[the nature of democracy]

Topic: Korea
[Note: I’ll try to get a report as soon as possible from my friend Graeme on the ground in South Korea. In the meantime, here’s something to chew on.]Here in America, we take it for granted that philosophy and ideology are a part of politics. We expect our political parties to represent a set of ideas and to stick to them over time. In discussions of present-day party maneuvering, we refer back to FDR and JFK, to Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Nixon and Reagan. Of course each party has shifted dramatically on some issues — the Democrats used to be the party of segregation, while the Republicans were so opposed to states’ rights that they fought America’s bloodiest war over it — but we have enough political tradition that we can talk meaningfully about what each party represents.

For the world’s youngest democracies — especially those created outside the mainstream of European political thought — the purpose of political parties is much murkier. In some countries they represent regions and ethnic groups; in others, they don’t represent much of anything. Which is why, for all the sturm und drang over the impeachment of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, no one is discussing the goals of either Roh’s Uri Party or the Grand National Party that impeached him.

South Korea has been a democracy for less than two decades. In that brief time, its political parties have not gelled into genuine representatives of ideological blocks within the electorate. What you have instead is a fairly naked struggle to gain and keep power.

Our instinct is to fault the Koreans for the lack of ideological content in their politics. But in my experience, South Korea is constantly being faulted by outsiders for all kinds of things, and somehow they’ve been muddling through. In this case, it occurs to me that without all the trappings of ideology that keep us strapped to our respective parties here in the U.S., South Koreans are free to vote for the leaders who lead best (or at least for the leaders who seem least corrupt and lead least badly). As long as the South Korean newspapers maintain the right to criticize the government — and this right is not to be taken for granted — perhaps the South Koreans will be better off with parties that eschew ideology in favor of competing platforms of pragmatism.

Also published on Medium.