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[Kim Seong-kon] Liberal democracy will be at stake in 2024

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 10, 2024 - 05:30

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Experts have pointed out that the year 2024 will continue to pose major challenges from many quarters, from the far-reaching devastation of climate change to the negative impact of artificial intelligence, including a massive rise in disinformation and fake news. For these and many other reasons, democracy will continue to be at stake worldwide.

Indeed, hosts of specialists and scholars have recently warned of a worldwide crisis and decline of democracy in the international community. In 2016, for example, Weixiong Li published “The Crisis of Democracy,” in which he argued that democracy would deteriorate and eventually collapse due to socialism, populism, polarization, ideological brainwashing, teachers’ unions, and government debts. These harmful factors to democracy are familiar to Koreans who have witnessed and experienced them for the past few years.

In 2018, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published “How Democracies Die.” In the book, they outline how elected political leaders manipulate democracy to wield power and turn into tyrants. The authors warn that the collapse of “mutual toleration” and “respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition” are main factors that can subvert democracy. According to the book, those who do not accept the results of an election, different political opinions, or the separation of powers will surely ruin the country when and if they come to power. South Koreans, too, have seen a similar political climate in their own country recently.

This dire message is echoed by a number of recent popular books on democracy. In 2019, Adam Przeworski published “Crises of Democracy,” in which he similarly contended that democracy was now at stake everywhere in the world. This past year, Martin Wolf published “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism,” in which he diagnosed the illness of our society where the marriage of democracy and capitalism seems to be breaking up. All of the above authors maintain that the threats to democracy are not just political, but social, cultural, and economic, as well.

In 2023, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School published its professors’ panel on “Is Democracy in Decline?” Its introductory comments said, “From polarization to populism, democracy is facing off against formidable foes and we need big ideas to save it.” In “Defend Democracy or Prepare to Relive the 1930s,” Mark Montgomery laments that just as the Ukraine War is threatening Ukrainian democracy, the China-Taiwan crisis, too, is a treat to Taiwanese democracy and the Israel-Hamas War is also challenging democracy in that region. We strongly hope such tragedies will end in 2024.

Even in the US, the unprecedented denial of the outcome of the presidential election and subsequent attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 marked a crisis of American democracy. Many experts argue that these two regrettable incidents cost America its international leadership in democracy. Indeed, it will take a long time for American democracy to heal its psychological wounds. In the US as well as South Korea, the main factors that have threatened democracy are polarization, populism and post-truth or fake news, referred to by some as the 3Ps. If political leaders try to brainwash and misguide the people with 3Ps, the government will inevitably lose credibility. Indeed, researches reveal that only 20 percent of the American people trust their government. South Korea may be similar to the US because Koreans, too, are disappointed in their government, especially the National Assembly.

The above authors and panelists used the term “democracy.” In fact, however, “liberal democracy” may be a more accurate term because even socialist countries adopt “democracy,” even though it is a people’s democracy or a “mob democracy.” Indeed, what we are now witnessing is the decline of liberal democracy and the rise of a mob democracy.

Perhaps Karl Marx did not anticipate it, but the Communism he envisioned consequently resulted in totalitarianism, tyranny, and mob democracies. Marx would have never expected that his theory of communism had created a dystopian world where tyrants would oppress and exploit the workers whose rights he tried to protect.

The trouble is that Communist leaders never give up the sweetness of privileged power and wealth. In that sense, Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy had triumphed finally after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was overly optimistic. Communist parties are still strong and former communist countries are a major threat to the world once again.

In 2024, we look forward to the replenishment of liberal democracy threatened by polarity, populism, and post-truth instigated by irresponsible politicians who do not have political ethics and morality. We should beware of politicians who have delusions of grandeur that they could restore the glory of the past, which would destroy liberal democracy in the process.

In 2024, we will continue to tackle climate change, the impact of AI, and cyberattacks. Most of all, we must protect liberal democracy, so our children can inherit a free world. Without liberal democracy, there is no future for us.

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.