(Still) A Conservative at SIPA

By Jeenho Hahm

I am well aware that this is an especially tense time to be talking about American politics. I want to make it clear that this is a response to the comments I had received back in April for my original article (see “Being a Conservative”). The current Supreme Court nomination issue has already been addressed eloquently by my TMP colleague Nithya (see “The Kavanaugh Hearings: A Survivor on Why It's Personal and Why You Matter”), and I agreed that her story took precedence before mine. I don't mind discussing that particular issue some other time. This article is more about fundamental differences in political ideology.

I appreciate everyone complimenting me on my bravery, but a free expression of one’s view in an academic environment shouldn’t require an act of bravery. I certainly expected many to disagree with me, and I am glad I published my article. I was praised by my friends from outside the United States or with background in Democratic politics because this has exemplified the type of rigorous debate that American higher learning institutions are well-known for. Unfortunately, they were shocked by some of the reactions that were uncalled for.

I wasn’t too offended by the comments, but I was a bit disappointed that none of the people who had questioned my morality and intelligence online dared to challenge me in person. As much as they claim to despise President Trump, they seemed to have well embraced his tactic of throwing a fit online. One lady commented that I was a “poor boy” who was “confused.” I know I look young for my age, and I’m confused because I was expecting an adult conversation at a public policy school.

Someone else pointed out my “East Asian privilege,” which I find ironic. Whenever someone reminds me that I don’t know what it’s like to be in their situation, I try to empathize with them. But then, the same person would sometimes make baseless judgments about others who are different from them. I’m aware of my privileges as a student here at SIPA. It was also my privilege as an American to have served in the world’s greatest air force. As a Korean, I’ve had the privilege of being raised with the belief that one should focus on the big picture and persevere instead of being trapped in victimhood.

When my parents were born, their country South Korea had the lowest GDP per capita in the world following colonization and a fratricidal war. Today, their home is one of the most advanced democracies on the planet. Out of many aid recipients, South Korea is the only one so far to have turned itself into a major aid donor mainly because it had effectively implemented capitalism as well as the culture of self-responsibility. China achieved the biggest reduction of poverty in history with the similar rightist policies after its leftist policy had caused the worst famine in history only a decade earlier. My family had fought viciously against Imperial Japan for decades but put the past behind us once Japan turned into a liberal democracy.

A member of my family was killed by North Korean agents for internationally pressuring the regime, and I’ve had to talk with people who would justify all of the regime’s harrowing acts. I certainly didn’t agree with their logic or morality, but I wanted to understand what made them think that way. North Korea’s continuation of leftist policies of government control over all aspects of life had led to destitution and the worst human rights record on earth. Meanwhile, South Korea’s rightist policies of access to free markets and free minds had led to a successful transition to democracy. The Koreans who had shared similar physical, geographic, historical, and cultural roots for centuries found their living conditions in stark contrast within a couple of generations; and the only major difference was the choice of right versus leftist directions in public policy.

Many young people in the West who were lucky enough to have never experienced the consequences of socialism are itching to try it, while many in other countries who had suffered much from leftist policies are already seeing marked improvements after shaking them off. I am open to more social welfare policies to help underprivileged populations, as long as it is done in a sustainable way. Smarter, not bigger government is the answer.

I am not ashamed of defending the conservative values that had made America, South Korea, and other free societies great. The Economist magazine’s newest manifesto in its 175th anniversary issue better articulates my viewpoint on how “a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform” have led to unprecedented benefits, but the ruling liberals today “remain conspicuously aloof from the people they are supposed to be helping” (the term “ruling liberal” here refers to the classical conservative/neo-liberal leaders from all parties).

That ties back to my previous article on why the Republican Party has begun questioning its own long-held philosophy before Trump, and why the debate will continue after Trump’s term(s). Self-reflection and debate are the essence of conservatism. If anything, this is the best chance for those who have much stake in the liberal international order to defend it. I’m actually glad that the ones who had been critical of American primacy as mere imperialism (like many in the far-left) or charity (like many in the far-right) are finally waking up to the potentially chaotic consequences of America’s retreat.

I want to bring back the conservative ideals mentioned in the manifesto, which can only be backed by robust military alliances and global supply chains. But if I ignore the people who were left behind, then push-backs are expected no matter how impressive the numbers are on paper; that’s how probably some minority groups feel about social justice issues. If my apartment building gets a major upgrade but my own place remains squalid, then I’d see no benefit of it, and the furor would deserve understanding.

The manifesto points out that, “Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong. The true spirit of liberalism is not self-preserving, but radical and disruptive.” Many leaders who have come to speak at SIPA had also made similar points, and encouraged students to have empathy for those who think differently. I happily agreed to listen to and write a story on a politician whom I disagree with. Challenging one’s my own belief should be a regular educational practice in a free society.

In fact, Ocasio-Cortez repeated some of the points I had made about Trump in my last article; that he deserves recognition for relating to frustrations and delivering messages, albeit dangerous, that strikes chord. She even said the Democrats aren’t effective as the Republicans on messaging in this new age, and that is something her party needs to work on. Yet, nobody from SIPA has questioned her intelligence or morality after the comment, unlike when I had said it. And it wouldn’t surprise me if there is a blue wave sweeping Congress in November; it’s a common pattern in history.

I respect the passion of many SIPA students, but the reason we are all here is to inculcate critical thinking and leadership skills needed to solve daunting problems. There will be few opportunities after SIPA to freely challenge oneself in an inconsequential environment; that’s what that $58,000 annual tuition is for. If one doesn’t learn how to take a stand, understand the complexity of the situation, or handle disagreements, then they have to either choose a field other than public policy, or just grow up.

Just because the world is currently consumed by division and anger doesn’t mean we have to conform to it. If anything, what the world needs right now are cooperation and stability. I’d like to thank everyone who has shown great amount of interest and support for my last piece, and urged me to write a follow-up. As a small gesture of reconciliation, I will close with a quote by Robert F. Kennedy, who was a prominent Democrat.

“Come my friends...Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”