Common sense matters
The author is a professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.
In the presidential race, which was marred by negative campaigning, Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) defeated Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) by a 0.73 percent margin. Yoon got 247,077 more votes than Lee in the election. The gap was smaller than the 307,542 votes that were declared invalid.
After the frustrating loss, the DP established an emergency committee led by floor leader Yoon Ho-joong and Park Ji-hyun, a 26-year old activist on a crusade to eradicate digital sex crimes, to help reenergize the party. Before and after the election, President Moon Jae-in enjoyed approval ratings hovering above 40 percent for 11 consecutive weeks, and DP candidate Lee dominated other contestants in personal appeal.
In terms of strength, the PPP was the underdog as inferred by the shabby number of seats it has in the National Assembly (35.9 percent vs. 58.3 percent), large municipal governments (28.6 percent vs. 58.8 percent), and small municipal governments (25.6 percent vs. 66.8 percent). Moreover, the DP had strong support from liberal civic groups, including women’s groups, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) and the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Exclusive backing from such powerful groups could have helped turn the tide, but it didn’t.
Success often leads to failure. In “The Ministry of Common Sense,” author Martin Lindstrom, chosen as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2009, gave a sharp analysis of the reasons why big companies fail — repeatedly. As the title of the book suggests, the author attributes it to their overlooking common sense while doing business. Lindstrom canvassed controversial cases, including a United Airlines security officers’ dragging of a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor off his seat for “overbooking,” companies holding endless online meetings to check if employees really work from home, irritating services or hotels’ preferences for complex TV’s and air conditioners.
We often experience inconvenience from excessive services from department store workers or overly friendly waiters explaining a new menu item. Companies may take it for granted, but customers feel uncomfortable when it goes beyond common sense.
The same can apply to the Moon administration’s relentless campaigns to root out “past evils,” control soaring real estate prices, establish amicable relations with China and North Korea, and hastily buy Covid-19 vaccines. The government must seriously consider if the public was embarrassed by its never-ending appointments of unqualified people as heads of foreign missions and public corporations and whether its policy failures were caused by such biased and ideologically-driven recruitment. The DP’s attacks on healthy internal criticism as an act of betrayal were perceived to be arrogant.
The DP hastily apologized for its high-handedness shortly before the election, but it was too late.
The DP must contemplate whether it took a rash approach to governing the country due to its unrestrained desire to create a “country we have never experienced.” The Moon administration set a record by appointing the biggest-ever number of DP lawmakers as ministers in the government. Korea is not a country running on a cabinet system, but eight of the 18 ministers, excluding the prime minister, are DP lawmakers. Controversy over political bias extends to the judiciary despite the sacred principle of the separation of powers. The appointments of pro-government figures as heads of the Board of Audit and Inspection and the National Election Commission constitute a move defying common sense. DP lawmakers took a domineering attitude toward ministers appointed in the previous conservative administration. Elected power shines only when it demonstrates an ability to persuade opponents instead of resorting to coercion.
Elected power is only one of the pillars of national governance. A campaign promise to do anything the people want only misleads them because an elected president is not a king. As democracy is a system-based rational process, a president must manifest the virtue of humility. It is also hard to understand why the liberal administration operates an online public petition board just as past kings in the Joseon Dynasty installed a huge drum in front of their palace to allow people deliver their complaints to them. Politics based on social media must stop. Otherwise, we could turn into a mobocracy.
Representative democracy should be based on the legislature. That’s common sense. A president and ruling party disregarding common sense could receive strong support from their loyalists, but cannot win the hearts of vast moderates. Elected power must have the wisdom to humbly read what the people want. I hope President-elect Yoon keeps that in mind.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.