[OUTLOOK]Writing down public opinion

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[OUTLOOK]Writing down public opinion

Politics in Korea today is influenced heavily by public opinion polls. With the upcoming legislative elections, polls are becoming even more important. As casting a ballot is in essence the same as replying to a public opinion poll, poll results are quite accurate in predicting election results. Indeed, elections are a kind of opinion poll in which the entire voting population participates.
In Korean politics, polls are much more that just reference material. They are magical numbers that wield terrible power. The alliance between candidates Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon in the last presidential election was the product of a public opinion survey. It was the crashing public confidence in President Roh, as shown in opinion polls, that incited the opposition parties to pursue his impeachment.
The stormy aftermath of the impeachment was also created by opinion polls. What would have happened if there hadn’t been any public opinion surveys? Probably the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party would be congratulating themselves on the success of the impeachment.
They would not have had internal strife or changed party leaders, much less pitched tents to move their head offices to show people they were against corruption. Our Open Party, which had made very little progress since its inauguration, would not have become a formidable “majority government party” that needs to be checked by the opposition even before the start of election campaigns.
In theory, public opinion is expressed through many different channels and reflected in policy-making of the political parties and the government. But, in Korea, public opinion polls distort politics with their powerful influence when the minute results are announced. Politics is not led by public opinion but swayed by the result of polling.
This is despite the fact that poll results do not always faithfully reflect public opinion. Public opinion is like a life form that evolves. A poll is like a snapshot that captures a certain aspect of this ever-changing mood at a certain moment. Polls can only show a limited view of what is a multi-dimensional matter.
The results of a public opinion polls differ greatly according to the order the questions are asked, the structure of the question, the prerequisites for the questions and whether it is being conducted online or face-to-face. These are fundamental limits of a poll, different from the margin of error in a survey.
A survey experiment was conducted in the United States in the 1970s. People were asked whether they thought Soviet journalists should be allowed to cover the news freely in Washington, D.C. More than 70 percent of the participants answered “no.” A different group of people were asked the same question, but with another question added in front: “Do you think American journalists should be allowed to cover news freely in Moscow?” More than 80 percent answered “yes” to the first question; when asked the question about Soviet journalists in Washington, 70 percent also opted for their professional freedom. Context is everything.
There is a certain substance in the living and changing public opinion that can only be captured from a macroscopic view. It cannot be perceived with only the numbers of a survey. It is the fundamental spirit of representative democracy that public opinion as substance should be expressed through the representative body. A legislature is the instrument to transcribe public opinion into a text. The law is public opinion written down.
In the end, the rule of law is rule by public opinion. The legislative procedure is writing down in precise words what people consider to be common sense, to be right, to be rational and to be obvious. Legislators are responsible for this job.
Choosing people who can properly translate public opinion into legislation ― that is what we should be doing in the legislative elections next week.

* The writer is a professor of communications at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Joo-han
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