[Column] Can S. Korean progressives stop Trumpism on the home front?

Posted on : 2020-11-24 17:41 KST Modified on : 2020-11-24 17:41 KST
Despite over a decade of being in power, progressives have largely failed to improve the lives of economically marginalized

Fortunately, Donald Trump lost, but Trumpism has only gotten stronger.

Trump’s bizarre and irritating personality caused people to unite against him. But the sociopolitical trends Trump embodies have become further entrenched.

So while the presidential election is over, progressives find themselves with some grave and serious issues to ponder.

The Trump phenomenon is the result of progressives’ ineptitude. To elaborate: the phenomenon was caused by progressives’ loss of a socioeconomic vision for how to reform American society.

According to Francis Fukuyama, today’s progressive left has no strategy for dealing with the issue of massive unemployment caused by the automation of industry, and no strategy for addressing the income gap that technological advancement imposes on all Americans, whether white or black, man or woman.

Progressives in the US and other Western countries managed to achieve socioeconomic reform, such as setting up stable welfare programs. But since then, they have failed to respond effectively to economic recessions and other challenges that arise in each period. Ideologically speaking, they’ve faced a blistering attack from neoliberalism; after coming to power, political forces armed with that ideology have pressed home their attack.

The socialist bloc had long functioned as an external force mandating democratic oversight of capitalism. But the collapse of that bloc created a severe crisis for progressives, a crisis they sought to overcome through ideological and political compromise. One such attempt was the “third way” advocated by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

If Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the reaction to progressives’ success (namely, the consolidation of the welfare state), Trump and Brexit were the catastrophic consequences of progressives’ failure.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the US and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the UK all held power for a decade or so, but they failed to improve the lives of economically marginalized members of society.

The onslaught of neoliberalism was so strong that perhaps some degree of accommodation was unavoidable. But workers and other marginalized people came to feel that their economic conditions didn’t improve, and indeed got worse, under parties that were ostensibly on their side; in the end, they defected from those parties.

The Brahmin left and the invisible men

During that process, progressive parties’ base of support shifted from less educated and poorly paid workers to university graduates and the middle class — what Thomas Piketty describes as the “Brahmin left.” As long as progressives are content with the Brahmin left, they cannot defeat the “merchant right.”

Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected American president after the outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929, sought to create a majority coalition of the economically marginalized, people he described as “the forgotten man.” By speaking for the interests of forgotten workers, blacks, and the urban poor in government policy, Roosevelt mobilized them for his political coalition. The system this enabled him to build was the New Deal.

Under the influence of neoliberalism, certain groups have been ignored by government policy. These are the people that Fukuyama described as “invisible men,” the ones behind the Trump phenomenon. It was Trump who seized upon and politicized their pain and anger. Until structural changes are brought about, therefore, Trumpism won’t go away.

The problem lies with us. Is South Korea really safe from Trumpism? Is the progressive movement here capable enough to stop a Trumpian figure from emerging?

There’s still much to be done on the socioeconomic reforms advocated by the progressive administration. Sometimes our politicians procrastinate; sometimes they get distracted by trivial matters.

Their accomplishments aren’t tangible enough to make ordinary people feel that things are getting better. Nevertheless, progressives are losing focus, squandering their energy on the squabble between the prosecutor general and the justice minister.

How much structural change have progressives really enacted?

This is where Kim Ki-sik’s provocative question really hits home: “Setting aside practical politics, how much structural reform are progressives carrying out at home in terms of their vision for the future?”

One reason for the failure and incompetence of American progressives is “identity politics.” The term refers to a political focus on reinforcing the identity of a range of marginalized groups, including blacks, immigrants, women, Hispanics, LGBT people, refugees, and such.

Such support is fine, and indeed necessary. But the result is that progressives have abandoned the socioeconomic narrative of standing for the interests of a wider group of citizens. We shouldn’t dismiss the argument that identity politics has produced the chronic weakness of the progressive front.

Alongside identity politics, we should be trying to bring about even greater change in the world. That’s the only way for Korea’s progressives to block the Trump phenomenon here.

Conservatives turn to non-socioeconomic narratives in their quest for victory. Therefore, progressives need to persistently tackle socioeconomic issues head on, as hard as that may be, instead of getting distracted or sticking their heads in the sand. We need to build a vision that will win over as many people as possible. In the end, the important thing is not winning the battle but winning the war.

Lee Chul-hee
Lee Chul-hee

By Lee Chul-hee, director of the Information Design Research Institute

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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