I never thought I or anyone would write those words. I have studiously avoided blogs or other commentary about my American neighbors and their politics – but the recent election calls for something. If you want to skip my thoughts scroll down and enjoy a hilarious piece – 100% plagiarized – about American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada.
Books can and will be written about the election but at the risk of vast over-simplification will limit myself to three ideas.
1. American self-identity.
The US as represented by its leaders, its citizens and often its press express a self-identity which sometimes serves to justify hubris that bears some examination. No other country unselfconsciously uses terms like Manifest Destiny, the exceptional or essential nation, describes itself as Great and promotes its political architecture as the best in the world.
There were times when other countries saw themselves as different or exceptional and often supported by some kind of reality. We can go back to the Roman Empire but more recent history records the British Empire and its sense of “the white man’s burden”, the French Revolution with its political ideas, a unified and successful Germany that came late to the global game or the Chinese and Japanese sense of racial and civilization superiority.
The US is unique and successful but it is useful to consider some of the roots of its apparent success. The US, in spite of its rejection of British suzerainty inherited the values and traditions of governance that have generally proved superior when compared to the legacy of other colonial powers. America also inherited the Protestant variant of Christianity which has proven to be more supportive of progress in the modern age.
America had the benefit of inheriting a richly endowed continent located in the temperate climate zone and largely empty – and when not empty enough conquest, disease and re-location made it essentially empty. The rest of the world has been forced to modernize under historically imposed conditions of over-population, incompatible religious traditions, multiple languages and cultures, often a depleted environment and memories of violence.
The economic and cultural progress of America is remarkable but considering the starting point – possibly the ability of Japan, Germany and Europe to rise above their history may be even more remarkable.
America also has inherited several own goals which contribute negatively to its perception as a successful society.
The first and most enduring is the history of slavery and the continuing inability to absorb with grace the consequences of its own actions.
The second is the inability to create a modern society where violence is viewed as a negative. The frontier spirit may have contributed to a sense of innovation but the legacy of a gun culture with homicide rates of 5-50 times all other modern societies is hardly an example to the world – and does not merit the claims of greatness referred to earlier.
Some combination of the above have contributed to the emergence of a candidate like Donald Trump.
2. The American system of democratic governance – does it really stand the test of superiority relative to alternatives?
Systems of governance are exceedingly complex. A system is a structure but also a product of the people in the system and how the system is allowed to be used or distorted over time.
The Constitution affirms the equality of all persons – but that same constitution was used to legitimize a century of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow followed by??
The Division of powers is based on solid principles – but is also based on the assumption of some common collective purpose – which requires negotiated compromise. Elections allow the adjustment of the balance of power if the outcomes move away from some shared idea of the nation. But what if the idea or ability to compromise is no longer an accepted concept?
Democracy is based on the idea of a majority or plurality at successively higher levels of government. But what happens when constituency boundaries are Gerry-mandered to the point of the bizarre? What happens to an electoral system in the complete absence of control over the influence of money in elections? And what happens if these conditions exist in one of the most unequal societies? The electoral college system simply amplifies the negatives implicit in each of the above.
The American electoral system has many unproductive outcomes including perpetual election cycles and discouraging intelligent and qualified citizens from even participating – it takes an incredible ego and a surfeit of narcissism to place yourself into that situation. More critical is the demonstrated reality that the system as it currently functions pushes candidates and policy proposals away from the center and toward extremes.
This is where comparison with other systems can be productive. The Parliamentary system as practiced in Canada and elsewhere is often criticized because it permits majority rule with less than 50% of the popular vote. A benefit of that outcome is that the party in power has a genuine ability to govern. A unified political right allowed Stephen Harper to govern in Canada for 10 years with 40% of the vote. Most of the 60% was split between two center-left parties. Although the parties could not structure an agreement to defeat Harper and shift governance closer to the Center – the electorate figured that out on their own in 2015 – voted strategically and created a Government near the political Center – the place most Canadians are comfortable with.
Canadians relish their self-effacing jokes.
Question: Why did the Canadian chicken cross the road?
Answer: To get to the center!
European systems of proportional representation offer another variation of governance that normally results in a coalition or compromise that may lean center-left or center-right but usually excludes either extreme.
The natural move to the center fails to happen when ideology (think Venezuela) or religion (Israel or Iran or Egypt) play an outsize role.
America appears to have evolved into a system that discredits the center – suggesting that future Governments may all reflect some kind of extreme to the detriment of all.
3. The failure of the Democratic Party to be a ‘Big Tent’ for various sectors of the population.
The current expression of the Democratic Party focused on certain issues and groups (referred to as Identity Politics) and has defined that particular set of prejudices or views as the center of the universe. Referring to latinos, African- Americans and maybe Asians in the same sentence was proof of being inclusive. Adding Q to LGBT was an example of the expanded mind – even more if you promoted trans-gender bathrooms – parts of France have been unisex forever!
The point is that I share the concern about views that tend to racism or fail to adequately protect rights of women or vulnerable minorities like immigrants. On the other hand liberals have blind spots that are equally reprehensible or at least unhelpful – and contributed to Election Day results.
An interesting example is the attitude of liberals (often with the same meaning as Democrats) and their attitudes to people of faith – whether Catholic or evangelical Christian – as an ‘ identity’ they cannot identify with! You are likely to be denied tenure at a University – or even the freedom to make a convocation address if you do not tick the correct PC boxes. I will limit my comments to evangelical Christians – and the church into which I was born and still attend – is part of that universe. That same church is also the oldest (500 years) of the historic Peace Churches, has sponsored thousands of refugees and supports an endless list of social action causes. And yes, folks in my church would have a range of views on moral or social issues such as the value of life or the role of women. The point is Christians come in all sizes, shapes and colors like the rest of the world. When 81% of US evangelicals vote Republican it suggests that Democrats failed to find any positive message that relates to their very legitimate concerns and interests.
When I travel the world as I am doing currently, it is disproportionately Christians (generally socially engaged Catholics or Christians from the evangelical wing) who are operating life-giving hospitals in the jungle, sheltering orphans who are victims of war or the HIV crisis or supporting schools when Governments fail to show up. Check the shelters for the homeless or the programs for inner-city kids in your own community and you will find the same.
The point is evangelical Christians are multi-dimensional people like hopefully most of us. When Hillary Clinton fails to find a single issue on which to engage a reported 25 million voters that is an unfortunate failure of imagination and an indictment of the more extreme wing of the liberal community that believes they have a lock on truth.
Let me close with an anecdote. In 1964, as a Canadian student in the US, I became involved in the civil rights movement including participation in the latter part of the Selma-Montgomery march. I also made several visits to Koinonia Farms in southern Georgia, an intentional inter-racial community founded in 1942 by a theologian and a band of risk-taking Christians. The point is that much of the civil rights movement grew out of the work of people whose degrees and titles included words like “Divinity” or “Rev”. That community was also the incubator for what has become a marvelous and inclusive social enterprise we know as Habitat for Humanity.
The Trump presidency looms like a threatening typhoon. Americans vote but the rest of the world will be impacted by decisions about the use of military force, leadership on complex international issues and the health of our climate and world.
There is the old proverb that Americans always do the right thing after exhausting all alternatives. Not sure if our world will survive that test under current circumstances!
Pray for a peaceful world and let’s search for some alternatives to the current political process!