Contrasting attitudes toward the United States of America characterize the great divide in this country between right and left, but the similarly crucial distinction between mainstream conservatives and right wing hysterics reflects their radically different assessments of… Canada, of all places. For the first time since the War of 1812, in fact, debate about the true nature of our terminally bland neighbor to the north plays a significant role in American politics.
Fortunately, that unexpected argument seldom displays the bitter intensity of long-running conservative/liberal quarrels about America itself. In his brilliant 2009 book, “Why are Jews Liberals?,” Norman Podhoretz trenchantly observes: “Of course, when we speak of the conflict between Left and Right, or between liberals and conservatives, we are talking about a divide wider and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two communities turns on how they feel about the nature of American society. Again with all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what the Left mainly sees when it looks at America is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social, and political. By sharp contrast, the Right sees a complex of traditions, principles, and institutions that have made it possible for more freedom – and even factoring in periodic economic downturns – more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society known to human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating, and defending against attack.”
As if to illustrate his point, one of the leaders of Democratic efforts to overhaul health care recently expressed her jubilation that her nation might finally shed its distinctive but benighted individualistic traditions and embrace the enlightened approaches of the rest of the civilized world. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, the upstate New York Democrat who chairs the House Rules Committee, exulted to the Wall Street Journal after Obama’s triumph on insurance reform: “It makes me so happy that, after 100 years, we can finally catch up with the rest of the world!”
Does Ms. Slaughter really believe the U.S. has lagged behind the rest of the world for a full century? Could she defend the notion that Europe, for example, did a better job organizing its societies…since 1910? During that period, we saved the planet in four major international conflicts (World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the War Against Islamo-Nazi Terror) while our surging economy brought higher living standards to every corner of the globe.
Her declaration reflects the classic liberal assumption that the United States should stop all attempts to impose its own backward values on the rest of humanity, and instead follow the inspirational leadership of the United Nations, or the European Union, or liberationist Latin American outposts like Cuba and Venezuela. According to this outlook, the world would benefit from far less influence from America, while the United States itself could improve life for all its oppressed and suffering citizens by emulating the rest of the world.
Conservatives, on the other hand, feel proud rather than embarrassed by their nation’s uniqueness. Ronald Reagan saw the United States as a “shining city on a hill” that could inspire of all of humanity and none of his fellow Republicans disagreed with him. Today, Tea Party participants may dislike so-called “RINO’s” (“Republicans In Name Only”) like Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham, but everyone on the center-right agrees that the international community can only benefit from a powerful, dynamic, and dominant United States.
Right-wingers differ, however, when it comes to the significance of Canada, as a recent call to my radio show made clear. The caller expressed considerable frustration with my stubborn refusal to characterize President Obama and his agenda as not just misguided, but downright evil. “How come you keep denying that he’s evil, when he openly talks about fundamental transformation of the United States?”
I quickly agreed that the president sought to alter the nation in important and unwelcome ways, but I challenged my interlocutor about the essential nature of the desired changes. “It’s true that there are some nations in the world that are profoundly evil,” I told him, “but do you really think that Obama wants to make us like them? Do you think he wants to make-over America to resemble North Korea? Castro’s Cuba? Mao’s China? Hitler’s Germany?”
In each case, the caller graciously admitted that evidence provided little indication that Obama sought to imitate the genocidal excesses of the world’s most tyrannical regimes. “It seems to me,” I continued, “that the one nation he’d most like us to resemble would be Canada. Does that sound right to you?”
The caller quickly agreed. “Yes, that’s right. He’d like us to be just like Canada-- or France.”
“Okay, I don’t want to live in Canada or France – I’d much rather live in America. But you don’t really believe that Canada is fundamentally evil, do you? And if Canada’s not a basically evil country – despite the addiction to hockey and Celine Dion—then you’d have to abandon the claim that trying to make us more like Canada was fundamentally evil.”
The truth is that most Americans actually like our placid neighbor to the north and many of us enjoy our visits to the land of the Maple Leaf (as long as the nation’s not infested by the Winter Olympics, but that’s another story). The health care system may be a travesty, and taxes are definitely too high, but if something (God forbid!) happened to the United States of America and we all had to choose another place to live, I suspect that Canada would rank high on nearly everyone’s list.
Most important of all, there’s no indication that freedom is dead in Canada, or that the free market has been dismantled, or that brutalized and cowed Canadians groan in their bloody chains of governmental oppression. Yes, hate speech laws limit free expression in ways that Americans never would tolerate, and over-regulation makes it impossible for opinionated talk radio to flourish in the American style, but political choices remain robust, lively and diverse across the Great White North, with a current government (under the redoubtable Steven Harper) far more conservative (and capable) than the lamentable Obama regime.
The Canadian example also gives the lie to the “death of capitalism” alarmism concerning the wrong-headed policies of Obama and his minions. While conservatives agree that the arrogant president means to push our nation in the wrong direction, there’s little indication that even his most doctrinaire policies would lead to the tragic end of free enterprise and the imposition of a disastrous, crippling, impoverishing form of socialism. In Canada, for example, the single-payer health care system that most American liberals yearn to foist on the public has been an operational reality for forty years, yet the nation to our north actually ranks ahead of the United States (seventh in the world, compared to our eighth place) in the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. The unemployment rate is dramatically lower north of the border (6.1% to 9.7%) and the ratio of government debt to the GDP is far lower than in the United States – in fact, the lowest among G-8 countries (representing the leading economies in the world). For all of Canada’s well-known “welfare state” addictions (including an elaborate system of publicly funded auto insurance), government expenditures total only 39.1% of their GDP – only slightly more than the 37.4% in the USA. Moreover, the top income tax rates are far lower in Canada than the United States—29% there, and already 35% here, but headed to 39.6% in 2011 if Obama gets his wish. Of course, the Value Added Tax hits every Canadian hard (so that the overall tax burden is 33.3% of GDP, compared to 28.3% in America) but the crippling budget deficit in our country (much worse than our Canadian counterparts) will probably bring VAT to the land of the free and quickly close the tax gap with our neighbors.
The point about all these close comparisons isn’t that Canadians arrange their economy better than Americans, or even as well as we do (for all our faults), but that anyone who describes the vibrant mixed economy north of the border as evil, socialistic, or tyrannical is clearly overstating the case, if not altogether distorting a complex reality. Of course Canada is less free in many ways than the USA and I would never choose to live there – despite the appeal of vigorous, functional, elegant and friendly cities like Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto.
This brings us back to the core difference between liberals and conservatives: right-wingers in Canada would like to lead their nation in a more American direction (though pervasive national resentment of the giant to the south would prevent them from ever admitting it), while left-wingers in both the Great White North and the USA would like both nations to follow the yellow brick (or goldbrick) road to the nanny-state paradises of France and Scandinavia.
But even those countries – with far more troubled economic systems than conservative Canadians or Americans would accept – hardly compare with Stalinist Russia or Hitlerite Germany. In this context, the lachrymose doom-sayers in the right wing media who juxtapose images of Obama with scenes of May Day in Red Square or the “Triumph of the Will” Nuremberg rallies of 1935, discredit themselves far more than they shame Obama. Perhaps the footage of well-dressed commuters rushing to their jobs in Montreal (or Copenhagen, for that matter) simply lacks the sentimental, nostalgic appeal of the beefy worthies of the Politburo reviewing their goose-stepping shock troops from atop Lenin’s tomb.
Right now, with Obamanauts pushing hard to remake our country, we need a serious conversation on why American exceptionalism is so eminently worth defending. What we don’t need is the brain-dead, Bozo-esque suggestion that a lurch in the Canadian direction, however ill-advised, is the equivalent to an apocalyptic collapse of liberty, decency and righteousness. After all, despite all their enthusiasm for musty leftist nostrums, the Canadians still occupy a pleasant, prosperous land of considerable opportunity, and beyond all their embarrassments in the ill-fated games in Vancouver, the Molson-swilling hosers still managed to pull out the Olympic gold in hockey.