Does it still make sense to talk of political doctrines or moral values in societies where values are so diverse? We are always being told by battle-hardened politicians that in real life politics is all about gaining the upper hand. With the political turmoil that erupted in September, when the legislature became enveloped in allegations of improper lobbying, the general public thought the whole thing was an ugly political dogfight, despite the attempts by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to dress it up as an issue of right versus wrong, of propriety against impropriety.
Earlier in the year, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding the abolition of military courts and for trials involving the armed forces to be heard in civilian courts, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was quick to promise something would be done, only to subsequently use all the tricks at its disposal to stall any amendments to the law. Politicians are becoming ever more sanctimonious, while the public watching them are becoming ever more disenchanted. Democratic politics in Taiwan has descended into a satire, and people are increasingly losing faith that a democratic system is capable of bringing about change.
It is this kind of environment that can be a hotbed for the rise of an autocrat. This is a tragedy in the making, and it is certainly not exclusively the KMT’s doing. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), preoccupied with furthering its own interests, is the Brutus plunging the knife into the back of Taiwanese democracy.
When we were struggling against the autocratic regime in the past, we believed in more lofty values, striving for fairness and justice, as all the power was in the hands of the KMT, while the general public had none. The minute Taiwan became a democracy, we changed: We became cynical and forsook our former values; we no longer knew what we believed in; and politicians preoccupied with power and winning elections came to dominate democratic politics.
Democracy is not just about elections, or about the system, or about political or economic interest: Democracy is also about morality. A democratic politics that ignores concrete values is a false democracy. Without morals and values informing it, it ends up the same way, with the powerful controlling everything, while the citizenry, clinging on to their vote slips, are as enslaved as they were before, only under a new system.
There have been examples of politicians in history that have strongly believed that democratic politics needs to incorporate actual values. Perhaps the most oft-cited of these is former US president Abraham Lincoln. In his Peoria speech of Oct. 16, 1854, Lincoln criticized people who defended slavery, deploring the “monstrous injustice” of the system they were supporting and saying that keeping slaves “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.”
Lincoln said he believed that slavery “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” For Lincoln, a political system that was of no help in the realization of justice was of little use.
Just over a decade later, in his March 4, 1865, second inaugural address, given at the time when the US Civil War was coming to a close, Lincoln noted that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Given this, who has the right to decide who is just?