The author is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Zeitgeist refers to the attitudes, ideologies and values shared by the people living in a specific era. The era of democratization began with the democratization movement in June 1987. The identity of the era was clearly defined by the titles of each administration. President Kim Young-sam called his administration the “Civilian Government” and the Kim Dae-jung administration the “Government of the People,” while the Roh Moo-hyun administration used the title of “Participatory Government.” As the names demonstrate, democratization was the zeitgeist of the times.
Since then, democratization was never denied as the zeitgeist. The Lee Myung-bak administration’s national vision — “Advancement to a first-class country” — was developed by Professor Park Se-il. According to Park, advancement was a value of the times that inherited the founding spirits of the country and democratization. The Park Geun-hye administration’s national agendas promoted during her campaign were “economic democratization and welfare service tailored for life cycle.”
The national vision presented by the Moon Jae-in administration was the “Country of the people, the Republic of Korea with Fairness.” It declared the people are the owners of politics and that fairness is a new zeitgeist. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s national vision — “A republic of Korea that leaps anew, a people’s nation of co-prosperity” — was a declaration that a new leap forward was the nation’s mission and the people were the subject of prosperity. The master frame of the era of democratization is that the people are the owners of politics and prosperity.
I looked back on the era due to the strange landscape of our democracy today. The three pillars that support democracy are popular sovereignty, pluralism and compromise through dialogue. But the reality we are facing 30 years into the democratization era is the lack of pluralism and absence of political compromise, which represents the polarization of our politics rooted in anti-pluralism and anti-compromise.
The reason for this political polarization is twofold. First is the “imperial” presidential system. Because it is a winner-takes-all system, it only fuels the hostility between the party in power and its rivals. The presidential election becomes a political chess game to gain massive interests.
The second is the strategy of division. A party that mobilizes more supporters eventually wins an election. For an election victory, the strategy of division that responds to the demands of hard-core supporters is often preferred over the strategy of uniting the centrist voters. Ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, ideological wars and hate politics are already shaking up the entire society.
If so, can this political polarization change? The possibility seems low. There are two reasons. First, the difference between the conservatives and the progressives is clear. In economic and foreign policies, the two pillars of state affairs, the conservatives demand neoliberal economic policies and a hard-line stance toward North Korea based on the alliance with the United States. But the progressives champion a Keynesian economic policy and engagement toward North Korea by worshipping “balanced diplomacy.” Even in gender and environmental policies — the core agendas of the 21st century — the ideological distance between the two groups is obvious.
Second, the political polarization stems from the trend of “hyper-politicization.” Just as hyper-connectivity has emerged in social relations due to the advancement of information technology, hyper-politicization owing to people’s proactive participation became more important in a political process. Especially, the full bloom of social media strengthens direct communications between political leaders and their followers and the sense of political efficacy of active citizens. Fandom politics based on hardcore supporters and the strategy of division by major political parties are closely connected in this way.
Noteworthy is the phenomenon of depoliticization, a counteraction against hyper-politicization. It means keeping distance from established politics due to disappointment with the polarized political order. The size of the politically independent group, which stands at around 30 percent, proves it. This depoliticization trend is noticeable among the age group of those in their 20s and 30s. According to recent a Gallup Korea poll, 44 percent of those aged 18 to 29 and 35 percent of those in their 30s said they don’t support any party.
Just because they are depoliticized, it doesn’t mean they are cynical about politics. They just reject the ideologies and actions of the established parties and the administration. In fact, they are highly interested in the future of the country — for instance, creating jobs in the era of artificial intelligence, alleviating class inequality in the shadow of hereditary capitalism, responding to the alarmingly low birthrate, and pursuing the national interest-first diplomacy in the new Cold War order.
In a strange development, hyper-politicization and depoliticization coexist in the post-democratization era. Is it really impossible for our politics to go beyond factionalism and move straight into a better future? Shouldn’t that be the case now? I wondered while observing the young generation on campus after the new semester began.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.