January 6, 2016
The entrepreneur-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo is scrambling to create a new political party and I have heard the gossip about which politicians may, or may not, join him in this venture.
But although some friends have voiced their hopes that a new party will breathe life into the stagnant political discourse of Yeouido, most assume that other than a few ritualistic changes, and yet another name change, politics will continue pretty much as usual. Political parties will remain as relevant to ordinary citizens as the fantastic cloud formations that pass by in the sky.
Interestingly a similar struggle is taking place simultaneously in the United States in the Democratic Party. In that case, although presidential candidate Bernie Sanders does not want a new party, he wants to take control away from Clinton loyalists and create a party that is not as close to corporate interests. His supporters are waging a silent war with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National committee who ran Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and is accused of bias in favor of Hillary. Supporters of Ahn and Sanders hope that somehow they can wrestle politicians away from cozy relations with business and media and make them focus on the needs of ordinary citizens.
But the problem is not ultimately one of politicians, rather it is one of the flawed assumptions that underlie politics. As the old saying goes, “Voters do not want leaders; they want miracle workers.” Few citizens are actively engaged in politics; they vote to select someone who will solve problems without the citizen having to play a role in the process.
The political scientist Theda Skocpol locates the demise of democracy in modern society in her book “Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life.” She suggests that whereas many citizens 40 years ago were members of organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Masons, the Lion’s club, etc., that had their own forms of democratic practice such as elections and committees and also included members from both the establishment and the working class, today few people are participate in these forms of governance. Increasingly we are alone in modern society and are not active in the democratic processes in our own lives.
I can see the current state of democracy in Korea just by looking at the apartment building where I live. Probably 20 or so families live together and share the same hallways and driveway. But we do not know the names of but a few residents. There has never been any meeting of the residents of our apartment either to socialize, or to discuss what we can do together to improve our facilities. There is no community or civic discourse about our interests. If we have no form of democratic process at the ground level, can we expect to have it at the highest levels?
If we assume that somehow “democracy” is created when we vote, we are entirely missing the point. Political parties evolve in response to the political culture at the lowest level. If local community decisions do not reflect the input from the inhabitants, if those living in a community do not feel any obligation to be involved in community service, or to work with their neighbors, can we really expect that political parties will make up for what citizens do not do?
Ironically, traditional Korea, which we assume was less democratic, offered many more opportunities for neighbors to meet up and exchange their opinions on current issues. If we want to build a democracy in the future that is truly responsive to citizens, the traditional village culture of Korea can be quite helpful. Let us start at the local level, in our daily lives, to create the institutions of participatory democracy.