Looking at political systems in other developed countries, in which “on the right, conservative parties that respect the liberty of the strong and economic efficiency, and on the left, social democratic or liberal parties that respect equality that includes the weak and fair distribution struggle for power,” Professor Yamaguchi identified how the LDP has historically prevented the emergence of a Western left-right divide — as a “Jekyll and Hyde” party, the LDP was both in favor of a harsh capitalism and supportive of redistribution. The difference today, however, is that once Mr. Koizumi was done with the LDP, the party “could not decide on a clear line.”
In steps Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ: “Since the DPJ took the social democratic line, victory in the House of Councillors election was brought about.”
Accordingly, Professor Yamaguchi argues that in the political system into being, the LDP, forced to choose between its rural voters and its corporate backers, will choose the latter, giving the DPJ an opportunity to take the latter by prioritizing lifestyle issues. Except by his reckoning, lifestyle issues should not mean a shift of emphasis to the priorities of consumers, but instead an emphasis on “fair trade,” which acknowledges that high prices and taxes ensure agriculture, community, and employment. He objects to “special interests,” but still feels the need for strong social services along “cradle-to-grave” lines.
I think this is a dead end for the DPJ, because the left-right model to which Professor Yamaguchi appeals is already dated. In Europe especially — a better source of comparisons with Japan than the US — political competition is more about valence issues (questions of management and competence) than position issues, at least as far as economic policy is concerned. The distance between parties of the left and right in Germany, France, and Britain is narrower than the party names and electoral rhetoric would suggest. The pattern of party change also points to the significance of valence issues. In Britain, nearly two decades of conservative rule gave way to New Labour; tired, enfeebled conservatives handed power to Tony Blair who swept to power thanks to a new approach to politics, not a set of policies designed to undo Tory policies. Britain could be in store for a similar non-transition transition the next time a general election rolls around, thanks to the Conservative leader David Cameron. Meanwhile, both the Schroeder government and its grand coalition successor under Chancellor Angela Merkel have struggled to reform the German welfare system and labor market. One can find other examples from across Europe of how the line dividing left from right has blurred.
I don’t think Japan is all that great an outlier on this score. Japan needs a new economic model that includes greater labor market flexibility, encourages more individual initiative, and integrates Japan’s economy with the global economy more comprehensively, even as Japan builds a welfare state for the twenty-first century to manage the country’s aging population and a safety net that can somehow encourage more risk taking. Despite Professor Yamaguchi’s image of the LDP as a party trending in the direction of an unambiguous embrace of “neo-liberalism,” considerable doubts remain, and the LDP could just easily pursue the course Professor Yamaguchi recommends for the DPJ. Consider that both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Aso gave no more than “two cheers for neo-liberalism” in September, and that Mr. Aso — who distanced himself considerably from structural reform — came closer to winning than most want to acknowledge (once one looks at the vote totals in the prefectural races and the quirky system of distributing votes). As Professor Yamaguchi himself acknowledges, the LDP has social-democratic roots in the form of the Tanaka-Takeshita 1970 system. Mr. Ozawa may be able to claim that he and the DPJ are the rightful heirs to that social democracy, but that does not exclude the possibility that the LDP might rediscover these roots.
A better approach for the DPJ, I think, is to emphasize valence-issues. The LDP has provided the DPJ with case after case illustrating the LDP’s managerial incompetence and its complicity in bureaucratic malfeasance and maladministration. Mr. Masuzoe obviously understands how significant a problem this is for the LDP, not to mention the Japanese people. The discussion should not just be about the new Japanese economic model — the new relationship between public and private, as discussed in this article in Genron NPO — but about which party is best capable of administering the new system. The LDP is perfectly capable of engaging in “me-tooism” in a discussion about the economic model; its record on administrative competence is indefensible.
As I’ve cautioned before, the DPJ shouldn’t just focus on exposing all the corruption that has occurred under LDP governments, but it should instead propose a system characterized by transparency and accountability that will ensure not that future governments are free of corruption — an impossible goal — but that wrongdoing is uncovered, the perpetrators punished, and rules changed as necessary.