Holiday delusionsThe favorite holiday word for politicians is public opinion or “sentiment.” They like to expound on the public sentiment that prevails around Chuseok or the Lunar New Year, the country’s two major holiday celebrations. Last week’s Chuseok holiday was no different. The main opposition Democratic Party held a meeting to review the so-called public sentiment during the Chuseok holiday. Lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party also met to discuss what they perceived as the prevalent public opinion and sentiment on political issues and topics during family gatherings around Chuseok. Public opinion takes on a special meaning when placed in the context of a national holiday. That may be why politicians suddenly take an interest in listening to the public when national holidays roll around.
I have to wonder why our politicians value holiday opinions so dearly. The media in advanced countries aren’t known for taking polls on public opinion during holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. There are no such terms as Thanksgiving public opinion or Christmas public opinion in the United States. Japan has a similar holiday calendar as Korea’s, and it doesn’t take any particular interest in tapping public opinion around holidays.
Why are we so politically minded to passionately debate political issues when families and relatives share a holiday meal? How many households do we know hold heated political debates when families meet for the first time in many months? If there is actually such a thing as holiday opinion, there would have been many books and studies by political scientists and theorists. Search the phrases “Chuseok sentiment” or “New Year’s sentiment” at the electronic archives in the National Assembly’s digital library and you will find only a few magazine articles. When you type in “public opinion,” you will get more than a thousand references. But there is hardly any study or thesis on what politicians refer to as public sentiment. All you’ll find is hundreds of dissections of the ancient court book “Mokminsimseo” (The Mind of Governing People).
Then what exactly is holiday sentiment? To politicians, it is some kind of general view gleaned from family gatherings and meals that take place during holiday breaks. They believe an aggregate view somehow migrates from house to house, building into some kind of tangible public consensus.
Politicians are naive if they truly believe this to be true, and arrogant, too. Polling experts cannot find any significant difference in public opinion before and after holidays. There was little change in polls taken by the JoongAng Ilbo before and after the Chuseok holiday in the years presidential elections were held. The opposition claims that a fall in approval ratings of President Park Geun-hye reflects the general public’s view during this year’s Chuseok holiday. The president’s approval ratings took a hit thanks to a chain of negative events, it’s true. But it has little to do with any holiday.
There were days when gauging public sentiment during holiday seasons was important. City residents shared and spread hot political gossip when they visited hometowns in rural areas. They returned to the city with a rural view. Holidays could shape grass-roots political views in those days. But in an Internet-connected world, there is no difference between how urban and rural communities get their political news and gossips. City dwellers hardly have news that seniors in their hometowns don’t already know.
Chuseok and the Lunar New Year are family holidays, not political campaigns. It is time-worn tradition to speak of winning public sentiment during the holidays. Politicians’ visits to their constituencies are hardly credible. All they do is tour offices of their families, alumni or support organizations and social welfare centers they sponsor. What they hear is always pleasant to their ears. They return with narrow, self-indulgent, parochial and personalized views. They turn deaf ears to opposing views.
That is why lawmakers can return from the same area with totally opposing views. They package words they want to hear and sell them as so-called public sentiment. Public opinion can change constantly all year long. Holidays are just a part of the calendar. Politicians are out of touch with their constituencies if they believe what they hear from their hometowns is anything new.
But the ruling and opposition parties say they prize the public’s Chuseok sentiment. They use what they claim as public sentiment to promote their own views. This will be repeated during the New Year holiday. They should stop such buffoonery. They are making fools out of themselves as well as ridiculing the people with word games and delusions.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nahm Yoon-ho