Time for political distancing
The author is an international, diplomatic and security news director of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The catchphrase for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign six years ago was a “champion for everyday Americans.” That concisely reflected her determination to become a head of state for ordinary citizens if elected. Joe Biden was no different. Taking the oath of office in January, he stressed, “Without unity there is no peace.” He added, “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
Representing the people and unifying them — in other words, spearheading progress and prosperity for all individuals and communities by appealing to the largest common denominator among various voices while maintaining supporters at the same time — is an ideal of democracy. Korea also understands the two significant roles of a leader. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) stipulates its “representation of the ordinary people and the middle class” in its constitution and the opposition People Power Party (PPP) professes to “create a future for all” in the first line of its constitution.
Politics is about representation and unity. But in Korea, political leaders have another role of offering “emotional healing” to the people. The politics of consolation or comfort is deep-rooted and dates back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when the court tried to relieve people’s grudges when they suffered unfair treatment or punishment by others.
Such a healing campaign became popular in the 2010s, as seen in a number of political events staged like concerts — something akin to a town hall meeting in the U.S. — in which politicians could closely communicate with supporters through face-to-face meetings to share views and empathize with them.
On politicians’ and political parties’ part, such communication channels can serve as effective tools to create emotional unity with voters. They can also help consolidate their power base thanks to the powerful effect of allowing voters to identify themselves with statesmen.
With such close connections with a world full of avid followers, politicians can hardly feel the need to reflect on themselves from a third party’s perspective. To put it simply, overreliance on an emotional bond with a group of supporters is more likely to backfire. And if such sentiment-based relations fail to heal the woes of supporters, politicians attempt to find a culprit. They often resort to “tua culpas,” or “your fault,” to avoid their responsibility and shift it someone else.
If healing is applied to supporters for only partisan interest, that hurts the integration of a community — a core responsibility of political leaders — as perfectly exemplified by former U.S. President Donald Trump. To help win the 2016 election, Trump sought to heal the battered soul of blue-color white Americans suffering from economic competition from emerging economies in a country led by the financial and IT industries. “It’s not your fault!” said Trump. That worked last time.
But Trump’s slogan this time was only aimed at his supporters in Red America. After dividing the American people into friends and foes during his presidency — and by not accepting his election defeat — the political eccentric sharply split the United States into two. Triggered by a provocative stump speech in January, a crowd of his supporters swarmed into the Capitol shouting, “Captain Trump!”
Politics is a dialectical process where politicians, political parties and voters continue to interact. What we must establish in Korea is not blind support for a political leader, but a cool political distancing. That must apply to the leaders and supporters of both the DP and PPP. Just as the country embarked on social distancing to help control Covid-19 cases, voters must look at politics from a bigger perspective so as not to get infected with never-die allegiance to a certain political faction and party.
If politicians are not afraid of voters and attempt to continue inciting them, democracy could collapse even without our knowing it. An elastic political structure in which voters at the center can warn politicians from both sides of the aisle at any time and turn away from them when they make mistakes is a vaccine that can prevent our politics from regressing further.