Perils of political tribalism

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Perils of political tribalism

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is professor of emeritus and former president of Korea University.


The year 2021 is ending in the shadow of the pandemic. Instead of having hope for the new year, many people worry about hardships ahead.

The Moon Jae-in government is also nearing its end, making room for another administration to be elected in March. Korean society has undergone much turmoil over the last five years. The country ousted an elected president for the first time through mass protests and impeachment. Moon was sworn in through the first-ever snap presidential election with a promise to create unity like we never experienced before and a clean government. However, over the last five years, confusion, division and conflict only deepened.

Many had faith in Moon. He pledged to get out of the secluded Blue House and manage state affairs from the government complex in Gwanghwamun Square. He said he’d wean Korea off dangerous nuclear power and bring in clean, renewable energy; check the employment statistics as a daily ritual; and stabilize the price of apartments for good. His administration scored big on the political front through inter-Korean summits, prosecution reform, installation of a separate investigation office for high-ranking public officials, creation of satellite parties, and the winning of a super-majority in the National Assembly.

Unfortunately, the lives of the Korean people worsened due to widened polarization in wealth, unemployment and a spike in real estate taxes — from a jump in property prices Moon promised to never allow. Stubbornness — and impotence — from blind confidence can creates more complicated social problems than they solve.

What poses a greater danger to Korean society than Covid-19 is moral tribalism. Sticking with their own tribe’s moral norms while shunning anyone who oppose their ways can be as contagious as harmful viruses. Instead of distinguishing right from wrong through an objective and cool-headed perspective, partisans exaggerate and distorted affairs based on their own view of the world — often a contrived reality. Politicians deceived and misled the people and yet know no shame. They generalized extraordinary cases and brought sophistry to new levels.

Starting from the scandal over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, society has become divided and gone astray. The ruling front continues to confuse the public with disinformation. In the process, facts become distorted and rumors spread viciously through social media and YouTube. Even journalists and intellectuals dance their own tribal dances.

The United States is also in the iron grip of political tribalism. Joshua Green, a moral psychologist who directs the Harvard University Moral Cognition Lab, says the distinction between morally right and wrong is waning. Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor and author of “Political Tribes,” has accused President Donald Trump of politically leveraging divisive tribalism by exploiting jobless white laborers in a multipolar American society. Political tribalism treating politics as religion put the people under a collective spell through emotional appeals. They are no different from cult groups or hooligans rooting for football clubs. Judgment can be misguided when people’s own interests become involved.

The upcoming presidential election in Korea has become one of the weirdest because of a lack of qualified candidates. Presidential candidates from the two main parties have been elected through a tribal strategy to win the election instead of being guided by principles and philosophy. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chose a practical candidate who can help it win a second governing term instead of someone who truly represents its progressive identity. The DP has to modify its basic positions due to ever-changing remarks from its candidate. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) has been even more ironic as it nominated someone — who as a prosecutor indicted its own president and caused her impeachment and removal from office — as its candidate with the sole aspiration to win back power. The oddity stems from political tribalism based on the sole desire to win the election.

Leaving state affairs in the hands of such tribes is like leaving a fish with a cat. Tribes will place their interests ahead of the country’s. Due to an overly powerful Blue House, national governance has become reckless. Tax revenues that were 27 trillion won ($23 billion) 30 years ago snowballed to 286 trillion won last year. The government collected 274 trillion won in tax as of September through tax hikes and spikes in real estate prices. By year’s end, its revenue is expected to reach 314 trillion won. National liabilities that stood at 503 trillion won in 2014 will be doubled to 1,000 trillion won next year. When counting debts of public enterprises, government debt will hit 1,280 trillion won by the year-end. It is expected to grow by an additional 150 trillion won in 2022.

The main parties are happy to expand taxes and debt because whoever wins power can access the coffers. Statism, where the state takes control over all affairs, might actually be tempting to voters if they are promised bail-outs from every crisis. If tribalism is coupled with statism, the country will be doomed forever. We must seriously raise our vigilance against political tribalism and excess statism.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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