The author is a professor of economics at Korea University.
Many politicians around the world have expanded their bases by appealing to public discontent and hatred. Populists win votes with political rhetoric, pork-barrel policies and inciting the emotions of people disappointed with existing politics and social and economic inequality. Lately, populists are expanding their influence by appealing to a public that feels isolated by globalization and hate foreign cultures and religions.
Populism divides members of a society into the “innocent public” and the “corrupt establishment” and argues that politics must represent the true will of the public. Populists pursue economic policies like income redistribution, expansion of welfare spending and trade protectionism to win the hearts of the public. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro were elected president by encouraging antagonism against the wealthy and elite, appealing to public discontent, increasing social welfare spending, intervening in the market by nationalizing private companies, controlling prices and increasing the minimum wage. In the end, Venezuela’s democracy regressed, and all citizens suffer in an apparently endless economic crisis.
Lately, populism is riding on nativism — prioritizing the rights of nationals born in a country over immigrants and excluding foreign things. Nativism-based populists try to please the majority by attacking immigrants, minorities, religions, criminals and globalists. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban ostracized refugees and immigrants after saying immigrants threatened security, lifestyles and Christian culture. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro disparaged women and made racially discriminating comments. Turkish president Recep Erdogan persecuted opponents to create a country of Islam. President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte executed suspects without trials in a war against drugs and appealed to anti-foreign sentiments.
U.S. President Donald Trump is classified as a populist for criticizing mainstream politics and promoting trade protectionism and an anti-immigration policy. On July 14, he tweeted about four Democratic congresswomen from minority backgrounds, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” These first-term congresswomen are U.S. citizens either born in the United States or naturalized. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution denouncing the president’s racially discriminatory remarks. But there were few Republican votes. Trump’s approval rating is rising.
As the Korea-Japan trade dispute over historical issues intensifies, Japanese and Korean politicians encourage nativist populism. Since Tokyo announced an export ban on three key materials for semiconductor and display manufacturing before an upper house election, the leaders of the two countries have been making hardline remarks. Blue House Senior Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk mentioned the “Bamboo Spears Song” and declared a desperate fight in the economic war with Japan, chanting, “Patriotism or betrayal!”
Roh Moo-Hyun Foundation Chair Rhyu Si-min, a former welfare minister, said that those who make comments supporting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should consider moving to Tokyo. Those criticizing the government’s response or advocating diplomatic negotiation are branded Japanese collaborators. In an opinion poll on July 22, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating was at an eight-month high.
Populism is an attractive political tool for all politicians — conservatives and liberals — to create an advantageous political situation by appealing to the discontent of the public. Populists take advantage of the people to benefit themselves and their political factions. By the time the public realizes that it was deceived by the sweet words of the populists, the damage is irreversible.
When the media, judiciary and political parties fail to check populist regimes, democracy and law and order regress. Populist economic policies such as trade protectionism, exclusion of foreign capital and the government’s excessive market intervention only hurts competition, investment and technology development, which hampers not just growth but also distribution. When nativist populists suppress immigrants and minorities, internal discord and political chaos take place.
I am worried that such a type of populism could spread in Korean society, intensifying social divisions, trade discord and the current economic slump. Korea is an environment in which it is easy to find nativist populists due to our colonial history, ideological divisions and regional antagonism. Political, economic and social environments must constantly improve to prevent nativist populism from spreading. Democratic institutions, the media and civic group’s watchdog functions should all put the brakes on populism.
The government must resolve the public’s discontent by enduring continued economic growth and improved income distribution. When discord with a neighbor is on the front pages, society should be wary of instigating nativist populists. And the government must make its best efforts to get along with neighbors while pursuing national interests.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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