In a remarkable reversal of political directions, America has been transformed into a hothouse of liberal and—shhh—even socialist experimentation, while Canada seems a hotbed of reactionary conservatism. Yes, America is the new us, we’re the new America, and the Canadian left has to be wondering just where it all went wrong.
The eight years of the Bush presidency allowed progressive-minded Canadians to indulge in an orgy of moral superiority vis-à-vis the United States, but in three short months that country has almost completely changed course. Acting on the premise that it would be a shame to let a good crisis go to waste, Barack Obama has put his ship of state in a hard left turn, and his countrymen have dutifully gone along with it. Huge tracts of the economy have submitted to massive state intervention even as the President pushes full-steam ahead on school reform, a national health care program, and a new energy- and climate-change initiative.
On virtually all of the defining issues of America’s relentless culture war—drugs, stem cell research, gay rights—it is clear Obama is trying to push the U.S. away from the tightly ideological positions of the Republicans while adopting a looser and far more pragmatic approach. One of his first moves as President was to make more embryonic stem cell lines available for research, which sent scientists into raptures, and left the public shrugging in quiet approval. The U.S. has joined the UN’s Human Rights Council, reversing a decision by the Bush administration, and will back a UN resolution supporting the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. (Bush had refused to do so, making the U.S. the only Western country not to sign on.)
Weirdest of all, ratings for National Public Radio—an institution so liberal even liberals make fun of it—have skyrocketed this year, with listenership for its flagship news and current affairs programs growing by nine per cent over the last year.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, the CBC is laying off 800 employees after the Conservatives refused to float it a bridge loan during the recession. And why would they? The Tories are too busy chumming their home waters, introducing measures aimed at starting a feeding frenzy over non-existent threats such as polygamy, illegal immigration, violent crime, and Islamic fundamentalism.
To boot, we’ve gone and got ourselves our very own culture war. In all of the excitement surrounding the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, a reporter had the cheek to ask Science Minister Gary Goodyear if he believed in evolution. His bizarre reply (“I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate”) was followed by some predictable and worn-out back-and-forths over the place of religion in the public sphere.
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that The Economist celebrated Canada’s embrace of gay marriage, pot decriminalization, and anti-Iraq pacifism by putting a moose in sunglasses on the cover? Or recall Michael Adams’ book Fire and Ice, which argued that while Canadians were moving toward liberal values associated with idealism and personal self-fulfillment, Americans were moving away en masse from civic engagement and social and ecological concern. As Adams noted (with smug satisfaction), Americans were becoming reactionary, paranoid and isolated, more likely to see society as a war of all against all.
For a while there, it seemed that the obvious social and political differences between Canada and the U.S. underscored distinctive and immutable aspects of our respective national characters. So, what happened?
The lesson for the left here is that politics matters, and—more importantly—elections matter. That may seem obvious, but it is something that large segments of the left have been resisting for years. Ralph Nader based his entire campaign for president in 2000 on the premise that there was no essential difference between Democrats and Republicans, a preposterous conceit that cost Al Gore the election and gave the world the disaster that was the Bush administration. Noam Chomsky made the same point last fall, telling a CBC Radio audience it didn’t matter who won because Obama and John McCain were just leaders of two factions of “the business party.”
The Canadian left is far from immune to this sort of idiocy. Keep in mind Stephen Harper only got his shot at power in 2006 after Jack Layton pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s minority. It wasn’t enough for Layton that Martin was more than willing to be a lapdog to the NDP—he wanted Martin to fetch and play dead as well. If Martin’s government had lasted another couple of years, Harper might well have gone sulking back to Alberta, and the federal Conservatives would be a shell of a party led by a cream puff like Peter MacKay or Jean Charest. Instead, the Tories are in power while the Liberals are led by a man whose views on the economy, federalism, Iraq, and Afghanistan are virtually identical to Harper’s.
Obama’s success is that he has persuaded the harder edges of the American left that ideological grandstanding is a poor substitute for big-tent retail politics. And until it comes to the same conclusion, the Canadian left is going to have to get used to Canada’s status as moral inferiors in the new North America. But there’s also a lesson for the rest of the country: the moral high horse might be fun to ride, but it is always an uncertain and unpredictable beast.