Canada's left could not ask for a more perfect opponent: a far-right, socially-regressive prime minister hellbent on outlawing abortion, overturning gay marriage, selling off the CBC, and privatizing health care.
There's only one problem. His name isn't Stephen Harper. He doesn't exist at all, in fact.
But don't tell the opposition.
It's a testament to the power of social media and the increasingly biased way most of us choose to consume our news that the Canadian party system is now largely polarized on the basis of a false dichotomy that exists only in the fevered imaginations of the country's most dogmatic left-wing ideologues. Jack Layton may have claimed that hope is better than fear, but vast quantities of Canadian progressives seem to be motivated by little else.
They scream passionate answers to questions no one is asking, and organize ferociously to quash proposals no one has offered. It's a particularly creepy style of democracy-by-fantasy, but it may well be the new normal.
The paranoid spectacle of what Kelly McParland has dubbed "Harper Derangement Syndrome" reached absurd heights last month, when, on the basis of a single technical argument from a lawyer no one had ever heard of (including the Prime Minister), a hugely successful viral campaign raised overnight "awareness" of the Conservatives' looming plot to revisit, no, overturn, no, ban same-sex marriage.
Though every reasonable legal analysis of the situation concluded that there was nothing to fear, and despite the fact that Harper's own government was so spooked by the rumour it actually took steps to strengthen the status of gay marriage in the aftermath, the damage was done. "Hands Off Gay Marriage," blared a Brian Topp press release.
Cruising the left-wing blogosphere, one finds no shortage of similarly hysterical campaigns to battle non-issues. You can sign a petition to "save the CBC" from a government that has pledged to "maintain or increase" its funding perhaps, or join the vast coalition of pro-choicers working tirelessly to prevent the re-criminalization of abortion under a prime minister who has refused to allow even a symbolic free vote on the matter.
Much as Canadians like to self-righteously assert that our politics are significantly more substantial and mature than those practiced down south, the Canadian left's persistent inability to bash Harper for anything but the most specious and invented charges is very much the ideological reverse of the fact-free drubbing President Obama routinely suffers at the hands of the GOP.
As liberal pundits like Paul Krugman have oft-bemoaned, the present modus operandi of the Republican Party is to attack Obama persistently and relentlessly "for doing things that the president hasn't done" -- such as cutting defence spending -- "and believing things he doesn't believe" -- such as that America is a great force of wickedness and oppression in the world. Fanatic in their desperation, the Canadian left seems to have reverse-engineered the worst excesses of the American movement they profess to most despise.
There's even a strain of Harper pseudo-birtherism. Despite originating from a crackpot conspiracy website, a rumour continues to thrive in some dark corners that since Harper's government was found to be in contempt of parliament, the Prime Minister himself was constitutionally ineligble to serve a third term, and now heads an illegal occupation government as a result. Despite being widely discredited, this phoniest of causes continues to pop up on Twitter and Facebook to this day, where it fits in nicely with the rest of the Harper-as-dictator narrative peddled by more mainstream voices.
Vile though it may be, this stuff works. Emotion has always been a stronger motivator than logic, and in a universe where RSS feeds and an increasingly partisan press affords us the luxury of surgically selecting only those voices and opinions we want to hear, it's easier than ever to engage with the news as a sort of ideological pep rally, rather than an honest learning experience.
We'll happily swallow any claptrap that passes our personal standard of truthiness and face little consequence for doing so -- declining voter turnouts have made politicians exceedingly cautious about calling us out on our own BS. Votes are votes, and there's little to be gained from second-guessing anyone's political convictions in an era where so few of us possess any.
As enjoyable as Harper-bashing chain letters and internet memes may be at the moment, Liberal and NDP supporters should be cautious of the long term consequences of the unprecedentedly paranoid, fact-free political culture they're helping to sow. They'll be back in charge soon enough, after all, and pooping puffins and questions of patriotism are nothing compared to the sorts of mad conspiracy theories and innuendo the right will be able to cobble together once dislodged from power.
Just ask Barack Obama.