HIKONE, SHIGA PREF. – Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 by defeating the Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, with his slogans of opposing globalization, rejecting immigrants and putting America first. Whether to pursue or abandon globalization was the biggest campaign issue, while the historical confrontation between the conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats was sidelined. Similarly, Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union had little to do with the conservative-liberal face-off between the Conservative and Labour parties, and is seen as reflecting the anti-globalization sentiments entertained by a majority of British people.
In Japan, too, rivalry between conservatives and liberals appears to have ceased to exist. When the reigns of government shifted from the Liberal Democratic Party to the then Democratic Party of Japan following the latter’s Lower House election victory in August 2009, I welcomed the change as I thought Japan had at long last caught up with countries like the United States and the United Kingdom to establish a political system in which conservatives and liberals compete with each other.
In September, however, I could not help but feel quite strongly that the DPJ, which changed its name to the Democratic Party earlier this year, had completely deviated from liberalism — since all three candidates for the party’s top post declared themselves conservatives.
Renho, who was elected the party’s new chief, said, “I am an unadulterated conservative, as conservative as (the party’s former prime minister) Yoshihiko Noda.” Seiji Maehara, the runner-up in the election, said, “A regime change would not be possible unless we won support from sensible conservatives.” Yuichiro Tamaki, the third candidate, said, “I will work to provide the citizens with a new alternative by offering a liberal and moderate conservative ideology as the core value of the Democratic Party.” I was utterly surprised to hear those words since I had thought that the Democratic Party would inherit the liberal slogans of its predecessor.
I have long thought it desirable for this country to have a political system where two major parties with conservative and liberal ideologies face each other.
The Republican Party of the U.S. and the Conservative Party of Britain both follow conservative principles, and more specifically, devote themselves to market fundamentalism, pursue small government, regard disparities of income distribution and inequalities as necessary evil, prioritize business interests, attach utmost importance to maintaining a fiscal balance, and dismiss public works investments as an effective means of inducing domestic demand.
On the political and social fronts, the Republicans and the Conservatives esteem order and tradition, do not necessarily approve of diversity, regard national defense as the most important role of the government, occasionally take discriminatory stands with regard to race and religion, and are intolerant of sexual diversity.
The U.S. Democratic Party and the U.K. Labour Party, which both advocate liberalism, follow economic policies that do not consider the market mechanism as omnipotent, encourage the government’s fiscal and monetary intervention as an indispensable means of rectifying market imbalance and instability, advocate measures to forestall expansion of disparities and inequalities, prioritize redistribution of income through more generous welfare programs based on greater financial burdens and back a relatively big government.
In the political and social arenas, the Democrats and Labour have respect for diversity in various forms, value harmony among different races, religions and ways of thinking, are more accommodating toward the socially weak, work hard on environmental issues, and are cautious toward the use of military force.
I would like to ask each of the three self-declared “conservatives” who ran in the DP leadership race: Are you a conservative or a liberal by my definition?
For decades in postwar Japan, the political dynamics rested on confrontation between the conservatives and reformists. In 1955, Socialists who had been divided between the left and the right wing were reunited to form the Social Democratic Party of Japan, while the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party merged into the Liberal Democratic Party, marking the beginning of the regime known as the “1955 system.”
For nearly 40 years until 1993, when a coalition led by Morihiro Hosokawa briefly took power, the LDP remained at the helm of government and the Social Democrats continued to be the No. 1 opposition force. The political landscape characterized by conservative-reformist divide was quite easy to understand, because at issue was whether to “conserve” the capitalist system or to “reform” the nation into a social democratic state. Perhaps for Japanese voters long accustomed to the divide — and for the politicians themselves — the conservative-liberal rivalry in politics must have been hard to understand.
In the U.S. and Britain, it is only natural for low-income and unemployed workers who have been disadvantaged by the progress in globalization to lose interest in the long-standing rivalry between the established conservative and liberal parties, and to give priority to protection of their own interests. Trump pursued his election campaign in a most adroit manner by denouncing globalization and the rule by the elite. In Japan, meanwhile, the conservative-liberal divide has disappeared with the return to power by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe four years ago.
If I were to be asked whether the Abe administration is conservative or liberal, my answer would be it is neither. Politically and socially, Abe is as pure-blooded conservative as two of his LDP predecessors — Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi. On the economic arena, however, he has deviated so much from the path of conservatism that his policies can be called state capitalism, given his penchant for government control of the economy. In that sense, I believe his ideologies are based on neo-nationalism.
Fortunately, there is little likelihood that opposition to globalization will become a major campaign issue in Japan, because this island nation remains unwilling to accept immigrant labor. In other words, there is virtually no chance of the Trump phenomenon or the emergence of ultra-rightist leaders gaining power in Japan.
If the Democratic Party wants to differentiate itself from the LDP and seek to return to power once again, it should set individualism, liberalism and democracy as the core of its political ideologies, and in view of the imperfect nature of the market mechanism, direct its economic policies toward proper intervention in market and rectifying the gap in income distribution and assets. And that means a return to orthodox liberalism.
Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.