South Korean Democracy: Consolidated or Not?

By | December 07, 2016 | No Comments

Park Geun-hye thanks the people for her 2012 presidential election win, and vows to bring them an “era of happiness.” | Image: Wikicommons

South Korea is slipping and sliding across a slick patch in the history of its 30-year experiment with democracy. Ever since Park Geun-hye came to power there has been talk of regression into authoritarianism, a claim which on the balance of the evidence seems overblown. But for much longer there has also been discussion of whether or not the state has been captured by private (read chaebol) interests, and as I watched the theater in the National Assembly on Tuesday (elected representatives in an open hearing, aggressively questioning the chairmen of South Korea’s nine major conglomerates about their funding of Choi Soon-sil’s activities) I couldn’t help recalling that classic Shakespearean quote, The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

However, whether South Korean democracy has lost its substantiveness or not, there is seemingly no fear of the public losing support for it. To look at downtown Seoul on a Saturday night, there is apparently no cause for concern similar to that triggered by a media article suggesting (not altogether accurately) that support for democracy is declining swiftly among young people in “the West.” But what can the data tell us? Steven Denny gets his hands dirty. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

South Korean Democracy: Consolidated or Not?

by Steven Denney

The New York Times review of an article by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy has created quite a stir within the political scientist community.1)Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27 no. 3 (2016): 5-17. Comparing data in the aggregate for the United States and Europe, Foa and Mounk claim that support for democracy in the West, especially among younger members of society, is on the decline. This challenges a long-held belief that once democracies consolidate, they never go back. To highlight the point, the New York Times produced a graph showing support for democracy in five Western states (Sweden, Australia, Netherlands, United States, New Zealand, and Britain) based on the dataset used by Foa and Mounk and guided by the author’s operationalization of “support for democracy.”

nyt_demsupportThe data show answers to a question in the fifth wave of the World Values Survey (WVS), which ran between the years 2005 and 2010. The question asks, “How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?” Respondents are asked to answer on a scale of 1 (“not at all important”) to 10 (“absolutely important”). The graph shows the percentage of those who answered only 10, meaning they believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy.2)Figure 1 on p. 7 of Foa and Mounk show percent of those in the United States and Europe who think it is “essential” to live in a democracy. But there is something gravely wrong with this particular measure of democratic support, as Georgetown professor and editor of Research and Politics, Erik Voeten explains in a response piece for the Washington Post blog, “Monkey Cage:”

[The graph] plots the percentage of people who answer 10, and it treats everyone else the same. The graph treats the people who place themselves at 1 as having the same commitment to democracy as those who answer 9. In reality, almost no one (less than 1 percent) said that democracy is “not at all important.”

Data show that support for democracy is indeed lower among younger age cohorts (see Tweet by Voeten, below), but we are not witnessing a precipitous decline worthy of panic.

While Foa and Mounk have every right to limit the scope of their study to Western democracies, why not expand the scope to include the world’s newer democracies — the so-called “Third Wave” democracies? For instance, South Korea. Data for South Korea is included in WVS wave 5.

“Do You Hear the People Sing?” What Are They Saying? | What better time than now to consider popular support for South Korea’s young democracy? The president, Park Geun-hye, is mired in a corruption scandal involving a close family friend and several of her former aides. Last Saturday marked the sixth consecutive large scale, peaceful protests against against her, and more than two million people took to the streets. Specifics of the scandal aside, the public is clear that it expects the president to resign. Calls for action in South Korea’s National Assembly have resulted in the three major political parties agreeing, for now, that the president needs to step down or be removed. An impeachment vote is expected on Friday, December 9.

Videos and images of protestors dancing, chanting, and marching are impressive, and have repeatedly gone viral. It’s no secret that South Koreans are politically engaged; in a country where voting is not mandatory, average election turnout in South Korea (presidential and parliamentary elections) is just over 62%. To put this into perspective, the comparatively high turnout of 58% in the 2008 US election was 4pp lower than the South Korean average turnout.

How does South Korea fare, compared to six Western democracies examined in the NYT article? What do the data tell us?

Using the same question and birth cohorts as Foa and Mounk, I’ve plotted the percent of South Koreans who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy. (1=10, else=0) The result is produced in Graph 1 below.3)As Voeten points out in his Monkey Cage piece, dividing respondents by birth cohorts creates a “small n” problem for some of the cohorts. The sample size for the 1930s birth cohort is relatively small at 39 respondents.

Graph by Steven Denney. Data for South Korea from WVS Wave 5 (2010), V162: "How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?" Graph includes 95% confidence intervals.

Graph by Steven Denney. Data for South Korea from WVS Wave 5 (2005), V162: “How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?” Graph includes 95% confidence intervals.

The results show a significant difference between South Korea and the five Western countries analyzed by the NYT and Voeten. In South Korea, baseline support (those born in the 1930s) is significantly lower at 41% (the five Western countries all register above 50%, and all but the Netherlands score around 75%). However, the difference between the oldest birth cohort and the youngest is just +1pp. The data indicate that while unwavering support for democracy is considerably lower in South Korea than the West, there is no significant change across birth cohorts in South Korea. The precipitous drop between the old and young seen in the data for the Western countries does not show in the data on South Korea.

I would be committing the same foul as the New York Times if I stopped here. We need to examine the mean scores. Data presented in Graph 2 does just this.

Graph by Steven Denney. Data for South Korea from WVS Wave 5 (2010), V162: "How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?" Graph includes 95% confidence intervals.

Graph by Steven Denney. Data for South Korea from WVS Wave 5 (2005), V162: “How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically?” Graph includes 95% confidence intervals.

At 8.5, the baseline is slightly, but not significantly, lower in South Korea than the West. All countries but the Netherlands (again the exception) have a baseline above 9. As Voeten’s tweet above and this graph show: average scores decrease across age cohorts in the West, and significantly so. This isn’t the case in South Korea. Across all birth cohorts democracy is seen as equally important, more or less. Indeed, it’s slightly higher for the youngest birth cohort. The difference between the oldest and youngest birth cohorts is a +2pp.

Conclusion | What does this comparison between the five older democracies chosen by the NYT and South Korea (a new democracy) tell us, broadly speaking? Setting aside questions and concerns about generational and period effects, which cannot be adequately addressed using data from a single year, there are two things.

One, the older generations in Sweden, Australia, United States, New Zealand, and Britain (the Netherlands appears to be the exception for the cases chosen) hold democracy to be significantly more important than their counterparts in South Korea. This isn’t a surprising finding, though. Depending on how you define democracy, or democratic consolidation, South Korea has been a democracy for anywhere between 9 and 29 years.4)If you take the initial democratic transition in 1987 as the starting point, then it is 29 years. If you take the first peaceful transition of power to an opposition party candidate, which occurred in 1997, it is 19. And if you take the second peaceful transition of power to an opposition candidate, it is only 9 years. Any one of the three years can be justifiably used as the starting point for South Korea’s democracy. The bottom line is that South Korean democracy is comparatively young. A person born in the year of South Korea’s democratic transition would be just 29 years-old today. Most of the South Korean sample will have a living memory of dictatorship. This is significant, because as Russel Dalton and Doh Chull Shin show in their study of East Asian democracies, those who come of age under authoritarian regimes tend to be less supportive of democracy than those who grow up in democratic orders.

Two, mean scores across birth cohorts show support for democracy in South Korea is less volatile, and thus arguably stronger, despite the lower degree of unwavering support among the older generations. Whatever criticisms one may have of Foa and Mounk, there is a downward trend in support for democracy.5)Looking at WVS waves 5 and 6 on the question, and analyzing the data by generation, Pippa Norris shows that there is also a small but statistically significant decrease in the mean score, as calculated by Norris, when moving from the Korean interwar generation (born before 1945) to the two younger generations (Boomers, 1946-1949 and Millennials, 1970+); notably, the mean scores for Boomers and Millennials are identical. While this complicates the narrative presented here, it doesn’t necessarily reject the conclusions. This doesn’t mean younger people in Western countries have become unsupportive of democracy, however, which is what some may takeaway from the NYT graph reproduced above. Rather, support does appear to be declining.

One wonders what the future will hold for South Korea’s youth. Cautious optimism is warranted. South Korean democratic institutions are stable; and despite sensationalist claims made to the contrary, South Korea is not regressing towards authoritarianism. The data presented here indicate that South Korea’s political culture is as the recent protests suggest: strongly supportive of democracy. However, one wouldn’t be out of line to worry about the effects of global trends on political developments in South Korea, and it is unclear what the political consequences will be of South Korea’s post-industrial transition. If young people can’t find jobs now, how will that impact their opinions of the country’s democratic institutions in the future? As always, only time will tell.

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1. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27 no. 3 (2016): 5-17.
2. Figure 1 on p. 7 of Foa and Mounk show percent of those in the United States and Europe who think it is “essential” to live in a democracy.
3. As Voeten points out in his Monkey Cage piece, dividing respondents by birth cohorts creates a “small n” problem for some of the cohorts. The sample size for the 1930s birth cohort is relatively small at 39 respondents.
4. If you take the initial democratic transition in 1987 as the starting point, then it is 29 years. If you take the first peaceful transition of power to an opposition party candidate, which occurred in 1997, it is 19. And if you take the second peaceful transition of power to an opposition candidate, it is only 9 years. Any one of the three years can be justifiably used as the starting point for South Korea’s democracy. The bottom line is that South Korean democracy is comparatively young.
5. Looking at WVS waves 5 and 6 on the question, and analyzing the data by generation, Pippa Norris shows that there is also a small but statistically significant decrease in the mean score, as calculated by Norris, when moving from the Korean interwar generation (born before 1945) to the two younger generations (Boomers, 1946-1949 and Millennials, 1970+); notably, the mean scores for Boomers and Millennials are identical. While this complicates the narrative presented here, it doesn’t necessarily reject the conclusions.

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