The worst form of government
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Many people are expressing frustration at the current state of the country, wondering if this was what President Moon Jae-in meant in his inauguration speech when he said, “My heart is burning with passion to make Korea a nation never experienced before.” Some are even regretting that they joined the massive candlelight rallies to oust President Park Geun-hye.
A posting was recently made on an online community of Seoul National University, which said the Park administration was actually better than the current government. A cynical message was posted on the university campus that students will support Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae if she suspends President Moon from active duty and starts a disciplinary process, as she has done to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Some, of course, think that this administration is doing well, but opinion polls showed that a majority don’t.
The administration established by democracy activists is ironically ruining democracy. The justice minister, who is supposed to safeguard the rule of law, is doing everything to remove the prosecutor general, whose tenure is guaranteed by law. It was revealed that she ignored procedures and violated the law. The Moon administration used to favor Yoon when he acted as a hunting dog of the previous administrations, but it is now trying to kill him because he is not acting like its own pet.
In the April 15 parliamentary elections, voters gave the ruling Democratic Party (DP) nearly 180 seats. With such an overwhelming majority, the DP is wielding its powers without shame. Its key members are treating the people and the opposition People Power Party (PPP) rudely and highhandedly. The ruling party does not suffer any criticisms.
No wonder the voters are disappointed at both the liberal and conservative parties after being repeatedly betrayed by the administrations they have elected. Some are expressing fundamental skepticism about our democracy.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” Winston Churchill famously said. Democracy is an imperfect system. Unless you handle it with care, it can turn into a sharp sword that slashes you.
Soongsil University Prof. Suh Byung-Hoon, a political scientist who devoted his career to researching Western political philosophy, published a new book titled “Democracy — Mill and Tocqueville” earlier this month. The book explores the potential and limits of democracy by looking into the philosophies and works of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.
After traveling through the United States in the early 18th century, de Tocqueville praised the democracy of the country, but expressed serious concerns about the system. A democracy, run by the majority, runs the risk of transforming into a “democratic dictatorship,” where the majority can threaten its critics or minorities in the name of the people and incapacitate the rule of law. In a democratic society, a majority naturally will have power, but the majority can oppress the few who have different beliefs.
In the face of oppression by the majority, freedom and individuality can be crushed in a “soft dictatorship” sugarcoated as a democracy. Moon won an overwhelming victory in his presidential election — 5.5 million more votes than the runner-up — and the DP gained a super-majority in the last legislative elections. But it is a tyranny of the majority when they think they can do anything they want.
Mill paid more attention to the efficacy of a democracy. He stressed that experienced experts must play a bigger role in administering a state within the framework of democracy. When the people show the wisdom of allowing the talented few to lead them, systemic problems can be effectively — and smoothly — resolved in a democracy, he pointed out. That was a stern warning to a democracy in which the ordinary people pull down the talented few.
At the end of the day, it is the people who run a system. When petty-minded politicians and public servants — who shamelessly act unfairly and unjustly and side with the powers for the sake of their promotions and interests — make up the majority, democracy will surely fail.
It is embarrassing to see a group of prosecutors siding with the justice minister and attacking the prosecutor general in tune with DP politicians to treat Yoon as a criminal who committed serious violations of the Prosecution Act. When people who lack strong principles and beliefs enter, mettle, ambition, restraint and tolerance are still in the political arena, and democracy can’t succeed. That is why de Tocqueville referred to decent manners as a key part of a democracy.
If we just lament the difficulty of everyday life, democracy can turn to dictatorship and oppress us at any time. As there is no other alternative to democracy, every member of our society must awake and improve the wrongful practices, customs and systems little by little, no matter how small the change will be. As the other old saw goes, the price of democracy is vigilance.