Monday, June 8, 2009

Collective Bipolar Disorder

I got back late last night from a trip to the US, which is always interesting. It helped to put the don't-leave-home love campaign into context. As the late Erich Honecker knew all too well, it's never a good idea to allow too much exposure to other polities.

Reading and talking about politics outside NL forces any sentient being to confront two basic, undeniable facts: Danny Williams is odd; and the fact that he continues to be popular is even odder.

I am the last person to put much faith in the CRAPolls, but it would be silly to deny the fact that most people at least passively support the Williams regime:

On the eve of the NS election, it's worth reflecting on some fundamental differences between NS and NL politics. There is plenty of venality and pettiness in NS politics, but there is also a marked absence of grandiosity. The parties are doing what most parties do in most western democracies: they are using a variety of rhetorical tools to convince voters that they are best equipped to lead the province. To do this, they are doing everything from slinging mud, to pandering to voters' fears, and to offering some constructive policies: in other words, it's a mixture of high- and low-brow politics. Whatever it may be, it's about choices and options in the real world of political calculus: no one is seriously promising (and no one is seriously expecting) that the election of one party will somehow magically cure NS of its problems and transport Nova Scotians to a promised land. No one is saying that NS is the centre of the universe, that Nova Scotians are the most optimistic people in the western world, or that health bureaucrats should be shot. The rhetoric may be petty, silly, or naive; but it is most clearly not megalomaniacal.

Which brings me back to grandiosity. As I commented in an earlier post, there are some interesting similarities between Williams and Nicolas Sarkozy, who shares Williams' mania and vanity:

But there is an important difference between the political experiences of Williams and Sarkozy. Unlike Williams, Sarkozy has faced severe, sustained public criticism from not only rival parties, but also the press, the universities, and the cultural elites. This criticism has focused as much on Sarkozy's style of government as his actual policies, and one critic has described France under Mr Sarkozy as an “egocracy."

Not surprisingly, the Economist defends Sarkozy's policies, but it also points out that the strong reaction against Sarkozy is undermined by the fact that voters lack a clear alternative. In other words, it's not so much a question of Sarkozy's strength as the opposition parties' weaknesses -- a point of obvious comparison with NL.

Despite the similaries, there is a clear difference between anti-Sarkozysm and anti-Dannyism. In NL, the only steady source of relentless criticism of Williams has come from political blogs. Columnists, reporters, editorialists, and even some call-in hosts have offered sharp criticism on specific topics; but they have not provided a sustained rejection of Dannyism. NL has no equivalent to Ray Guy's critique of late Smallwoodism.

Equally important, whereas anti-Dannyism has failed to sway the public, anti-Sarkozysm has made itself felt where it counts: poll numbers. According to the Economist, "Two years into Mr Sarkozy’s term in office, intense and obsessive dislike of the president—anti-sarkozysme—is fast becoming the defining feature of French opposition politics. This goes beyond the president’s poor popularity rating, which fell another four points to 32% in May, according to TNS Sofres. In the election for the European Parliament, due on June 7th, the subject is not so much the future of Europe as Mr Sarkozy himself." It is important to keep in mind that Sarkozy's low poll numbers come at a time when the opposition parties are in disarray, so the excuse in NL that it's all the Liberals' fault doesn't wash.

Two factors help to explain why Sarkozy has much lower poll numbers than Williams. First, the public critique of Williams remains episodic and often fragmentary. The province's cultural establishment (which in NL usually means the self-appointed Arts Community, along with MUN) has failed to offer a congent public critique of Dannyism. While writers never hesitate to lay the boots to dead politicians, they are remarkably reluctant to criticize living ones. And while professors howled over the failed presidential search (can we please get over the martyrdom of Saint Eddy?), their political engagement has been remarkably limited. Fueled by a smug mixture of radical chic and cynicism, the intellectual elite cannot be bothered to get its hands dirty, leaving the blogosphere to semi-professional consultants, current and former Liberals, and anonymous outsiders like me. For every editorial that the Telegram gets right (and there are plenty of them) and for every columnist and reporter who nails a story (and, if anything, political reporting has been getting better over the past year), there are also many silences when Williams gets a pass. The problem with balanced reporting is that it assumes a balanced polity. When a government descends into a form of political mania, a balanced approach no longer works.

Second, we have to face the fact that Dannyism is relatively popular. However much I would like the public to recoil from the spectacle, the thuggery, the vulgarity, and the manipulation, it doesn't. It would be comforting to believe a conspiracy theory that explains how Williams has managed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. It would be comforting to believe that the vast majority of Newfoundlanders reject the propaganda and the bombast. It would be comforting to believe that Newfoundlanders see through the miasma of unrealistic expectations, witch-hunts, and political recklessness.

But such comfort would be a lie. The truth is at once much more disturbing and more banal. As I noted in an earlier post, it is important to keep in mind Occam's Razor, which is the principle that the simplest, most straightforward explanation of a particular phenomenon is usually the right explanation:

If Williams has consistently high polls numbers, then the simplest explanation is that he is relatively popular. Most Newfoundlanders are, at the very least, comfortable with the style and content of his leadership. While much of this support constitutes little more than tacit consent, it is still, as John Locke argued, a form of consent.

How do we explain this fact? I think we need to return again to grandiosity, which is more than political style. Grandiosity is a symptom of mania in bipolar disorder. The fact that it has become such an accepted part of NL's political culture is evidence of a collective bipolar disorder in which the lines between fantasy and reality, between what's inappropriate and what's appropriate, have become severely blurred.

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