Assessing politics whether in Taiwan, the US or anywhere else in the world is an interesting and complex business. For example, there are some simplistic pundits who believe that voters are never wrong because, as these pundits hold, people vote in their best interests and should not therefore be criticized.
However, nowhere was this perspective put to the test more than in the case of the re-election of Richard Nixon as US president in 1972.
Former US president Harry Truman, a man not known for mincing his words, had previously given many different assessments of Nixon, one of which was the following: “Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”
Despite such commentary, Nixon won a landslide victory by more than 18 million votes (60 percent of the votes cast), and captured 49 out of 50 states. Massachusetts and the District of Columbia were the exceptions voting for Nixon’s opponent, Senator George McGovern. Supposedly the public had voted in their best interests; certainly no one could accuse them of being “dumb” or could they?
Then came the stories of wiretaps and the series of pre-election Watergate break-ins — the final one on June 17, 1972, was the one discovered.
To the public, slowly but surely, the attempts at cover-up revealed a Nixon who was scheming, crooked and capable of trying to block the FBI’s investigation of his actions. He sought people to take the fall for him and had a special prosecutor who refused to follow his orders fired.
Some, like Truman, had seen the nature and possibilities of Nixon’s character early on. Most voters did not. A humorous side to the affair also emerged, with bumper stickers appearing with the words “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts,” or “I voted for McGovern, what about you?”
At heart, however, was a US voting public that had been duped; and this situation is one that voters in Taiwan’s nascent democracy can learn from.
The US public had not of course voted in their best interests, but rather they had voted for what they had perceived were their best interests.
There is a big difference between these two concepts, and many pundits simplistic analyses fail to grasp this difference, whatever analytical skills they claim to have.
Voters in the US were not necessarily dumb, but they did make a “dumb move” in electing a man whose actions were detrimental to the very fabric of the country. They were deceived by promises, by media campaigns and by not doing enough of their own analysis; and ended up voting for a perception of their best interests rather than the reality of them.
Fast-forward to Taiwan. Many commentators on Taiwan have continued to point out over the years that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is incompetent and is someone who follows inner paradigms that conflict with the best interests of the nation. Those who have watched Ma’s words and compared them to his actions could see this disparity early on.
Ma has been the embodiment of the “Peter Principle” — the idea that people are often promoted one level beyond their competency — in action, with the added flair and endorsement of King Pu-tsung’s (金溥聰) image-building media efforts. Yet Ma kept being elected. Was this smart?
Today, as Taiwan struggles economically, and faces many disparities and policy challenges — such as the dangers of over-dependence on China — even members of Ma’s own party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), are beginning to admit to his incompetent leadership and to issue warnings.
In addition, there is not only the long “laundry list” of failed promises from “6-3-3” on, but also Ma’s habit of duping the public by simply replacing failed promises with new ones. More serious issues involve broken promises regarding leveling the political playing field and disposing of the KMT’s “stolen state assets,” or those promises to bring about sincere forms of transitional justice and judicial reform.
Fortunately for Taiwan, it appears that the public is beginning to see more clearly and to be more demanding. Ma’s approval ratings after his re-election have continued to remain at a near rock-bottom levels. Increasing numbers of people are saying in polls that if they had the election again, they would vote for his opponent.
Ma has been in office for nearly five years and has had for all of those years a Legislative Yuan that his party and its pan-blue allies control; yet what real progress is there to show for it?
Sometimes it takes one incident; sometimes several, but hopefully the public learns. Voters make mistakes and they should face up to this fact. Nixon was proven not to be the man that so many voters had counted on when entrusting the US to him. They found that their perceived best interests were not their real best interests. They would have been dumb to allow such a man to remain in office.
And Ma and his party? Well, their future is up to the voters of Taiwan, who should continue to assess where Ma is leading them and ask if it is really in their real best interests.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.