Explaining the Democrats' strange hold on Canadians - Macleans.ca

Explaining the Democrats’ strange hold on Canadians

Scott Gilmore on why Canadians give U.S. Democrats like Obama and Clinton a unique type of devotion, unseen in church, concert halls or even hockey arenas

President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stand for the playing of national anthems during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

If you’ve never watched a leader of the American Democratic Party speak to a Canadian audience, you should add it to your bucket list. I know that sounds strange, but there is really nothing like it—not because of what happens on stage, but because of what happens in the audience.

I was in Toronto today as a guest of the think tank Canada 2020, to attend their luncheon featuring former U.S. president Barack Obama. It was not an intimate affair. There were ministers federal and provincial, a premier, a smattering of lieutenant governors, and about 3,000 others who had paid for the pleasure of witnessing an ex-politician speak.

I am struggling to describe the atmosphere and tone of the event, because as I said, there is really nothing comparable. The short introductory speeches were giddy, the crowd was eager and responsive, even the worst jokes got belly laughs. A video of the president’s “most iconic moments” was then played, to cheers. When they got to the clip of Obama singing Amazing Grace, I looked around to see more than one person at my table crying.

When the president strode on to the stage, he was greeted with a special type of applause, more of a fervent offering than adoring clapping. It was not a partisan roar, but something more earnest and personal. It was not religious, but it was not far off. They wanted Obama to feel their admiration. I’ve only ever seen the same thing when other Democrats have come to Canada, like Al Gore, or the Clintons.

And, when the president was speaking, I turned around to see 3,000 rapt faces. No one murmured. No one checked their phones. There was no fidgeting. Everyone watched in engrossed silence. During one of his characteristic pauses, I could hear, far in the back of the convention centre, a busboy drop an empty pop can.

READ: Missing Barack Obama, and his long, hard march toward change

Unless you’ve witnessed this, it’s difficult to understand how unusual (and even unsettling) it is to see people pay attention like this in the 21st century. We don’t do it in church, at the hockey arena, or at a concert, and definitely don’t do it at political rallies. So, my question is why? Why do Canadians give Democratic politicians this unique type of devotion?

It can’t be because of what they say. The substance of Obama’s speech and the on-stage interview he gave afterward, seemed grand but when you actually parsed it, there wasn’t a lot there. There was even less that was specifically for Canadians—although he made a few references to the recent heat wave and said some kind words about our health care system. Like Hillary Clinton, who spoke in Toronto yesterday, and I am sure Bill Clinton when he comes to town later this week, he did not say anything we had not heard before. He did not risk any jabs at the new president, he didn’t even offer up any specific policy ideas.

It could be the way they talk. Democrats, even Hillary in her better moments, can make empty sentences sway and dance. You can hear in their voices the cadence and tone of southern Baptist preachers. Our attention is held not by what they say, but by the way it sounds. By contrast, Canadian politicians seem to mimic high school debaters. And the childish point scoring in Parliament, which they engage in with self-important relish, makes it hard to take any of them seriously. Imagine Obama jumping to his feet to accuse his Republican counterpart of “hating farmers” while his colleagues loudly “ooh and aww” as though it was an Oscar Wilde worthy retort.

It is true Obama, and (to a lesser extent) Gore and the Clintons, are more charismatic than any Canadian politician of the last 30 years. He was introduced as the “coolest guy on the planet”, and his calm swagger made that believable. Our current Prime Minister can make some Canadians swoon, but far more roll their eyes at his socks and his carefully staged “impromptu” photo bombs.

READ: Al Gore on the climate-change fight’s new challenges

Here is my theory why Canadians are so devoted to Democratic leaders: it is because they speak so often about the idea that progress comes from building a community.

Canadians believe in community. We like the idea that we’re stronger together—it runs through every aspect of this country, its economy and its politics. And it is a notion that for the most part transcends the left right partisan divides. Jason Kenney is just as passionate a believer in the importance of communities as Thomas Mulcair. And the Democrats simply do a far better job extolling this important idea than Canadian politicians.

The people who lined up for Hillary and Obama this week are there because consciously or otherwise they see these people as tangible defenders of the idea our society is greater than the sum of its members. We see them as champions of “us”, the group, the community, the country, the world.

This idea, which was threaded explicitly or implicitly through Obama’s entire speech, is profoundly comforting to Canadians—the notion that we are going to get through this, together. “This” being all our fears; economic slumps, climate change, trade wars, pipelines, and water crises, and anything else that keeps us up at night. It’s a message that waxes and wanes among Americans, but has always resonated consistently in Canada.

I predict that if one of our leaders ever figures out how to talk like a Democrat, it will electrify the country. If a politician stopped telling us the other guy is killing Canada, and instead talked about how we’re going to get through “this”, make our country stronger, and better for everyone, people would pay attention. They might even listen, faces turned spellbound, like they did to Obama today.



Explaining the Democrats’ strange hold on Canadians

  1. JFK, Carter, Clinton, Obama were all young and progressive.

    Nixon, Bush/Bush, Trump were all old and regressive.

    There is still a ‘generation gap’ between Boomers and the older folks….plus their ongoing Civil war..

    Our leaders have been pretty much uniformly stuffy except for the 2 Trudeaus.

    The world is changing rapidly….and we enjoy watching the show.

    I’m sure you know many Americans would love to have Justin

    • I’m not sure if that theory holds.
      Average age of the Democratic house leaders is 76.
      Average age of the Republican house leaders is 49.

      • Cons are so literal…and about everyone but the presidents.

        • And the Libs – why – they don’t have a funny bone in their body.

          Avg age of the House? Dems 68 Rep 59
          Avg age of the Presidential Candidates? Dems 69 Rep 57

          I could go on and on.

          We know who brought up age discrimination to these boards. We also know which side of the “uniformly stuffy” falls on. LOL

          The facts make you look foolish!

          • You DO go on and on.

            You just don’t say anything.

  2. I was wondering the same question. I think the answer can be found in their behaviour.

    Why legalize a psychotic hallucinogen that:

    Causes mental illness.
    Police cannot test for impairment from.
    Will push criminal drug activity to making more dangerous drugs readily available.
    Will make more of the drug available to children when it’s freely grown in back yards.
    Will make Canada a drug source country at all international borders.
    Stays in the body for months ensuring that all users are permanently stoned

    Why make this an election promise?

    Then it hit me. Liberals use pot and pot makes liberals.

    It impedes critical thinking.
    It makes people not care, looking like narcissistic tolerance.
    It distorts perception of reality.
    It encourages delusional fantasy.

    Did Trudeau know of this correlation between pot use and liberal characteristics when he decided legalization was in his political interests?

    If so, considering all the terrible effects this will have on society some of which I have already given, legalization is at least a conflict of interest and more likely a crime against humanity.

    How did Bill get impeached? How did Hillary lose to Trump? Their losing behaviour. Why do liberals emulate them?

    • You’re an idiot.

  3. It’s pretty simple… Liberals see Democratic Presidents (and some hopefuls) as Leaders for the LPC as well.. as an extension of their political party and ideology (which.. when you think about it is rather odd considering Democrats sit the right of the CPC and the US no matter how progressive on the surface is a right wing society)

    That’s partially our media’s fault to and … well our proximity to the US and it’s influence on us. We are bombarded by it’s news… and our outlets talk about it non stop. Take now for example. Our media is far more interested in all things Trump than in Canadian politics.. Hell you’d think when Hillary lost it was Canadian Liberals being cheated out of a electoral win and it’s Canada being shafted with a new leader… (..sigh) Whatever though. It is what it is.

    As an aside. What’s going on in the US… it’s boggling to watch because to them it’s new.. . We’ve been privy to it all for over a decade with media/social media manipulation pandering to one party. It’s almost like we were a test market and since it worked so well here they’ve kicked it up a notch there. It’s backfiring though as trust in the media has taken a huge nose dive.

    • Trust, ha, in the media and the government using it has been exponentially decreasing with the increase in social media and free speech.

      Every time even a nugget of truth slips past the gauntlet of censors it irrevocably undermines trust in the propaganda narrative.

      It’s reached the point where Trump was elected.

      Snowden and wiki leaks came out under Obamas well rehearsed watch. Scary clown Clinton didn’t even see it coming.

      Now the establishment is back pedalling on free speech by working with the major search engines on the Internet to better censor reality to coincide with the propaganda narrative.

      That is where the front line of the war between freedom and fascism is now.

    • I don’t think it’s such a difficult thing to figure out. US society is more right wing than Canadian society. In the US, the Democrats are to the right of even our CPC…… But that means they are still more similar to us than the Republicans are. People like those who are similar to them.

  4. A interesting note to my last comment .. My mom still remembers vividly the Day that JFK was assassinated because her teacher came into the classroom crying and informed all the students what had happened. What’s interesting about that? It was rural Manitoba…

  5. A interesting note to my last comment .. My mom still remembers vividly the Day that JFK was assassinated because her teacher came into the classroom crying and informed all the students what had happened. What’s interesting about that? It was rural Manitoba…

    • They had TV then, you know.

      • Yep they sure did… if they were lucky they got 1 channel (CBC) clearly… TV’s were still a bit of luxury.. Radio was fairly dominant and of course print media.

        • In the sixties??

          We had days off TV coverage of JFK!

          • I was coming home from work in the covered wagon….er…..bus, when someone announced it

  6. Personally,I don’t believe politics enters into this. Obama has a way of getting every ones attention regardless of the subject. Whether or not you agree with his thinking, his delivery forces you to listen. Terrific speaker.
    The former Jack Layton and believe it or not Stephen Harper came close but not quite as good as Obama.

  7. Well said, Scott. I mean, who better represents the views of everyday Canadians than “ministers federal and provincial, a premier, a smattering of lieutenant governors, and about 3,000 others who had paid for the pleasure of witnessing an ex-politician speak”?