Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Fever Swamps of Harper-Hate

It's a hot day in July. A politician is at a barbecue in his hometown. He gives a little speech.

"What a wonderful day with wonderful people! I'm so glad to be here! What a great town this is! It's the greatest town in the greatest country in the world!"

"Woo!" the crowd shouts. "Woo!"

Bored, yet? I'm falling asleep writing this. Nothing is more stultifying than a politician mouthing platitudes.

And yet, when Stephen Harper, member of Parliament for Calgary Southwest, gave essentially that same utterly banal little speech at the Calgary Stampede, he was widely criticized, and not for wearing a cowboy hat and one of those big silver belt buckles that men of a certain age and girth never should.

No, he was criticized for saying Calgary is "the greatest city in the greatest country in the world."

To be sure, some of the "criticism" was the product of bored reporters calling up public figures around the country and asking them if they would please be offended, or pretend to be. "Sometimes politicians get cities mixed up, saying 'Calgary' instead of 'Vancouver', " said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who will be performing at Yuk Yuk's all this week, don't forget to tip the waiter.

But then there was Thomas "Tom" Mulcair grumping that "'I'm better than the rest of you' is not the best way to get results." And that peevishness was far from unique. It was all over social media. When I tweeted that Harper's comment was the political equivalent of "nobody rocks like Springfield!" and should be taken just as seriously, I was pelted with electronic tomatoes.

This reveals the prime minister's divisiveness, people said. His arrogance. His insensitivity. Why, it's yet more evidence that Stephen Harper is the worst prime minister. Ever. The word "fascist" may even have slipped in there somewhere. It usually does.

Now, as regular readers of this space will know, your correspondent has made pointed criticisms of the prime minister from time to time as circumstances warrant. Some would go further and describe those criticisms as pungent. Others vituperative. In any event, I believe I have established that I am not Stephen Harper's biggest fan, except perhaps in the KathyBateswithasledgehammer sense.

But still I am amazed at how many people despise Stephen Harper so much that they would endorse a mass songbird slaugh-ter if the prime minister were photographed smiling at a chickadee.

Consider the War of 1812 commemorations, which the government has enthusiastically supported. There are many reasonable grounds for criticism. That we shouldn't spend millions at a time of cutbacks. That they turn a complex reality into a cartoon. That the cartoon amounts to political propaganda. All legitimate points of discussion.

But in the anti-Conservative fever swamps, there's no discussion. There is rage. These commemorations are a travesty! The War of 1812 has absolutely nothing to do with Canada! Stephen Harper is trying to change our history!

Yes, really. It's actually a common theme. "The War of 1812 is not a Canadian war," wrote one blogger. "Indeed it occurred generations before Canada even existed."

That makes sense, of a very narrow, pedantic sort. And it might not be evidence of derangement if it were applied consistently.

But it's not. Remember the 500th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland? It was in 1997. The feds spent a million dollars promoting it, Newfoundland considerably more. The Royal Canadian Mint struck a commemorative dime. And no one was enraged that the government marked an anniversary that occurred 370 years before Confederation.

The other day on Twitter, I actually found myself defending the suggestion that the history of the War of 1812 is Canadian history. It was surreal. I would have summoned the ghost of Pierre Berton if I'd had a ouija board. It was that weird.

Of course, there have always been people driven to distraction by the guy in power. And I am well aware of the effects of hindsight bias. But I can't help feeling that this sort of mania has become more widespread in recent years. I have no quantification to support that belief. I don't even know how it could be quantified. But it sure feels true.

Naturally, I blame Stephen Harper.

No, really. He politicizes everything. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which any reasonable person would say is a big deal, the government issued a terse press release.

After all, if the prime minister had given a speech he would have had to say something nice about Pierre Trudeau, which was unacceptable to this most partisan of politicians.

When the prime minister politicizes everything, everything is politicized. Even the War of 1812 becomes something to get furious about. The same thing is hap-pening with the monarchy. It has always been above partisan politics. That's its raison d'ĂȘtre. But Harper has so plainly used the promotion of the monarchy for partisan ends that he has politicized it and made it yet another reason to get all red-faced and shouty. (When Stephen Harper goes to his great reward, he's going to get such a tongue-lashing from Eugene Forsey.)

Then there's Stephen Harper's modus operandi. Attack. Hard. Never stop. Do I have to elaborate? At this point I don't think even Conservatives would deny that Stephen Harper does not abide by Marquess of Queensberry rules.

But I suspect there's something else at work. Something for which Stephen Harper is not responsible.

It's the rise of social media. When like-minded people discuss what they believe in common, their beliefs tend to coalesce, as one would expect. But they tend not to coalesce around the average of the group, as one would expect. They coalesce around a more extreme point. Psychologists call this "group polarization." Very simply, connecting like-minded people is a great way to radicalize their views.

And what does social media do? It connects like-minded people. On a massive scale.

This suggests that at least some of the crazy over-reactions to Stephen Harper are the product of a broader phenomenon that will outlive the prime minister.

The fever swamps will get more feverish. And spread. And politics will get even more irrational.