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Anti-establishment rhetoric against democratic values

Publication Date : 14-04-2014


A group of around 1,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Zhongzheng First Precinct of the Taipei City Police Department on Friday night, protesting the department chief's decision to drive the remaining protesters out of the Legislative Yuan compound earlier that day.

The angry crowd threw ghost money, water bottles and insults at Fang Yang-ning and the police force amassed in front of the police precinct, calling for his apology and resignation for a “breach of trust.” The resignation was rejected by Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, and it is clear that Taiwan doesn't need more anti-establishment activists that incite ridicule of the police and parliamentary system using rhetoric that risks belittling our democracy with oversimplified messages.

The students' answer to the malaise of today's youth is far too simple — let's do away with the ruling party's politicians or, better yet, throw away everything that smells of power, privileges and Chinese politics — and, absolutely incompatible with Taiwan democratic values, despite their hundreds of thousands of supporters on social media.

The truth is that these students derive their energy from misplaced resentment, and the real key to their success lies in the exploitation of anger — at the ruling Kuomintang, at President Ma Ying-jeou, at mainland China and the whole establishment in general. That is what makes their movement look great, not the appeal to reason or the love of democracy. The problem with such “zero-sum rhetoric”, however, is the growing risk of driving the country to a dead-end.

The zero-sum mentality refers to a way of thinking that hinges on the notion that “there must be one winner and one loser, and for every gain there should be a loss.” The term is used in its simplest form in the social sciences to describe systems in which “one of us wins while one of us loses.” If we're going to share a pie though, it also means we each have to fight to get more pieces.

In a society that has allowed alternative actors to take advantage of the size, dynamic nature and low communication cost of social media to communicate directly with citizens, such a zero-sum mentality has now become extremely successful in mobilising people. Beppe Grillo in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France are examples of underdogs who have successfully used social media to raise issues, publicise meetings, respond to news, mobilise supporters at the grassroots level and recruit new “friends”.

In Taiwan, the Sunflower Movement leaders, Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, have been using the same tactics to fuel the passions of their supporters through social movements. Contrary to hour-long TED talks centered on “ideas worth spreading”, they have been using social media to spread their movement's zero-sum mentality regarding Taiwan politics, the economy and cross-strait relations with short pamphlets, explicit videos and emotional photos.

In the real world though, politics is a rather unappetising business that depends on compromise, meaning that not everyone will be happy with it. Sometimes you have to ask the people to accept things they don't understand or want. Yet, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is siding with the students in spreading the idea that the votes of the street are somehow more democratic than the votes of representatives sent to parliament in a democratic election. This is major illusion that has found many adherents in Taiwan.

However, the move is poised to further push moderate voters away from the party that cares less and less about attracting middle-of-the-road voters. To the contrary, the party should know that voters are not only swayed by policies but also by the impression that the country is on the right or wrong track. If the opposition party aims to regain power in the near future, it is time to give up zero-sum thinking and move forward to attract middle-of-the-road voters and become a responsible stakeholder in Taiwan's economy.


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