Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

Asia Institute “The Outsider in Korean Politics” with Francis Fukuyama

 

Asia Institute Seminar

“The Outsider in Korean and American Politics”

20th April 2012

 

Francis Fukuyama

Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow

Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI)

Stanford University

 

Emanuel Pastreich:

Korean politics has been distinguished by the sudden rise of outsiders to prominence, to a degree we do not observe in most other countries. We have witnessed the rise to the presidency of Roh Moo-Hyun in 2002, a complete outsider without the political and financial connections generally assumed to be required in Korea. Then there are such figures as Park Wan  Soon, mayor of Seoul, and Ahn Cholsoo, Dean of the Graduate School of Institute of Technology Convergence, who is generally considered a major candidate for president even without having any political experience whatsoever—and it is certainly not impossible that he could be elected president under the right circumstances.

Francis Fukuyama:

The United States has also seen its share of outsiders who make a bid for political power, and there are times when they receive considerable support from the public. One of the most common patterns is for  an outsider who has made a name for himself,particularly in business, comes forward claiming that he can run the government more effectively with his business experience. The United States has several examples of such figures, such as Meg Whitman, the founder of eBay, who ran for the governor of California and Ross Perot billionaire founder of EDS. Every now and then a businessman emerges who takes the position of political outsider, and of course politicians often try to portray themselves as outsiders when running for office.

The effectiveness of presenting oneself as an outsider derives in part from a deep misunderstanding of the manner in which the government functions. There seems to be this undying hope that somehow the government can be run efficiently like a business. But there are structural factors that assure that the government can never be run like a business. Governments have to respond to overwhelming pressures that cannot be assessed in terms of a single bottom line or a unified mandate. Thus many of the inefficiencies that people see in politics are related to the difference in the role of politicians as opposed to the roles of CEOs.

Another factor that draws people to the outsider, to those we seem to come from outside the system, is profound disappointment with existing institutions: political parties and government itself. The situation varies from country to country, but part of the problem is the broad perception that the existing political systems are too indebted to existing entrenched interests, to the super rich, to large corporations, banks and other special interests. So the logic goes that as long as you pick somebody who comes from the existing political class, you are just going to find somebody who is only responsive to those interests and therefore you need to find someone from the outside who isn’t beholden to them. A corollary in a modern market economy is that if you find someone who is independently wealthy, that individual may have the economic base to remain independent of the pressures that result from taking other people’s money. This fascination with the outsider is probably a general phenomenon.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So we might ask, is there any case in which such an outsider is actually successful? Certainly in the Korean case most outsiders have profoundly disappointed their supporters. If we look over recent history, can we find an example of a total outsider coming in and successfully turning the government around, getting things back in order? Or do such efforts fall apart as the existing system inevitably reasserts itself?

Francis Fukuyama:

Well, in the United States, the most recent example of an outsider playing a central role in politics can be found in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger who went from multi-millionaire actor to governor.  Schwarzenegger was elected governor of the state of California rather unexpectedly in a rush election after the incumbent governor Gray Davis was recalled, but despite all the trappings of the outsider and considerable skills, Schwarzenegger became quite unpopular rather quickly. There were great expectations for Schwarzenegger, who was famous as an actor and has great charisma, when he won in a special election.

Schwarzenegger has the highest level of name recognition and he had never held political office, like An Chulsoo, he was an unknown to most voters and that was a positive. He was also able to appeal to both liberals and conservatives in different ways, building new bridges. But his experience as governor was far from a success. He was frustrated in his efforts to change policy. His experience suggests that even an outsider with the kind of name recognition and personal charisma that Schwarzenegger possessed ended up facing the same problems as the previous governor and was equally ineffective. Why was that? Well, it turns out that is political strategy was to appeal directly to the people over the heads of the existing powers in the state legislature. Early in his term, that approach had some scattered success, but in the end, he faced the same problems as any politician: in order to cut the state budget, you have to go directly against the interests of powerful forces in the state and by the time he left office Schwarzenegger was just as unpopular as any other professional politician.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You mentioned the differences between how the government works, how institutions work, and how we imagine they could work. There are several factors that make innovation in government much more difficult. I am reminded by the quote about bureaucracy by Alex de Tocqueville:

“It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from coming into being; it does not tyrannize, it hinders.”

But obviously citizens constantly hope that through their efforts, they can somehow they can change the direction of politics. In the Korean case, that desire clearly underlies the support for Ahn Cholsoo for president, a successful businessman and political outsider. Where should the citizen focus his attention to affect better government?

Francis Fukuyama:

I think it is not unreasonable for us to hope for leaders that have the ability to shape public opinion rather than following it. So if you consider great American presidents, I would say the three greatest ones were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The reason why I think they were great presidents is that they did not merely reflect voter preferences mechanically, but rather they laid out an agenda that was different, and visionary, which then attracted popular support as it was implemented.

Let us consider the case of Ronald Reagan: Reagan never had a Republican majority in the House of Representatives so he was forced to constantly work with a legislature dominated by the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, he still got his tax cuts and tax reform bills passed because he was able to appeal to the American public in a manner that went over the heads of a lot of existing political actors. This is what Schwarzenegger was hoping to do, but he could not do what Reagan achieved. Reagan was successful because he had a very coherent vision and he was able to get others to share it through his warmth, his ability to communicate and sympathize and his enthusiasm. He presented an alternative vision for the US economy in which markets played a critical role and brought a new vitality and self-regulation. His alternative vision of how markets could play a more important role than government was convincing and accessible to a broad range of people.

Reagan had a vision of a deregulated economy, what was then called “supply-side economics,” that was powerful and suggested a new potential in the American economy. In the 1984 election, he created again a powerful image of “Morning in America” that suggested the United States was on the edge of a new golden era. His passionate defense of freedom and enterprise touched ordinary people and he was able to get people to work together and move forward. He was perceived as the leader of the “Reagan Revolution” to reduce dependency on government.  He said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” And he was decisive as few presidents are in his decision to fire the federal air traffic controllers when they went out on a strike.

Equally important, he was able to both create a general impression of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” at the beginning of his term and launch a military build-up, but then switch to an embrace of the reform of the Soviet Union and put forth a vision of a new peaceful world that was quite moving.

Reagan was the “great communicator,” a man who could perfectly articulate a vision in a few words and who was able to change the rules of the game by doing so. Even those who did not like his policies were changed by the style that he introduced and the terms that he employed.

As a result of Reagan’s arguments, he was able to create a consensus in favor of fairly large shifts in public policy. The key to his success was not really the perspective of the outsider, but rather the ability to frame a coherent vision of what it is you want to do, a vision that can be stated simply enough that it can attract political support as an alternative. That articulation of an alternative vision is the key for becoming a transformational leader.

Theodore Roosevelt was another critical figure who was not just a good Politian, but a man with a powerful vision of what government could be. He was a critical figure for the establishment of the modern American federal government during the progressive era, a man who not only improved what was there, but created entirely new national institutions, like the national park system, out of nothing. It was not an evolution from a previous branch of government, it was a leap into an entirely new concept of what government could be. In that respect he made the Federal government something it had never been before. He placed the presidency, and the character of the president, at the center of the political system, leading the charge as president against big business collusion and against the destruction of the environment.

With regards to the environment, he was a visionary, creating five national parts and 150 national forests—ideas that have inspired nations around the world since. It is obvious that government can play that role today, in the US or Korea, but it was a totally new idea then.

Franklin Roosevelt was another political genius and visionary who was able to put into place the central elements of the American welfare state. He was paralyzed and unable to walk, but  maintained a remarkable optimism and personal confidence that  contributed to a  renewal of the national spirit. He became president at the lowest point of the American economy and immediately declared, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He meant by this that the lack of confidence, the growing economic fear was the essence of the problem for the country and that he could lead the nation forward spiritually. He had a series of “fireside chats” via radio which were listened to by millions of people and inspired a new idealism.

But the most remarkable aspect of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was the total re-invention of the Democratic party. The Democratic party had been an extremely conservative party in many respects, strong in the South with those who remembered the southern Confederacy and opposed the rights of blacks. But Franklin Roosevelt build a remarkable, impossible coalition through the strength of his vision and personality. He brought together labor unions, big city politicians and their powerful political machines, whites from conservative rural regions, American Americans and minorities, and rural white Southerners, often racist in their thinking. Roosevelt was able to pull together these conflicting groups in his New Deal and make the Democratic party an inclusive and progressive force as it had never been before.

Both Roosevelts were able to do change the United States culture and government, not because of their attention to detail or technocratic approach to governance, but rather because they were able to articulate a larger vision and convince people of its value. This approach to politics is more characteristic of presidential systems than of parliamentary systems. One of the advantages of a presidential system is that if you get the right president, you can appeal over the heads of the parties and of the legislature to create a larger consensus.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I have heard it say, on the other side, that in the case of President Jimmy Carter, the strongest  criticism was his interest in the details of the administration paralyzed him. He was too interested in the actual policies, and not in projecting the vision of what was possible. Carter was the perfect example of an outsider in American politics. At the time, The Watergate Scandal in which the Republican president Nixon had used government agents to spy on the Democratic party was very much in everyone’s mind. Carter was from Georgia, in the south, and from a small town. He used his position as an outsider, distant from Washington DC corruption to get himself attention. The centerpiece of his campaign platform was government reorganization. Carter published Why Not the Best? in June 1976 to help introduce himself to the American public. But in a sense his vision was tragically focused on the details of institutional change.

Francis Fukuyama:

I think that one problem for Carter, and many others, was the attractiveness of an engineering mentality, the assumption that the challenge is how to develop an optimal public policy within a set political system. Such a ruler wants the best technocratic advice on what the right policy should be.  But the big problem is not getting advice, but rather implementing a policy through the political system and getting both the voters and the bureaucrats, to support it and implement it. The big failures in politics often stem from the belief that it’s the details that matter rather than to develop a large vision and to sell that vision to everyone.

Emanuel Pastreich:

When the famous political outsider Roh Moo-Hyun was elected president in 2002, for example, or when the social organizer Park Won-soon  was  elected mayor of Seoul in 2011,  clearly technology played a role. We find in Korean politics these days a buzz that surrounds such outsider candidates that is equivalent to what surrounds an idol singer. Instant messaging and blog posts are a big part of the process. Technology changes the manner in which information is received and processed by the individual. When candidates are fed through that medium, they can become more like products for consumption than leaders. This process also encourages the rise of such outsiders.

Francis Fukuyama:

These days, because you have alternative media channels of communication, you can create a political following in ways that were simply not possible before. Before, the politician had to deal with multiple communication channels and bureaucracies. Politics was truly a local matter wherein you had to create a big political machine in every single district and you had to have party workers who would rally the voters to get out to the polling places and so forth. It was more important to show up for the weddings of important backers. But now you can bypass a lot of that social interaction and that’s one of the reasons why political parties have become weaker around the world. Whereas we once tried to get out the vote on a neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, basis, now you can mobilize your people without that big apparatus. So it is now easier for outsiders to come to power.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Technology seems to change the nature of democratic process. What are your thoughts about the long term prospects of these technological changes?

Francis Fukuyama:

Broadly speaking, much of the technology of the 19th century, such as coal and steel based industrial production, tended to favor large organizations that commanded economies of scale and therefore tended to result in concentration of power, or to put a premium on size. The technology associated with communications also favored economies of scale.  I think we still reward bigness today, but the information revolution has democratized access to information and multiplied the number of communication channels available. In that respect it has probably been good for democracy that ordinary people can get information and therefore have a route to power and they are able to organize.

The result of the emergence of social media is that it is easier to mobilize people for different causes. But now you end up with an opposite problem: there is fragmentation of the congregation into diverse self-reflexive conversations that don’t add up to a national conversation. So we have gone from one extreme to the other.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In the Korean case, there was an enormous uproar about importation of American Beef which was linked to fears of mad cow disease constantly echoed in the media. At the time, the opposition formed an enormous mass movement, something that you don’t usually see in the United States. Even people in Environmental groups felt compelled to be involved in these mass demonstrations against beef, even though it had nothing to do with their own agenda. It was overwhelming, Korean activists received instant messages to gather together and they were out there protesting within minutes.

Francis Fukuyama:

I found that kind of a strange phenomena and I get a strong feeling that this wasn’t just driven by safety concerns, that there is a lot of Korean nationalism and underlying resentment of the United States that was also driving response. That was what got people onto the streets because I think the beef issue itself didn’t merit that kind of large response.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Well in the Korean case that transformation of politics is the reason why so many people feel that traditional political parties are ineffective and very distant from them. In a strange way, the new outsider seems closer to ordinary people. In the case of Ahn Cholsoo, for example, he speaks very effectively and seems caring and thoughtful. His sincere appearance completely obscures his lack of political experience and he comes across far better than those rather artificial, political operatives.

Francis Fukuyama:

Such behavior appeals to the anti-elitist trend which can be found in every democracy. One of the reasons that Sarah Palin developed a big following in the United States was precisely because she didn’t have any technical qualification for office. She was “one of us.” Palin didn’t know the policy issues, she had no national political experience. In spite of that, or because of that, many people could identify with her as a mother and as an ordinary middle class person and that appeal was the basis of her popularity. It was precisely because she wasn’t one of the elite, that voters could think of her more as a friend than was the case for a professional politician.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In American politics we find powerful strands of populism among both the liberals and the conservatives called democrats perceive each other as being elite. The liberals think of the conservatives as being the insensitive rich, but many conservatives have the same feelings about the liberals in America—liberals are the elites who have forgotten the common man.

Francis Fukuyama:

The conservatives believe that liberals control the media and use it to force unhealthy values on the people.  Hollywood and the mainstream media are part of an elite that has profoundly different values than they do. For liberals, Wall Street and powerful corporations are the real threats to ordinary people.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What do you make of that situation: both sides thinking the other is elitist? I find that part of American politics confusing myself.

Francis Fukuyama:

There has been a powerful strand of populism in the United States that has existed from the beginning and I think it is a critical part of the American democratic tradition. We can trace back the populist stance to President Andrew Jackson and his appeal to ordinary citizens.  Before Jackson, the whole American government was made up of elites from Northeast, and that goes for the founding fathers as well.  They all went to Harvard and Yale, and they were friends of George Washington and his descendents, as part of the “gentlemen farmer class” that ruled over the Mid Atlantic. Jackson was the first president who came in to office as a result of the expansion of suffrage. He said that the government doesn’t need to be run by those elites but rather functions well with ordinary people like you and me. It is not just United States, however, that finds this argument appealing. I think it is a characteristic of democratic government that it encourages the rise of people who are not from elite backgrounds. There has always been tension between the need to have elite and expertise guidance and the need to make sure that policy is accountable to a broad public.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Let us take the case of the Mormon Church in the United States. Many people think of the Mormon Church as a conservative institution and Mormons vote very conservatively on many social or economic issues, including welfare and labor rights. However, when I lived in Virginia, there was a group from the Mormon Church that had gatherings every Sunday in a park near my home and they literally included everybody in their groups, including Hispanic workers and homeless people and anyone else who was there. Anyone was invited to their group. That sort of inclusiveness I did not see so much in liberal groups. I thought it was quite interesting that the Mormons had a commitment to a certain form of equality in their vision.

Francis Fukuyama:

I think it has always been a characteristic of American religion that it is very good at mobilizing people. One characteristic of American religion is that it empowers non-elite groups and gives them direction. If you look at the big religious revival movements in America, beginning from the great awakening in the early nineteenth century, they always started among groups that were not elite. Religion became a means of organizing a community. Such a tradition of Christian activism is quite relevant in Korea because there are so many Christians.

Emanuel Pastreich:

That Christian tradition in political activism is quite powerful in Korea, and many activists in Korea draw upon that legacy today. This issue of Populism, well it goes back a long way in the East and the West, and we see twisted versions of it under communism and fascism.  Kim Il-sung was the great master of populist appeals, even as he shut himself away from the ordinary citizen. There is always this risk that although the political activist thinks he is reaching out to the people, he is in fact empowering totalitarian systems of government through these appeals to the mythical “commoner.” How do we deal with that risk?

Francis Fukuyama:

I think there is no set plan for avoiding the risk of the abuse of politics by extremists. That is why we must focus on making sure we have good leaders.  A lot of times the populist anger is required to shake up the political system and force the system to operate the way it was intended to. For example, after the great depression, Americans were down on their heels and very angry about what had happened in the economy leading to the stock market crash and the collapse of the banking system.

President Roosevelt was able to mobilize a lot of the anger and he channeled it into a constructive set of policies for rebuilding the American state, putting into place innovative institutions like social security and the regulatory institutions that offered the possibility of addressing the problems. Without the crisis, such innovations would have been impossible.

But under wrong leaders, that same anger can be directed into far more destructive projects. One curious development in American politics is the emergence of populist anger about the financial crisis and the following bail out that has many people very angry at Wall Street.  But what might have been expected to feed a left-wing populist movement, has for the most part fueled a right-wing populist movement in which the main anger is directed against President Obama and his administration who are actually trying to protect people from Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

It is very bizarre the way how that process has progressed, and it is in some sense a matter that I don’t quite understand, why has this cognitive disconnect emerged?  People are very angry at Wall Street, but then they continue to vote for conservative politicians who are in the pockets of these same financial institutions. That the nature of populism, sometimes it gets directed towards the right sources and the right solutions, and then sometimes it doesn’t. The difference is whether or not we have political leaders who can actually provide the right kind of vision to channel that kind of anger.  In Europe in the 1930s political anger was channeled in a very dangerous direction.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Let us consider the tragic case of Russia, where you had such a range of people committed to political reform and the establishment of a new Russia from 1905 onwards.  But those thoughtful reformers were all in jail by 1925, and the Bolsheviks ruled unopposed. As soon as the revolution started, it spiraled out of control of the moderate people who started to question the system.

Francis Fukuyama:

I don’t know if it “spiraled out of control” is the proper way to describe the process. I think the country ended up being controlled by an extremely well organized party that had a definite agenda.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So even if people do not like the inflexibility and narrow-mindedness of traditional political parties, they do serve a function.

Francis Fukuyama:

It is not just that political parties serve a function. I think that they are absolutely necessary.  You have to be able to organize interests and you have to be able to organize them coherently beyond the cries of any single interest group.  An interest group is never going to be able to make the tradeoffs necessary in politics on large issues, like “free trade” versus “protecting existing interests.”    Like it or not, only a political party can make those sorts of deals.  This idea that somehow you can do away with political parties is an illusion.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You make a very important point when you propose that we cannot do away with political parties. In the Korean case, we constantly hear arguments that political parties are just made up of mindless operatives and that if only we could get back to that inspired feeling of responsible citizenship, we could solve our problems.

Francis Fukuyama:

It is understandable that such perceptions dominate because what political parties do is to contest for power. They inevitably become so preoccupied with their short-term struggle for power that they forget what their long term vision and stop focusing on the issues. There is  a good reason why people do not like political parties.  But if you don’t have a political party, you cannot focus diverse interest groups to participate in the formation of policy, a role that is still very necessary.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So perhaps we can suggest there is a dichotomy between the political party which is absolutely necessary but inevitably becomes short-sighted in terms of it perceives as its primary role and those individuals who hold up some greater vision of the possible but do not have the staying power to dive into the nitty-gritty of making policy. Is this political reality something that comes from human nature itself, is it a malaise we can trace back to the Babylonian Empire, or is there something new and unprecedented we find today?

Francis Fukuyama:

I think that every populist leader that hopes that he or she will simply do away with politics very quickly learns that it cannot be done and that, if you are going to stay in power and accomplish things, you are going to have to organize a political party—whether you call it that or not. Those dreams of “anti-politics” just never pan out. There are plenty of socialists who thought you could do away with parties, but the only socialist parties that were successful were the ones that understood tight organization and created strong party structures. Organization and hierarchy was the key to the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communists.

Similarly, after the fall of communism, democracy activists in Eastern Europe thought you could just use civil society to run the country. That proved to be an illusion. So those idealists had to spend their time building party organizations, promoting their political parties parties, and fighting it out in elections just like everybody else. It’s just a fact of life. Political parties are ways of organizing political participation. The alternatives that exist are extremely dangerous. You can find a charismatic leader who simply appeals to popular opinion through a referendum, like Mussolini. But then there are no restraints on his power.

Emanuel Pastreich:

If we tell our children, that this is how bureaucracy and government really work, first they would find such words very difficult to understand and maybe they would find such a perspective rather discouraging. The average person, let alone children, is going to have trouble grasping the complex relationship between ideology and institutions, between the interest of groups and the interest of the nation. So maybe we must need these not entirely honest overarching visions, which is a little fuzzy sometimes. What do you feel about this issue?

Francis Fukuyama:

The best way to convince people is by being successful. If you can run a government that says that they are going to do something and then they succeed in doing it, that process creates its own legitimacy, regardless of what the process is. It is hard to begin with a process without having a goal in mind and say that all of this mechanism is necessary. I think the hard part is implementation. One of the biggest problems in all modern governments is that the actual administration and formulation of policies, getting the government to do what you want, is the difficult task.  People go to Washington with big visions of what they would like to do and then they run into the reality of a government which constrains them in a million different ways.  Unless you can navigate through that, you are not going to be able to build legitimacy by good performance.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I am reminded of a phrase, “Voters don’t want leaders; they want miracle workers.” There is this desire these days, not to be led by somebody, but rather to have somebody who will come in and solve these problems for you.  Is this is a new phenomenon or has this always been the case with politics?

Francis Fukuyama:

I think that tendency is probably old.Let us go back to the issue of why people think businessmen would be better leaders. They see that in businesses you make strong decisions, you can fire people and you can make mergers and acquisitions for strategic reasons. They just don’t understand that you cannot run a government like that. To the degree that a government can be run in that manner, it is not a democratic society.

 

 

 

 

 

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