Poll dancers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am


What is it about politicians that makes us love to loathe them? With Donald Trump, it's a no-brainer. It's not his double comb-over, though hairstyles have been known to make or break political careers, and it's more than just uninhibited obnoxiousness that makes him a nuisance. So it's unbelievable that he could have had enough influence with the American people to force President Barack Obama to produce his 'long form' birth certificate to prove his nationality. Indeed, until just last week, Trump was actually leading the polls for the Republican nomination for presidential candidacy.

Don't be tempted to brush this off as just another Alexis de Tocqueville-vouched 'American exceptionalism', because Trump isn't an anomaly from a distant shore. We have legislators who claim to throw things at people to 'uphold justice'.

Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was someone we seemed to love to loathe. But, given the eye-watering price paid at a government land auction just last week for a plot on Stubbs Road - HK$24,829 per square foot - many who loathed him now secretly find his vision for affordable housing honourable.

As someone who in 2003 heard from her home half a million protesters calling for her resignation - but is now a popularly elected legislator at the helm of her political party - Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is Hong Kong's quintessential comeback girl. But the same University of Hong Kong poll that has consistently placed Ip among the most popular politicians showed a slump in the rating for unionist Lee Cheuk-yan last week, and cited the implementation of the minimum wage as a possible cause.

So it appears that the line between love and hate is thin, even for our feelings towards politicians. But how our love and hate affect political discourse is perhaps more interesting. At its best, our apparent tendencies for fickle loyalties keep politicians on their toes. However, we also expect politicians to lead and make judgment calls, and not merely follow our likes and dislikes, which are often just whims or biases.

In this sense, we are inadvertently breeding a class of politicians we loathe even more. We release them from a moral obligation to do the right thing by playing to the whims of the masses. We can be sure that our unruly legislators feel absolutely exonerated by their perceived mandate to be unruly.

A recent study published in the journal Political Psychology confirmed that it is indeed easier to hate politicians than to love them and showed why negative campaigning and political mudslinging are such effective tools. It's more cost-effective to play off people's biases and negatively frame opponents than to actually stand and work for something.

This is one reason for our impoverished public discourse, in which real issues have the lifespan of ever-shortening news cycles. We are forced to be preoccupied with the sensational and the trivial. Unless we are conscious of the harm of negative framing - some of which is a political ploy - and our own biases, we will continue to loathe our politicians and find that, even when we have full democracy, our politics is lacking.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA. alice@thepros.com.hk