Advice to the new partyThe result of a poll in December from Gallup Korea is stunning. Koreans who consider themselves liberals took up 31 percent, outpacing the 27 percent of conservatives. The 5 percent claiming to be “very conservative” matched the approval rating for President Park Geun-hye.
The reversal began from November, when citizens took to the streets every weekend to demand the scandal-plagued president step down. Self-described liberals started outnumbering conservatives 30 percent to 26 percent. Until October, conservatives were ahead by between 3 and 9 percentage points. Outrage against mainstream conservatives has turned them into centrists and centrists into liberals.
The Saenuri Party reaction to an impeached president has been to split down the middle. The splinter party vows to realign the conservative front, but that will be like KFC’s Colonel Sanders trying to get votes from chickens. Conservatives feel betrayed and defeated as they watch long-held conservative values crumble along with the presidency of the disgraced Park. How have conservative politics arrived at such a pitiful state?
Mainstream politicians have failed to sustain and expand on conservative values. We wonder if they fit the original conservative category.
Edmund Burke, the British parliamentarian of the late 18th century dubbed the father of Anglo-American conservatism, acknowledged the inevitability and necessity of reform and change, but argued that the shift should be gradual and measured without harming the integrity of existing institutions and traditions.
“A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve” was his standard of a statesman. Burke’s lament against the ethical degradation of France by using Marie Antoinette as the personification of the French royal tradition at the onset of the French Revolution hits the nail on the head. We have a similar personification in our Blue House right now. “Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men and of cavaliers!”
The conservative government neglected reform during its 10 years in power. A public revolt was inevitable after the exposure of corruption committed by relatives, confidantes of the president, collusion between bureaucrats and the wealthy, and power abuse by the inner circle of a president.
The new conservative party should go back to historical conservative roots. It must ruminate on the traditional beliefs in human rights, responsibility, pragmatism and equilibrium, and compassion. Korean conservatism was largely influenced by the teachings of Christians and reformists of the late Joseon age. The reformists attacked the rigid Confucian tradition of Joseon, but pursued compromise with a constitutional monarchy instead of the outright overthrow of royalty. They defined their conservatism as a patriotic affection for their country and countrymen, which was the most noble side of human nature.
The conservative party backed the government of Syngman Rhee. Rhee tried to defend the south from the communists through the privatization of land versus the North’s nationalization of land. He maintained a die-hard anti-Communist stance to preserve the country until the signing of an armistice to end the Korean War.
Park Chung Hee had an eager mission to build up the impoverished nation and he left a legacy of pragmatism to the future generations.
President Kim Young-sam balanced reform and conservatism by ending bank accounts with phoney names and disclosing the assets of senior public officials.
How did the descendants keep up the conservative legacy? Businessman-turned-president Lee Myung-bak immersed himself in an expensive river reclaiming project and neglected the greater necessity of economic restructuring. President Park Geun-hye debunked the dogma of responsibility in conservatism and became our most irresponsible leader.
Conservatives lost their mojo due to a lack of strong opponents at home and challenges from North Korea. Since they had little to defend, they slipped into complacency over the last decade. The far rightists who keep to a pitiful corner at candlelight vigils make a sad sight.
Are those the Korean conservatives of our time?
What the new conservative party should concentrate on is to rebuild conservativism instead of vainly aiming for another five-year rule. Genuine conservatives would think about future generations, not a transitory political victory. Is Ban Ki-moon the only option? Didn’t we learn what a mess can be created by the fielding of a conservative figurehead, as we did five years ago?
The conservatives know best what the conservatives want — a small government that ensures individual freedom, removal of regulations, a decisive blow to public-private collusion, a pragmatic agenda, healthy tax levies, fiscal integrity, a stand on North Korean human rights and the independence of broadcasters. They must come up with a leader with boldness and appeal to push forward these promises.
There were 28 percent centrists in the December poll. The new conservatives do not have much time.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 28, Page 35
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.