Books I Read: Open & Shut

Canadian politics is in flux, or malaise, or disarray, depending on who you ask. We are perpetually dissatisfied with our options at the ballot box, and with the fact that we are returning to the ballot box with increasing frequency. We hold out hope for an inspirational leader to arrive on the scene. After 8 years of looking down at our neighbours to the south, we were enthralled by the 2008 election in the United States, and with the candidacy of Barack Obama. We keep looking for an Obama-like figure to arrive on the scenes and usher in a new era. We should be prepared to wait a while, according to John Ibbitson. In his new book, Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper, Ibbitson argues that Canada’s system works against the success of an Obama-like figure.

That is to say, in the United States, it’s not unusual for an outsider to rise to the top of his political party by appealing to the grassroots and by bringing in disengaged voters in a drawn-out series of primaries and caucuses.. In Canada, our political parties are closed off, and leadership selection tends to happen by a small, elite group of members at one given time.

This is but the first of many contrasts Ibbitson draws between us and our neighbours to the south over the course of 160 pages. He begins by contrasting the political cultures, especially regarding political parties, then covers the civil service and foreign affairs. He then throws in a chapter about the threat of the tightening American border, before returning to the contrasts by looking at cities and education reform. The book ends with a chapter titled ‘We Should Talk”, which reinforces the fact that we have misconceptions about the United States, and encourages the reader to see what we can learn from them, and to have a dialogue with fellow citizens.

Ibbitson’s final point certainly has merit. We have always had a peculiar relationship with the Americans. Seen one way, it’s a history of antagonism and resistance to the ever-expanding American monolith. Many of our earliest anglophone settlers were loyalists to the British Empire who emigrated to Canada from the thirteen colonies following the War of Independence; we repelled American invasions in 1775 and 1812, and in recent years ‘American-style’ has been a widely used pejorative, and we took endless delight in ridiculing President George W. Bush.

But seen another way, we’ve spent 200 years balancing British and American influences, with the latter slowly and ever-increasingly becoming the dominant outside influence. The rebellions of 1838-39 were seeking American style government, but instead served as the catalyst to move towards our system of responsible government. Our Fathers of Confederation were heavily influenced by the American experience – both the positive and negative aspects. We are each other’s largest trading partner. Today, we consume American culture in spades, probably more so than our own. The American influence is everywhere; we like to pretend we reject it, but we embrace so many aspects of it.

Though I think Ibbitson paints an overly rosy picture of the American situation at times (and I’m someone who sees a lot of positives in the American system), he brings up several key points. Our top-down political culture stymies meaningful involvement. Leadership selection is just one example. Another is the referendum process. While this can certainly go wrong (California being the textbook example), it can also serve as a way to get around intransigent legislators or force specific issues onto the public agenda that aren’t receiving the attention they may warrant. Yet, when brought up in Canada, it’s routinely dismissed, or ridiculed. Whether you agree with his examples or not, it’s hard to argue against talking about what merit they may or may not have. It’s hard to have a serious discussion when ‘American-style’ is a commonly-used pejorative.

Ibbitson also contrasts the two political cultures. In Canada, we lack the “creation myth” that the War of Independence provides to the US. Canada’s evolution was a slow one – Responsible Government came to the colonies in the 1840s, Confederation was achieved 20 years later. It took World War I for us to be recognized as a legitimate independent entity in the eyes of the world, and it wasn’t until 1982 that our constitution was patriated.

The final key point, to my mind, is the benefits and drawbacks that our “closed” political system provides. We tend to lack the extremes of US politics. Leaving aside the Constitution battles and the separatist movement in Quebec, our politics tend to be stable. Save for a few periods of turmoil, our politics settled nicely into a homeostatic place. Ibbitson argues that the US is constantly changing. This change can lead to bad outcomes (deregulation of the financial markets and the corresponding financial meltdown, finding oneself mired in the Iraq War), but it also makes the creation of a solution more likely. On the other hand, the closed system makes change hard. If we are stuck in a rut, it’s harder to get out of. Change is unlikely to come from within, and the system is stacked against outsiders trying to upend it. As a result, we’ve avoided the extremes of our neighbours, but we’re stuck in mediocrity. There’s a lack of vision and action. As Ibbitson says at one point, we may lose Canada because of a lack of mandate.

The book is worth a read for anyone interested in politics, or concerned about the future of our country. To me, this book is not an endorsement of either the Canadian or American system. There are good and bad things about both, and both the good and bad should be discussed and understood by citizens. But the Canadian way has been to find balance and compromise – between different cultural groups, between warring external influences. There are things we could learn from our neighbours, and maybe even adapt to make work for us. This book is a good start that should get the reader thinking about that.

(h/t to Ken Chapman, whose blog post spurred me to read this book).

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One Response

  1. 1. While it’s possible it is more difficult for an outsider to rise to government in Canada (I’m unsure about this), I strongly disagree that it is impossible. Pierre Trudeau rose to PM as an outsider. Brian Mulroney didn’t have very deep ties to his party. Neither did Michael Ignatieff who wasn’t even in the country (as we’ve been told many times. Stockwell Day and Jack Layton were largely outsiders who rose to party leadership. Even Stephen Harper, arguably, was an outsider, albeit one with some ties to the party’s precursor (he left Reform because he did not get along with the leadership and was not a team player and was divorced from the party for a long time).

    I haven’t read Ibbiston’s book, but the thesis that our systems make a Barack Obama impossible here doesn’t fly with me.

    2. I think Canada does have a Creation Myth: some responsible and upstanding citizens organized confederation and through an orderly process had it peacefully instituted. Our Creation Myth emphasizes the “peace, order, and good government” meme in our political culture. The US Creation Myth emphasizes radical change, individualism, and liberty. I can buy that a Barack Obama might be less well accepted in Canada than he might be in the U.S., but somehow we need to reconcile why Obama was so popular in Canada then (was it purely because he was a “change” from Bush?).

    – Mustafa Hirji

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