Inclusive politics in crisis
The author is an international affairs and security editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump is refusing to concede his defeat in the election and threatening to sue his way to re-election. Trump was widely criticized for his botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic, spread of misinformation and pursuit of personal gain from the presidency, yet poll results show he still has a considerable number of supporters. Trump was ultimately defeated by Joe Biden, yet he earned nearly 71 million votes, or 47.6 percent of the total ballots cast, the highest among any Republican presidential candidates. Trump was neck and neck with Biden in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the northeastern part of the United States now experiencing an industrial decline.
Why does nearly half the U.S. population back a president who habitually lies and divides the country? Trump’s main supporters are the white and uneducated blue-collar workers who have long been overlooked by both Republican and Democratic administrations. They either lost their jobs or had their real income slashed as a result of globalization. Trump, who entered the political arena as an outsider, used the growing grievances to his benefit. Since his predecessors failed to embrace the vulnerable groups of society, Trump broke onto the scene and helped intensify national division.
Terrorist attacks by social minorities are unfolding in Europe these days. Last month, a teacher in a middle school near Paris was decapitated by an 18-year-old Chechen man for teaching about freedom of expression. Days later, three people were killed at a church in the French city of Nice by a man in his 20s from Tunisia. Early this month, four people died near a synagogue in Vienna, Austria, after being shot by a 20-year-old immigrant from Bosnia. The suspects in all three cases did not have stable jobs and spent each day in insecurity before they became extremists.
It is also getting harder for Koreans to climb the social ladder through education. Data from the Korea Student Aid Foundation shows more than half of all students who were admitted to the top three universities this year were from high-income families. Students from high-income families have a better chance of getting into top-tier universities thanks to financial help from their parents, whereas students from lower-income families do not have access to such private education opportunities. Remote learning classes amid the pandemic are only widening the educational gap.
A discernible gap between the rich and poor tends to undermine society’s dynamism. Low-income households grow more fed up with society as they see their chances of getting rich wither. The IMF and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) both pointed out that a serious wealth gap hinders economic growth. The IMF, in particular, stressed that inclusive growth is crucial to reduce global wealth disparity and unemployment.
In his 2012 book “Why Nations Fail,” MIT economics Professor Daron Acemoglu analyzed that inclusive politics is the foundation of inclusive growth. For politics to be inclusive, checks and balances are needed to make sure political leaders do not abuse their power. The very reason why our Constitution mandated the separation of the legislative, judicial and executive branches is for them to strike a balance while keeping close watch on one another.
The Moon Jae-in administration has recently been contradicting this principle of inclusive politics by causing the checks and balances between the branches to shake. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is using its supermajority to bulldoze legislation through the National Assembly, while left-leaning judges are clenching the most powerful seats in the judiciary. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae is brazenly trying to seize control over the prosecution by chipping away at Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. A country that ignores checks and balances prioritizes the gains of the leader over those of the public, as widely seen in countries ruled by strongmen, such as China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines.
Over the past decades, Korea achieved both democracy and economic development through inclusive political and economic systems. Yet Korea’s inclusiveness is now being threatened by Moon’s use of imperial power and his utter disregard toward opinions of the other side of the political aisle. Moon must not walk the paths of ancient Rome or the Republic of Venice, both of which thrived on political and economic inclusion before their leaders’ political monopoly steered them to demise.