Like millions of Canadians, I am fascinated by U.S. presidential elections. Over time, I’ve also grown fascinated by our collective obsession with American politics. There are obvious reasons to pay attention to U.S. political tides, such as the size of our trade relationship. But the reality is, most Canadians probably didn’t have export stats on their minds when they were honking horns Saturday in celebration of Joe Biden’s win.
Some of it is personal: Here in Vancouver, the border is so close that you can reach it by public transit from downtown, and there are more expat Americans here than anywhere else on Earth. Most of us have personal or professional relationships with Americans, and often both. Full disclosure: I was married to one for 23 years.
However, I think the overriding reason Canadians obsess over U.S. presidential elections is fear; specifically the fear that whenever something ails the democracy next door, it will inevitably creep over the border and infect democracy at home. As one friend recently quipped, “When the elephant sneezes, we all get a cold.”
Given the steady erosion of democratic norms during Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s no surprise that we’ve been especially absorbed in the high drama of the 2020 election and understandably excited about the end of the current administration.
But how much will really change when Biden takes the reins? While millions of us were glued to screens and streams trying to decipher Electoral College math for what felt like the thousandth time, some simple truths of the American political system remain the same.
Any forward policy movement requires the Senate, and pending a Georgia run-off election in January, it may remain in Republican control. The defence of civil liberties and human rights is in the hands of a Supreme Court stacked with hard-line conservatives. Americans are also still Americans, and while that brings with it many good things, it also brings a doctrine of American exceptionalism that is based on an unquestioned belief that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth.
This situates Trump as an aberration. He’s not. More than 70 million voted to re-elect Trump despite everything they’ve witnessed and suffered through over these past four years. And here’s the real kicker: Trump voters will continue to have an outsized impact on policy in a Biden presidency.
Why? Unless Biden has nerves of steel — and his public persona sure doesn’t present that way — he will follow the pattern of past Democratic presidents and cater to Republican voters as much as his own because he believes he must in order to win control of the Senate in the 2022 mid-term elections. Electoral College math is just the beginning of the challenging calculus of American presidential politics.
So what’s a Canadian to do? First, we can learn the main lesson of the Trump presidency. If it smells like racism, misogyny and/or fascism, it probably is ... and you can’t ignore it out of existence. Up against the backdrop of the U.S. election, I was proud of B.C. voters for explicitly rejecting candidates in our recent election who made misogynist and transphobic statements. You have to confront hate early and directly.
Second, it’s time to give Canadian democracy a checkup. One of the most chilling parts of these past four years has been watching the failure of checks and balances Americans thought they had to prevent someone with authoritarian leanings from taking power. These range from the primary system validating Trump, through the failure of impeachment, right up to the final stacking of the Supreme Court.
While it's great to see Donald Trump go, don't expect too much change when president-elect Joe Biden takes the reins, @andreareimer writes.
Can we as Canadians even list the main safeguards to our own democracy, let alone identify the deficiencies and possible remedies?
Sweeping campaign finance reforms made in B.C. at both the provincial and municipal levels in 2017 are good examples of one way to strengthen democracy. But like most long-overdue major reforms, they still need fine-tuning and there are too many places in Canada without any real campaign finance rules.
What about our own Senate? That it’s appointed on the advice of the leader of Parliament — the body it’s meant to provide sober second thought to — seems an obvious flaw.
Finally, we need to consider that the best defence against catching what ails American democracy may be learning how to play offence. We can’t change geography, but we can choose political alliances and prioritize trade based on factors that go beyond geographic convenience.
Some relationships are strong and obvious — California has the world’s fifth-largest economy and is broadly aligned in policy directions and economic goals. But perhaps it’s time to shift some of our traditional focus and trade with other parts of America to stronger, more stable European allies who consistently share Canada’s policy aspirations on critical issues such as income inequality, structural racism and climate action.
I don’t think we’ll ever stop watching presidential races, but imagine how much better Canada could be if we were running our own race to the top on goals we define.