The first time I heard about this new political phenomenon, it was directed at former U.S. president George W. Bush.
The gist of it was Bush’s opponents were so furious at him that they had become unhinged in their criticism. Bush wasn’t just a bad president: he probably stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, he may have even been warned by the Saudis about September 11, his decision to attack Iraq may have been partially motivated by the influence of the American logging industry – even though much of Iraq is desert – and so forth.
Bush was such a bad president, and his views were so illegitimate, normal criticism wouldn’t do. A much more hyper critical, over-the-top response was required. The phenomenon became known as “Bush Derangement Syndrome.”
As with many American phenomena, if you wait long enough, it’ll come north, and this one now apparently has.
In Canada, my liberal friends have been suffering for several years from “Harper Derangement Syndrome.” They hate the man so much personally, and despise his agenda so viscerally that they’re incapable of discussing his record rationally.
This is a problem for two reasons. First, Harper’s gone. Almost seven in 10 Canadians voted against him in the last election. It’s time to get over the fact that whatever damage you may think he’s caused to the country, there are Liberal majority governments now in place in Ottawa, Toronto, and Quebec City to fix it.
Second, now that Harper has left politics, we need to begin rationally discussing his legacy and contribution to public life. We can’t do that if Harper Derangement Syndrome carries the day.
Yesterday, there was more grist for the Harper-haters’ mill. It emerged that before leaving the Prime Minister’s Office, Harper extended the tenures of 49 partisan Conservative appointees, ensuring those appointees would be there to haunt Justin Trudeau’s new government, or force the PM to expend considerable resources to fire them.
With greater perspective, one should note that this tactic pales in comparison to what previous Liberal administrations did. They didn’t simply extend the terms of political appointees. Prime Minister John Turner famously made an orgy of appointments upon taking over the Liberal party in 1984, doing the bidding of the father of the current prime minister.
Even more, the Liberals frequently appointed their partisan political operatives to the civil service, to ensure their future sinecures were secure and that they could stymie whatever Conservative outrages might come down the pipe once the Liberals lost power. A former senior staffer in a past federal Liberal government once privately acknowledged that what his and other governments did back in the day in terms of stacking the civil service was far worse than anything Harper is accused of now.
But it’s not only Canada’s 22nd prime minister who’s in the crosshairs of this derangement syndrome. Having Ontario’s 24th premier, Dalton McGuinty, on The Agenda last night reminded me that this is not a phenomenon limited to the left.
Conservatives have been all over social media, manifesting a similar “McGuinty Derangement Syndrome” over the former premier’s nine years and 111 days in office. Whether you approve or disapprove of McGuinty’s record, objective historians will note that he was the first Liberal leader in nearly 130 years to win three straight elections. His government also brought in the harmonized sales tax, full day kindergarten, and the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt. For most of his tenure, he enjoyed excellent relations with teachers and their unions because he paid them well and hired 13,000 more of them, ensuring labour peace and improved learning conditions for students. And he took the historic step of shutting down all of the province’s coal-fired electricity generating stations. Even if you don’t agree with them, these are substantive achievements that deserve to be debated rationally.
Of course, McGuinty had his failures as well. Every leader does. While siting 18 out of 20 electricity-generating gas plants successfully, the two that weren’t – in Mississauga and Oakville – became political and economic debacles. Almost no progress was made trying to put patients’ records into some kind of digital eHealth system, despite billions in expenditures. The air ambulance system known as ORNGE turned into a fiasco, both financially and in terms of patient care. And when the temperature rose at Queen’s Park because of the opposition inquiries into these matters, McGuinty simply prorogued the legislature, essentially shutting everything down.
This is all part of the McGuinty record, and he discusses it in his just-published memoir, Making a Difference.
However, in years past before the advent of social media, once a premier left office, there was usually a good-faith effort by society to consider his record carefully. Instead, after McGuinty’s appearance last night, my Twitter feed was treated to many of the following kinds of comments:
“I’ve never hated a politician more then him total scumbag still never apologies [sic]” --@BoschimanR
“he is clearly a crook, why is he not in jail???” --@RobertMcclung3
Yes, there are plenty of anonymous attacks on Twitter, but what surprises me is how many anti-McGuinty comments came from people who presumably used their real names.
Some obvious questions flow out of this. Is this derangement syndrome actually new or has it simply come out from under a rock thanks to the fact that everyone now has a megaphone because of social media? I’d like to think that these kinds of comments wouldn’t have happened in the post-John Robarts or post-Bill Davis days, but maybe they would have, had the technology existed back then.
More importantly, does anything need to be done about this derangement syndrome? Or is this a harmless way for people to pop off about things that trouble them? Do we, as a society, value civil discourse? Or are unhinged, slanderous comments about politicians of the left and the right now the new normal?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. I’m hoping you’ll weigh in and tell me what you think. I will admit I find these comments troubling, whether they’re against Stephen Harper or Dalton McGuinty. I work for TVO because I value civil discourse. But maybe that’s just an old-fashioned notion nowadays. As McGuinty said at his book launch last night at Victoria College in downtown Toronto, “You need to steel yourself for battle when you go into politics. You need perseverance for this enterprise.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Image credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/Thinkstock
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