Democratic Grit: The National Roots of Democratic Resilience in East Asia
When the Asian Financial Crisis hit South Korea in 1997, thousands of citizens lined up in the bitter January cold to donate their personal gold for the bankrupt state. What followed spectacularly defied the odds: not only did the South Korean economy eventually recover, but its young democracy also survived. For many reasons, South Korean democracy should not have pulled through. On top of a severe economic recession, it was also fighting against strong currents of ethnic nationalism, Confucian cultural legacies, and widespread elite corruption—all factors that are detrimental to democratic success. What explains this unlikely resilience?
The question carries particular urgency as many of the third wave democracies across the developing world backslide, and even advanced ones like the United States and Britain destabilize. It appears that the next significant democratic wave will be marked less by the birth of new democracies than the survival of existing ones. When performance and political institutions fail as checks, the last bastion against democratic breakdown lies in the democratic tenacity of ordinary citizens—their sense of moral obligation to do what it takes for the success of their democratic state, even in the face of costs. This kind of “democratic grit” is precisely what South Koreans lined up at the gold drives possessed. Explaining what drives such democratic grit—why some citizens have it while others do not, and why some democracies have more of it than others—is the task of this book.
The argument, in brief, is that democratic grit is rooted in the very thing that has been seen as an impediment to democracy in East Asia and other places: strong nationalism. But this is not a vague story about nationalistic “passions” leading to blind sacrifice, nor is it a particularistic story about the special communal properties of Korean or Asian nationalist “cultures.” Instead, based on a comparative analysis of East Asian cases, I develop a generalized theory about how the national identity politics within a given state shapes the capacity for democratic grit.
I find that beliefs about the representation linkage between “my” nation and the democratic state in which one lives matter critically. Nations, like other special communities, have moral pull: members often feel an intrinsic sense of obligation to contribute to the group’s welfare. When the democratic state is seen to represent “my” nation—when linkage is strong—the nation’s moral ties are politicized in support of the state, framing citizen contributions as a matter of duty, rather than payoffs. In contrast, when the democratic state is seen to stand for a national “other”—when linkage is fractured or opposed—the same moral ties can be turned against democratic grit, instead motivating a duty to reject or resist the demands of that democratic state. Explicating this logic reveals very different moral underpinnings to different democracies, with important implications for understanding democratic resilience in East Asia and beyond.
The book tests this national theory through a controlled comparison of democratic grit in South Korea and Taiwan. The two democracies serve as a “most similar” pairing: despite nearly identical characteristics on the most compelling historical, cultural, and demographic confounders to the theory, divergent nationalist strategies produced contrasting degrees of nation-state linkage. In South Korea, a racialized national narrative in response to Japanese colonialism gelled into strong beliefs of nation and state as one body through democratization, whereas in Taiwan, aggressive re-Sinicization efforts by the ruling Chinese Kuomintang backfired and bore a Taiwanese national consciousness against the state, fracturing beliefs of nation-state linkage for many islanders. Through statistical modeling, survey and field experiments, and personal narrative interviews with volunteer soldiers that are replicated across the two democracies, I consistently find a strong national effect on different manifestations of democratic grit in South Korea, versus a negligible to negative national effect in Taiwan. The book then extends the argument to Germany, where the theory explains an enduring duty to vote gap between East versus West Germans since reunification, and expands to a cross-national test of more than 27,000 democratic citizens across the world.
My findings challenge several big assumptions about nationalism and democracy in East Asia. Blood-based nationalism has long been seen as a detriment to democratic potential. While nationalist sentiment can certainly manifest in anti-democratic ways, I show that for many citizens, it also provides “moral glue” to contribute to their democracies, even when payoffs fail. When the identity politics are such that they link “my” nation’s past and future with the democratic state, strong nationalism—even of the ethnic kind—can serve as a moral impetus toward democratic resilience, rather than democratic decay. Perhaps the most important implication from this is that the capacity for democratic grit is politically constructed—something that can be shaped, reimagined, and even grown. For all democracies, but particularly for those in East Asia long seen as burdened by their cultural and ethnic legacies, the book offers a rare ray of optimism.
The 21st century has been dubbed the “Asian century,” as China’s undaunted expansion continues to pull the gravitational center of world politics eastward. The big question is what that new regional power will look like. Will it mark the beginnings of authoritarian hegemony over the liberal world order? Or will the East Asian democracies survive as pivotal regional checks to such authoritarian diffusion? Much of that discussion has focused on China’s trade pressures or North Korea’s nuclear threats, but this book points to East Asia’s evolving nationalist landscape as the most significant challenge to its democratic future. Unprecedented drops in fertility have ushered in a new era of regional migration, contesting the ethno-racial basis for nation-state linkage in different ways across the democracies. How the East Asian democracies each respond to their internal identity pressures, I argue, will enduringly shape their capacities for democratic grit going forward, and in turn, the resilience of democracy in the region as a whole.