A letter of self-reflection
The author, former senior secretary to president Roh Moo-hyun for public relations, is a professor political science at Ewha Womans University.
The voters’ choice was cool-headed. While they showed displeasure with the Democratic Party (DP), they elected Kim Dong-yeon as new Gyeonggi governor, so not all was lost. But the People Power Party (PPP) and independent candidates did well in the Honam region, a warning that the DP’s stronghold is no longer safe.
It was anticipated that the DP would lose lots of June 1 local elections, which took place shortly after President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration. But given the neck-and-neck presidential election on March 9, supporters of the two parties could have taken each other on once again for a return match. Unfortunately, the 50.3 percent voter turnout — the lowest for local elections since 2002 — indicated that DP supporters found few reasons to cast ballots.
The late President Roh Moo-hyun insisted that politics was all about causes, and he believed a defeat was better than a victory without principles. The DP quotes Roh’s philosophy all the time, but whether it actually believes it is questionable. If the party had showed humility to take responsibility for its loss in the presidential election and demonstrated some intention to change, it may not have suffered such a crushing defeat in the local elections. But the DP railroaded a bill to take away investigative powers from the prosecution once and for all to help protect the party and the liberal administration by using dirty tricks.
Former DP Chairman Song Young-gil and its defeated presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung — who are most responsible for the party’s defeat in the presidential election — nonchalantly ran in districts where they have no ties. Although Lee — the former Gyeonggi governor and Seongnam mayor — could manage to extend his political life by winning a by-election on June 1, he won’t be able to avoid responsibility for his party’s overwhelming defeat earlier this month.
Just a few years ago, the DP ambitiously declared it would win presidential elections for the next two decades and beyond. What has happened to the party? Even gloomier is its dark future, as it no longer represents its supporters’ values. The DP has become a party that puts priority on dirty tricks over principles largely because it was addicted to the fandom of its hardcore supporters.
Of course, politicians cannot succeed without fandom just as celebrities can’t. The fan club ARMY of BTS have contributed a lot to its stardom. Nosamo, the supporters’ club of the late Roh, was no exception. It helped the political maverick become president in 2002.
But the Moon faction has deviated from the course of collective intelligence after a new group of supporters joined en masse. Signs of a rift were visible in their power struggles, but the hardliners derailed in full force when the Cho Kuk crisis began in 2019. At that time, a public survey showed 70 percent of the general public wanted to rein in the prosecution while 63 percent hoped Cho, then justice minister, would step down.
The poll outcome clearly shows the pragmatic reasoning of the people. The people were concerned about excessive investigations by the prosecution, but they also thought that Cho must not serve as justice minister. As I value public opinion, I advised the DP to stop safeguarding Cho and focus on prosecutorial reforms to assuage the people. After making that argument, I faced massive attacks from the hard-liners.
While ordinary citizens see various shades of gray in complicated political phenomena, hardliners see everything in black and white. If you are not a friend, you are an enemy. The conservative political party whose president was impeached managed to win the presidential election after five years because it reinvented itself in a short period of time. The public viewed the changes positively, but the DP looked down on them by calling the PPP “dictators and pro-Japanese collaborators.” A handful of instigators who benefit from fandom competitively spread nonsense, while most DP lawmakers remained silent. The collective thinking of the hardliners who cannot tolerate different opinions became increasingly extreme.
In an interview with JTBC shortly before his term ended, Moon Jae-in said it is not true support when you obstruct the expansion of support for politicians. But his extreme supporters acted in the opposite way. They lobbed text messages and insulting phone calls to paralyze politicians and scholars critical of Moon and the DP. That was not an act to convince undecided voters, but a high-handed abuse of power. Park Ji-hyun, former interim leader of the DP, promised to change the party from a fandom-based party to a party for the people before the June 1 local elections to help stop the hard-line supporters from resorting to abusive politics.
Fandom and bullying can be differentiated depending on whether you have power or not. At the beginning, the Moon faction purely supported Moon without any return. But after tasting their clout by voting against politicians who had different beliefs from them in the party primaries, some hardline supporters started to oppress the conscience and freedom of expression of politicians by abusing their nomination powers. The so-called “daughters of reform,” who used to support their interim leader Park and Lee Jae-myung, later joined the unreasonable collective action.
If narcissistic personality disorder is the psychological cause of bullying, as experts say, it applies to the DP. Responsible politics disappeared in the party because they do not admit to their wrongdoings under any circumstances. Even after losing nationwide elections, they said they fought well. They also demonize the media and the prosecution. The hardliners went so far as to produce a film to present their own version of truth after claiming that the people were brainwashed by certain media outlets.
In the meantime, the DP fell into a vicious cycle of becoming more and more distant from the public. The more the party becomes distant from public sentiment, the more power the bullies wield. The DP’s primary system, which gives party members and hardline supporters nomination power, was wrongfully designed from the beginning.
Wherever there is power, there is a power struggle. After the DP’s supporters were divided into several groups, they started attacking one another. Is it really the time for internal fights, when they have a long way to go before repenting and showing a true transformation to regain the people’s hearts? Not only the party leadership but also the instigators, the politicians who remained tightlipped, the party members and supporters who acted as bullies must write letters of self-reflection to specifically look back on their wrongdoings and what price they must pay in return.
A way for the DP to escape from the politics of bullying is easy. It must introduce the American-style open primary system so that politicians can be supported with pure intentions. It is a global trend that nomination power is given to the general public, not just a few members, and that is a shortcut to align public sentiment and the opinions of party members. Hard-line party members and supporters must lead the initiative to introduce the open primary system to demonstrate their sincerity. I will immediately start writing my letter of reflection, since I have been criticized for having contributed to the fandom politics of the DP.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.