The Godfather Part III is the weakest film in the series, but it is not wanting for great lines. One of my favourites is the admonition given by Michael Corleone that one should “never hate your enemies” because “it affects your judgment”.
This is one piece of advice that has a lot of salience for the present moment in New Zealand politics.
Those of us on the centre-Right have been appealing to the term “Key Derangement Syndrome” for some time now. For the uninitiated, this phrase describes angry and often vulgar displays of personal hatred for the prime minister. The phenomenon has come into sharp focus of late through spiteful reactions to flag referendum and burgeoning music career of the prime minister’s son.
There are very few people in politics I hate. No one in Labour. Never hated Clark.
I am not sure who appropriated the phrase for New Zealand use, but the concept is borrowed from American politics. “Bush Derangement Syndrome” was a neologism coined in 2003 by Charles Krauthammer, a political commentator and former psychiatrist. As described by Krauthammer the phrase referred to, “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush”.
Defenders of the Bush presidency seem to be thin on the ground today, but it cannot be forgotten that he was decisively re-elected in 2004 despite searing criticisms by significant political and cultural figures.
In fact, it is generally considered that the over the top condemnations of the man in 2004 actually assisted his being returned to office. The shrill and emotional attacks did not resonate with ordinary voters and this created a backlash against Bush’s harshest critics.
And so it is with Key in New Zealand.
KDS is helpful to Key because MPs on the left spend so much of their time with people suffering from KDS, they think the way to victory is denigrating the PM, rather than convincing NZers they can manage the economy well.
What it does do, however, is reinforce the existing hostility that partisans have towards John Key as a National Party prime minister. It misleads them into thinking that their disillusionment is widely held. When that misconception collides with reality (in an election, for example) disorientation and bewilderment is the natural human reaction.
Consider the various filters that political news goes through from the perspective of a partisan Left-winger.
In the first instance, reporters cover some story that opens the Government to some criticism. The overall validity or significance of the story may be open to question, but the reporter strives to be measured and balanced. There is no real derangement here.
Then the professional columnists, commentators and analysts chip in with their opinions on the news. By their very nature, these are more likely to be coloured by personal political preferences and bias. These views are often well articulated but commonly involve noticeable concentrations of sanctimony, sarcasm and smugness.
Then the story gets to the fringes. Bloggers and social media activists are not bound by the constraints of traditional opinion journalism. They what the commentators have written and dial it up to eleven. The sanctimony, sarcasm and smugness quotients fly right off the charts.
Sometimes things can go even further. Any semblance of reasoned critique go out the window and are replaced by an inchoate loathing. Examples include Kim Dotcom’s profanity laced chants prior to the last election and musicians writing songs about actually murdering the prime minister and objectifying his daughter.
Actually that song went way beyond objectifying.
If you’re a Left-leaning politician, journalist or news consumer who has been exposed to all that, your instinct is probably to take it as validation of your own view that the Government is deeply controversial.
Then a public poll comes out that shows National remaining at historic highs. How do you react? Do you re-evaluate your core assumptions or do you double down on your antipathy? Reason counsels the former but human nature points towards the latter.
This benefits John Key. Voters who do not hold strong views either way (which is most of them) are easily turned off by self-righteous and strident denunciation. A less hypercritical approach to opposition might lack passion, but it would probably be more effective.
Long may KDS continue!