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[Robert J. Fouser] Politics in age of hysteria

On my way to Seoul in late August, I was looking forward to a break from the Trump-induced hysteria of American politics. My hopes were dashed, however, as the hysteria over Cho Kuk, President Moon Jae-in’s nominee for minister of justice, spread. News about Cho and his family captivated the nation for weeks. In the end, the president decided to approve Cho’s nomination, Monday.

The hysteria over Cho says as much about Korea as the hysteria over Donald Trump in the US. In both cases, political opposition is fixated on details in an attempt to build a case to destroy the other side. Because Cho is close to President Moon, the fight to take him down is really about inflicting damage on the president.

Politically, the Liberty Korea Party and the Democratic Party in the US occupy different places on the political spectrum. The Liberty Korea Party traces its roots to the conservative military dictatorships that ran Korea from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is pro-business, pro-American and anti-North Korean. Since democratization in 1987, it has supplied four presidents, ruling the country for a total of 19 years.

The Democratic Party has long represented the center-left of US politics. With strong support from labor, African Americans and the South, it controlled the US Congress and most state governments from the 1930s to the 1990s. The South began to move away from the Democrats in the 1960s, and labor began to move away in the 1980s. At the same time, professional white-collar voters began moving toward the Democrats with the pace increasing in the 21st century.

The common thread between the Liberty Korea Party and US Democrats is not their political ideology but their sense of entitlement. The Liberty Korea Party believes that it is the natural “ruling party” and views President Moon and his supporters as a dangerous challenge to its hegemony. The Democrats in the US, meanwhile, believe they should rule because they are intellectually superior to Trump and the Republicans.

Hysteria among political zealots is common, but the current wave of hysteria gets most of its energy from an increasingly politicized media. Instead of reporting the news objectively, the media has become more interested in supporting the political group that the majority of its readers support. The decline of objectivity also means that the media devotes an excessive amount of space to stories that help its favored political group.

In Korea’s case, the politically conservative mainstream media has taken the lead in searching for negative stories on Cho. In the US, the center-left mainstream media has done the same in reporting on President Trump. The stream of controversy flowing from Trump’s mouth only makes their job easier.

Media hysteria naturally produces a response from those targeted. Feeling under attack, supporters of President Moon have stuck with Cho, arguing he is the victim of a witch hunt. In the process, they have appeared as political zealots just like Cho’s accusers. Younger generations with weaker political loyalties have become tired of both sides and are more alienated from politics than ever.

In the US, Trump has responded to attacks by “hitting back” on Twitter. His core supporters have stuck with him because they see him as fighting against a privileged elite. As in Korea, a broad swath of society has become tired of the hysteria on both sides.

A recent poll in Korea showed that 45 percent of those polled supported Cho’s nomination, whereas 52 percent opposed it. In the US, the average of polls shows approval for President Trump at 43 percent and disapproval at 54 percent. This suggest that anti-Cho and anti-Trump hysteria has helped to push negative views to over 50 percent, but that it has also caused supporters of Moon and Trump to rally around their leader.

So, what happens next? Though President Moon’s supporters have rallied around Cho, his privileged background and elite status make him hard to like. Many young people, in particular, believe that his elite status has brought him and his family unearned advantages and that he is a symbol of what is wrong with South Korean society. At the same time, they view the conservative mainstream media as a co-conspirator in elite protection.

Young people are the future, something politicians easily forget. Young people in Korea and the US are tired of the hysteria and tired of self-serving politicians. They want solutions to big questions, such as economic opportunity and climate change, and they are prepared to hold politicians and the media accountable.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.