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How Gangnam Became a Stronghold of Conservatism: Wealth, Local Identity, and Conservative Voting

Myungji Yang (University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa)

This paper studies why the middle- and upper-middle class citizens support a conservative party in South Korea. Focusing on Gangnam—the three most affluent and the representative of the middle- and upper-middle class neighborhoods, I show conservative political orientations shared among middle-class citizens. Gangnam residents, unlike its liberal and cosmopolitan Western counterparts, have strongly supported the conservative party since the mid-1990s. While voters in Seoul generally vote for more liberal and reformist candidates, this political trend does not fit in the Gangnam region. Analyzing feelings and narratives widely shared by ordinary Gangnam citizens, I argue that their conservative political positions are closely tied to their local identity. The particular meanings of places—where they are from and where they live—profoundly influence their economic interests and emotional conditions, which in turn lead to particular political positions. I describe Gangnam residents as anxious materialists. Profiting most from a series of real estate booms and skyrocketing housing prices, Gangnam residents try to maintain Gangnam as an aspirational space symbolized by wealth and cultured lifestyles. Feeling proud of living in a culturally and economically “superior” place, Gangnam residents share discontents about the liberal/reformist governments’ real estate market regulation and property tax raises. This paper demonstrates how political perceptions and collective sensibilities among ordinary citizens are shaped and reproduced in their daily life.

Myungji Yang is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa. Her broad research interests include political sociology, sociology of development, social inequality, social movements, and East Asia. Her research has appeared at Politics and Society, Mobilization: An International Inquiry, Urban Studies, Sociological Inquiry, among other venues. She is also the author of From Miracle to Mirage (2018, Cornell University Press). She got her PhD at Brown University (2012) and has served as a visiting fellow at the USC Korean Studies Institute (2015-16), MaxPo (2019-20), and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2020-21).

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