Instead of offering freebies, we need to share the risks.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

* The author is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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