To my many American friends,
You Americans are a baffling bunch, especially when it comes to politics. What a volatile topic! The more stories I watch (on television) and read (online) about American politics, the less I understand what all the fuss is about. Therefore, I’d like to give you the viewpoint of an outsider, gazing at you from the other side of the 49th parallel.
I am a member of what I consider to be an integrated extended family: Canadian and American. A few years after my parents divorced, my father married a nice American lady, and they now live in Florida. My brother also met and married a lovely American girl, and they live in Ohio. This has given me the opportunity to visit the United States regularly (I’ve had the pleasure of visiting 21 states so far), and the luxury of hearing many different viewpoints on a wide variety of subjects.
Last year, my brother and his wife joined us for a family dinner here in Canada. During the meal the conversation turned to politics, and afterwards, my sister-in-law remarked on the politeness of our discussion. We spoke freely about all political parties (both American and Canadian) and no one seemed the least bit offended. She said that a similar discussion among her friends in the States would quickly become polarized, animated and perhaps even heated. I replied “Well then, let me tell you about the differences between Canadian and American politics!”.
Disclaimer: These are the differences as I see them. Clearly, I don’t speak for all Canadians. I speak only for myself and my observations are limited to my own circle of friends.
“In Canada, we have a number of political parties, but the two major ones, the Liberals and the Conservatives, are roughly equivalent to your Democrats and Republicans, respectively. The most glaring difference is that the colour red is associated with the Canadian Liberal Party, and blue is used to identify our Conservative Party. I’ve voted for both parties over the years, as have many of my friends, and right now I have no idea whom I’ll vote for in the next election. It depends which candidate presents the best platform.”
“In Canada, when the conversation turns to politics, we’ll usually say ‘I voted for the Conservatives (or the Liberals, or the New Democratic Party)’. However, I’ve noticed that Americans will often declare (quite emphatically) ‘I AM a Republican’ or ‘I AM a Democrat’. From my vantage point here in Canada, it appears that Americans are heavily invested in their candidates or their political parties; your political opinions form a part of your personal identity. This is generally not the case with Canadians (at least within my circle of friends)”
“If someone criticizes Barack Obama or George W. Bush, many Americans (with the same political affiliation) will take it personally – at least based on what I’ve seen in the media. If someone criticizes a Canadian politician, Canadians (at least the ones I’ve met) won’t feel as slighted. In Canada, voting for a politician is like choosing a cell phone provider – we’re stuck with them until the contract expires (three years – or in your case, four years), and afterwards we’re free to make another choice. In the United States, you are defined (or you define yourself) by your political opinion; in Canada, your political opinion is only an attribute, and often a changeable one.”
My sister-in-law thought that this detachment was a novel approach, but didn’t think that her friends or family members were likely to adopt it any time soon.
I’ve also noticed a certain polarization inherent in these emphatic declarations. Americans seem to be either on one side of the political spectrum or the other, and are expected to go “all in”. I have yet to hear anyone south of the border say “I’m neither Democrat nor Republican – my political views are about midway between the two parties”, or “I consider myself about 75% Democrat and 25% Republican”. If there is a political continuum, then the middle-ground seems almost completely uninhabited.
My personal approach is as follows: I’m just hiring someone to do a job. While reviewing the candidates, I’ll analyze the political and economic situation as well as I can, and then say “What Canada needs is a more conservative approach to the following issues, and perhaps a more liberal approach to some others. That will fix this mess that we’re in”. Then I’ll choose the candidate whose promises most closely match my solution, regardless of their political affiliation.
My American friends, as an outsider who is looking in, and who is witnessing a prodigious amount of bickering, personal character attacks and general tumultuousness, I would like to offer you a single word of advice: detach. Politicians are merely people whom the voters have hired to govern a country, state, county or city, and who are tasked with finding the best solutions for their respective jurisdictions. You are under no obligation to adopt their viewpoints or emulate them in any way.
I’m not always happy with the job that our Canadian politicians are doing, but if I don’t like their performance, then I can always vote for another politician (or political party) during the next election and see if this new person or party leader can do a better job. Politicians are just hired help; they don’t define me in any way.
Your Canadian friend.