Democratic Grit: The National Roots of Democratic Resilience in East Asia
For many reasons, the East Asian democracies were not expected to survive. Strong ethnic nationalisms, collective culture, and legacies of corruption were all working against them. Yet survive they did—through the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis, failed presidencies, and relentless pressure from authoritarian brother-sister regimes—spectacularly defying conventional theories of democratic success. What explains this resilience?
Nowhere is that question more important than in East Asia going forward, as China’s undaunted rise and North Korea’s seeming resurgence continue to pull the gravitational center of world politics eastward. The big question for regional scholars and policymakers alike is what that emerging East Asian superpower or alliance will look like. Will it mark the beginning of undisputed authoritarian dominance in the region, and likely the world? Or will democracies prevail in some form? The outcome will largely depend on the democratic tenacity of ordinary citizens in the region: the willingness to fulfill democratic norms and expectations, even in the face of adversity. Understanding the source of such democratic "grit" is the task of this book.
I find that a powerful source lies in something that has typically been seen as a democratic weakness for the region: strong nationalism. Nationalism has many variants, but at the root, I argue that it fosters an intrinsic, moral obligation to contribute to “my” nation—not because of any formal rule or promise of incentive, but as an integral part of one’s self-identity. Whether this uniquely moral capacity of the nation helps or hinders democracies depends, I argue, on the strength of representational linkage between nation and state. When the democratic state is seen to represent the best interests of “my” nation—when linkage is strong—nationalism frames acts of compliance in moral rather than payoff terms, driving a sense of duty to fulfill them even when it is costly. In contrast, when the democratic state is seen to represent a national “other”—when linkage is fractured—this powerful source of democratic grit remains stunted, leaving such democracies more vulnerable to the inevitable fluctuations of performance. I test this theory by comparing South Korea and Taiwan—two otherwise similar democracies that, for reasons of nationalist history, contrast on linkage. Leveraging this naturally controlled comparison, I examine whether the propensity to see citizen roles such as voting, paying taxes, and military service as a matter of duty differs by strength of national identification between the two democracies. The evidence, amassed across original national surveys, field and survey experiments, and hundreds of personal narratives from volunteer soldiers, paints a strikingly consistent picture. In South Korea, where linkage is strong, most citizens feel a duty to contribute to their democracy out of an obligation to their nation. In Taiwan, where the national “we” is contested and linkage is fractured for many, only a minority of the citizenry is morally motivated in the same way, with very different implications for democratic resilience in the long-term. And while those implications are most immediate for East Asia’s democratic future, this is not just an East Asia story. I find parallel patterns between East and West Germans in reunified Germany, for example, an important shadow case and one that significantly broadens the appeal of the argument.
This political explanation for democratic grit emerges as an important alternative to conventional answers that tend to focus on the innate character or cultural values of a specific people. Because both strength of national identification and perceptions of representational linkage are politically constructed, there is much in the way of policy and institutional design that can be done to help democracies to better harness the moral capacity of strong nationalism. Perhaps the most important implication from the findings is that democratic grit is something that can be fostered and grown—a ray of optimism for a region whose democratic potential has long been shadowed by deterministic theories of culture.