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[Kim Seong-kon] The crisis of liberal democracy in the era of 3 P's

By Korea Herald

Published : June 7, 2023 - 05:20

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In 1992, when Francis Fukuyama published his celebrated book “The End of History and the Last Man,” people thought that liberal democracy would be the predominant form of government on Earth after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Despite Fukuyama’s optimistic prediction, however, ideological evolution did not end even after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, and consequently, liberal democracy is in crisis today.

In his article “Populism is a Symptom of Democracy’s Deeper Crisis,” Philip Manow argues that since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, elected dictators have appeared in many countries and challenged many crucial ideals of liberal democracy, such as “minority rights, rule of law and separation of powers.” Instead of liberal democracy, those tyrannical, populist political leaders call for the people’s democracy or direct democracy in order to support and strengthen their electoral authoritarianism. They prefer rule by law, absolute power, and the absence of minority rights.

Those elected dictators are characterized by the so-called three P's, that is to say, post-truth, polarization and populism, all of which are seriously undermining liberal democracy. Indeed, they have denounced truth as fake news, divided the nation into two and enticed the people with populist policies. Consequently, they are threatening the world order based on liberal democracy.

Those radical political leaders argue that liberal or representative democracy is mainly for the elite and exhausted its possibilities now, and thus we need a direct, people’s democracy instead. The rhetoric sounds familiar because former communist countries adopted the slogans of a “people’s democracy” or “direct democracy.” We all know that in these cases, such socialist democracies ended up serving the dictatorship in totalitarian countries.

Unfortunately, however, the prevalence of three P's is a worldwide phenomenon these days. Dictators in many countries appeal to the emotion of the people, split the people by ideologies, and bankrupt the country with populism. Those dictators are not interested in truth, unity, or financial stability in the country. Their main concern is how to wield power as long as possible, making use of naive, emotional people and their antagonism against the elite, and their thirst for equality and justice.

According to Oxford Languages Dictionary, “post-truth” means, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In the era of post-truth, therefore, objective facts and truths do not matter anymore in shaping public opinions. Under the circumstances, sly politicians can easily arouse public opinions by appealing to people’s emotions and personal beliefs. Then, they can do whatever they want to do in the name of the public opinions they fabricated.

The above dictionary defines “polarization” as “division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs, the polarization of society between rich and poor." This is all too familiar to us because our politicians, too, have instigated antagonism between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged, and the inherited and the disinherited, so they could stay in power forever, using the people’s fury and animosity. Such politicians are not interested in the future of their country. They are interested in staying in power by instigating internal brawls and divisions.

As for “populism” the Oxford Dictionary states: “Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of 'the people' and often juxtapose this group against 'the elite.'" It is frequently associated with anti-establishment and anti-political sentiment.” Indeed, populist politicians are demagogues who deliberately inflame the anger and enmity of the people toward the elite, the rich, and established social orders. Under the banner, “The rich took away everything which is rightfully ours,” populist politicians drop tax bombs on the rich and throw money to the people until the country is bankrupt.

In order to protect liberal democracy, therefore, we may need three R's, namely “realization,” “reconciliation” and “restoration,” which could replace and nullify three P's, “post-truth,” “polarization” and “populism.” First, we should “realize” that politicians can deceive us by fake news, and thus we should be capable of discerning truth from lies. Second, we should reconcile “us” with “them,” the haves with the have-nots, and the left with the right. Third, we should put an end to populism, reset our country and restore our common sense and rationality. We should remember the maxim, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Indeed, everything has a price. Now it may seem free and sweet, but surely, it will be costly and bitter later.

Nowadays, elected dictators are trying to brandish absolute power by controlling the National Assembly and the Judiciary, as well. They also do whatever they want to do by manipulating the emotion and personal belief of the people, saying, “This is what the people want.”

In order to replenish our “exhausted” liberal democracy, we should boldly stand up against post-truth, polarization and populism, and pursue truth, reconciliation and anti-populism instead.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.