In an abstract academic sense, I’m fascinated by the election process in the US (in a human sense, I’m horrified and depressed by it, so I suspect that the academic distance aspect is a defense mechanism). Leading up to the Ontario election, I realized how the whole show seemed somewhat diminished to me. Part of that, I think, is simply the way we tend to think of “bigger” as “more important”, meaning that national elections manage to capture the imagination more than provincial ones, even though most of the issues that affect our lives most directly (health care, education, welfare) are within the provincial jurisdiction. I remember finding myself taken aback, however, to actually recognize that there was far more attention being paid–even considering the proportional populations–to the US presidential election, which is still over a year from taking place, than there was to a local election even weeks before the event.
A question an American friend asked recently about the workings of the British electoral system got me wondering about a couple of things. First, I’m not sure just how unfamiliar most Americans are with parliamentary structures and elections, so trying to explain the system often forces me to recognize just how different it actually is from the US version, because I try to really get at the basics, including the kinds of things I completely take for granted. And then in turn I question whether the system itself, not just our relatively small population and world relevance, makes it a hell of a lot more difficult to construct these sweeping narratives of heroism or falling from grace. There are certainly cultural elements at work, but I’m wondering about the chicken-or-egg aspects of those cultural ideals as well. It’s getting to be more and more the case that people vote because they believe in and trust certain parties (and by extension, party leaders) rather than individual candidates in local ridings, but the system is premised on a much more localized, bottom-up model. It’s tough to create mythologies of lone heroism, of individual leaders who single-handedly steer the country through major challenges, with that kind of political basis.
I’m not saying there’s no space for leadership, and we certainly have a couple of historical larger-than-life figures (Trudeau comes immediately to mind), but for the most part, we seem to see movements and events as almost autonomous cultural forces. Preston Manning was among the major driving forces behind the creation of the current political right-wing in Canada, and he actually was quite visionary about it, but the way we talk about it has a great deal more to do with “Western alienation” as a concept. I suspect if the US actually assumes any kind of universal health care model, the name of the president who pushes it through will be etched in the memories of the American public and, by extension, the world, ignoring the multitudes of politicians and activists who have been laying the foundation for decades. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who don’t recognize the name “Tommy Douglas” even after he was selected as CBC’s “Greatest Canadian” (and, incidentally, after I’ve in the process discovered that he was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather).
We’ve had a female prime minister. For about twenty minutes, granted, but the process by which she became PM–getting the leadership of the Conservative party when Brian Mulroney retired while in office–is inherently way less dramatic than what’s happening with Hillary Clinton right now (whether she manages to win even the nomination or not). Maybe it would have been different if Campbell had been chosen in a situation in which it wasn’t already apparent that the party was going to be decimated in the election no matter how she ran her campaign, but I can’t imagine it would have been quite like this.
I’m kind of tossing a bunch of ideas together here, and I don’t really have a good way to wrap it up. Sometimes I forget I’m Canadian, so much does the American process consume me via the blogs I read/TV I watch, and sometimes that becomes incredibly disempowering, but having this basic outside-looking-in perspective is admittedly kind of fun at times.