By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-28-08
Here’s a fantasy for Americans exhausted by this endless presidential campaign. Imagine a campaign limited to six weeks. Imagine a campaign that cannot bombard voters with advertisements, because each television station makes available 390 minutes for political commercials which a broadcasting authority allots based on the various parties’ relative strengths. Imagine a campaign with restrictions on fundraising and campaign spending – that candidates actually follow. Imagine a campaign run by already designated and experienced party leaders, so the messy process of choosing a standard bearer does not run right into the messier process of choosing a leader. Well, Canadians just finished such a campaign – yet, they too were miserable.
News reports from up north said that Canadians suffered from a severe case of “election envy.” Many Canadians wished their candidates were more colorful, their campaigns were more exciting. It seems that many Canadians wished their elections were, dare we say it, more American.
Yes, even though most Americans did not notice, Canada just finished its own national elections. The incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, riding high in the polls, announced the elections on September 7, eight months and fours days after the Iowa caucus and nearly sixteen months after Democrats hosted 2008’s first primary candidates’ debate. Canadians voted on October 14 three weeks before Americans finally voted. Harper was returned to office, although the stock market implosion deprived him of the majority in parliament he sought.
One exceptional phenomenon in the race was that more Canadians than usual admitted their feelings of inadequacy vis a vis the Americans, at least electorally speaking. Canadians – like so many Americans – have been swept up by the 2008 campaigning drama, scrutinizing the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton soap opera, wondering how different John McCain might be from George W. Bush, alternately fascinated and appalled by the political rookie of the year, Sarah Palin. Besotted by European-style pretensions to cosmopolitanism, Canadians like to pretend they are not nationalistic. They believe that unlike their American neighbors, they have evolved, beyond such primitive feelings. Yet conversations about the United States inevitably bring out Canadians’ inner chauvinist. Canadians assert their patriotism by caricaturing America as a land of gun-toting, health-care-deprived red state-rednecks. Thus, this admission of election envy was surprising and significant.
The green-eyed view of the land of the red, white, and blue makes sense when you compare the leading candidates in both races. Barack Obama’s eloquent, historic quest to become America’s first black president induces goosebumps, while John McCain’s trajectory from five and half years suffering in the “Hanoi Hilton” to the cusp of living in the White House is cinematic. On the Canadian side, the incumbent prime minister who called the election, Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, is a steadfast Canadian bloke, as solid as an oak, as charismatic as the country he leads. The first great campaign controversy he triggered stemmed from donning a baby blue sweater for a campaign photo op at a suburban home. Critics felt it was phony from such a jacket-and-tie kind of guy. And he was the exciting candidate running. Harper’s main rival, Stephane Dion, heading the Liberal Party, is a colorless academic – at the risk of being redundant – whose mediocre English speaking skills only provide a partial excuse for his lack of campaigning talent. A fierce defender of Canada’s federal union, he is even less popular in his French-speaking home province, Quebec, where they can understand what he says, than he is in what locals call ROC, the rest of Canada.
Still, despite the Canadian candidates’ lack of flash, and despite campaign rules that American progressives fantasize would turn our pols into Solons and Solomons, Canadians endured a nasty battle. This was the third election in four years – and the current Conservative government was and remains a minority government. As Americans know too well, divided polities and tight races cause intense political combat, no matter how noble the candidates’ intentions. Moreover, operating in a parliamentary system, Canadian prime ministers lack the awe-inspiring majesty and physical insulation the American president enjoys. For all their reputed niceness, Canadians have a vigorous tradition of questioning, even heckling, the prime minister in Parliament. And the Canadian televised debates, which are much less choreographed with far less journalistic interference than American debates, degenerated into shouting matches with charges of “liar” aired.
Americans and Canadians share a common embarrassment in that both countries have among the Western world’s lowest voter turnout rates, hovering around sixty percent. For Americans, that rate represents a recent surge; for Canadians, a disturbing drop. And yet, the United States and Canada are two of the world’s safest, richest, and freest democracies. Just as George W. Bush learned in Iraq and in Gaza that it takes more than a vote to make democracy succeed, North America’s frustrating, often ferocious, and frequently alienating politics shows that it takes more than complaints about voting and campaigning to deem a democracy a failure. Maybe, just maybe, we love to complain about the intensity of electoral battles – but love the fights even more.