Reinventing conservatism

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Reinventing conservatism

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Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Even after its crushing defeat in the April 15 general elections, the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) is still living on a different planet. “I failed to stop the country from moving in the wrong direction at a crucial moment,” said Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn as he stepped down after the debacle. Lee Suk-yeon, acting chairman of the party’s nomination committee, said, “I despair for the people’s choices. The consequence of failing to stop this administration’s reckless governance will boomerang on them.”

It seems like the test-takers are blaming the teacher for wrongfully grading them after they refused to study at all. They completely failed to read public sentiment, which finally decided to replace the mainstream political establishment after years of endurance. Rep. Kim Se-yeon, a UFP lawmaker who decided not to run in the election, said, “The UFP’s existence itself is doing historic harm to the public. It is like a lifeless zombie party.”

The UFP lost its ability to see itself objectively. It reminds us of the main characters in the movie “The Others.” In that film, a mother and two young children are fearful of ghosts in their house. The twist is that they are actually the ghosts.

The UFP is telling the voters, “We are right. You are stupid.” It obviously doesn’t work that way, although the elite who ignore the ordinary people’s views may wish so.

The conservative opposition must look at itself objectively. The impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye three years ago meant that the people also impeached the ruling Saenuri Party. Yet, the party chose Hwang, prime minister in the Park administration, as chairman of the UFP. Park loyalists and Taegukgi Troops — the protesters who deny the validity of Park’s impeachment — surrounded Hwang. On top of that, key politicians from the UFP made outrageous comments. They failed to comprehend the change in our times and lost any sense of empathy for the voters they were asking to represent. They had no outstanding policy or philosophy. No wonder the public turned against them.

According to a Chosun Ilbo report, the UFP’s candidates in their 30s who lost races in the capital region complained that the party failed to catch up with the elevated expectations of the voters and repeated ultra-right boilerplate. They said the voters threw away the UFP like it was unrecyclable garbage.

“Unless the UFP completely changes its generational identity, politicians and philosophy, it will just disappear in the next presidential election,” complained a candidate who lost his race.

“The party failed to persuade the voters to fight against a leftist dictatorship of President Moon Jae-in with a strategy similar to the anticommunism campaign in the 1970s and 80s,” said another.

“If the people think [former Justice Minister] Cho Kuk was a villain, the UFP itself was garbage,” said another failed UFP candidate. Another one said the party must bid farewell to its ultra-rightist forces and regionalism.

Although Korea has a group that identifies as conservative, there is no genuine conservative ideology. The conservatives are known for anticommunism and their attempt to hold onto their vested privileges. That is not conservatism.

In “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” a sacred pamphlet of the conservatives, Edmund Burke wrote in 1790 that conventions and traditions have a far deeper reach than abstract theorizing of a generation or an individual. He opposed the French Revolution, which started in 1789, for indiscriminately destroying the existing order and praised the people’s reason.

Burke argued for gradual reform because a country that does not have the means to change does not have the means for its own preservation. He supported the independence of the United States, the Glorious Revolution of England and Martin Luther’s Reformation.

Korean conservatives — who refuse any change — will be shocked to see this. The defeated UFP candidates said the centrist voters already see the ruling Democratic Party (DP) as a conservative party. That means the UFP has transformed into an extreme rightist group.

The UFP must wake up from its long sleep. It must listen to the public and communicate with the people in their own language. The DP could do that. After much trial and error, it managed an ability to empathize with the people. Although the party’s North Korea policy and a policy to protect the weak in the society have many shortcomings, a majority of the voters understood the DP’s intention.

The UFP must expand its support basis outside the posh Gangnam districts in southern Seoul and the Yeongnam region of North and South Gyeongsang. Britain’s Conservative Party became the party of all classes after Benjamin Disraeli embraced the working class in the late 19th century. As a result, it was able to secure a more politically advantageous status than the Labour Party. This is the path the UFP must follow.

The party also needs to study the successful cases of conservatism in Korea. After the country’s foundation, President Syngman Rhee spent 10 percent of the budget to reduce the illiteracy rate, although Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world at the time. With land reform, he established the principle of land to the tiller. Tenant farmers, who long lived like slaves, could finally own land. It was the country’s first-ever revolutionary economic democratization measure. The farmers opposed the communist reunification of the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War.

Former President Park Chung Hee successfully industrialized the country. That was possible thanks to the workers who received free public education — and the farmers who later became the main players in the economy — under the Rhee administration. They were the driving force behind Park’s successful industrialization of the country.

President Roh Tae-woo made the first-ever plan for peaceful unification and basic agreement between the two Koreas. Because of the Red complex, the liberals could not attempt it. The three presidents successfully completed the missions that only the conservatives can do. Today’s conservatives, who are rejecting any changes, must feel shame.

The future of this country’s democracy depends on the fate of a conservative opposition. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Edmund Burke famously said. The conservative opposition party must lead policies to strengthen national security, revive companies, and restore the economy. The UFP must bid farewell to its ultra-rightists and be reborn as a group of just, compassionate conservatives with open-mindedness.

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