They say it's easy to scorn that which you can't have, and if that's the case, then the sort of exaggerated confusion Canadians commonly express towards the U.S. presidential primary system must reveal a very deep-seeded jealousy indeed. For the next couple of months, after all, the Americans will be participating in an exercise in mass democracy entirely without precedent or equivalent in our sad dominion, and offering a thoroughly irritating reminder of just how backwards and elitist the Canadian party system remains in contrast.
A simple numbers game vividly illustrates the vast democratic divide between the two nations.
Last Tuesday, Mitt Romney eked out his narrow victory in the Iowa caucus with a total of 3o,015 votes. That slim tally in a single, Midwestern state is nevertheless only slightly fewer than the 31,150 votes that elected Jack Layton leader of the national New Democratic Party in 2003, and much greater than the 16,149 that elected Stephen Harper leader of the federal Conservatives in 2004.
And keep in mind, these are both parties that use (or, in the Tories' case, used to use) the so-called "one-member-one-vote" system. When the Liberals installed Paul Martin as the 21st Prime Minister of Canada in their 2003 convention, by contrast, the 3,453 "party delegates" who made that decision were a notably smaller group than the 6,073 voters who gave Michelle Bachmann her last-place finish in Iowa, to say nothing of (as some wags noted at the time) the 3.3 million voters who crowned Ryan Malcolm the first Canadian Idol.
What makes these comparisons particularly odious is that Canadian party leaders aren't really even analogous to U.S. presidential candidates -- they're much more powerful. Should Romney eventually emerge as the GOP flag-bearer, he will have precious little power to influence much of what his party supports or believes. As we've seen over the last three years, the President of the United States is in many ways a very weak figure subordinate to the authority of 535 free-voting Congressmen.
Should Romney one day become commander-in-chief, he'll likely spend his first four years in the Oval Office fending off attacks from his own party's dissident Tea Party wing -- a phenomenon that would be entirely impossible to imagine in Canada, where our party leaders possess the well-developed power to expel problematic MPs at the slightest demonstration of insubordination.
American parties have never been rigidly hierarchical, or even particularly well-organized. One becomes a Democrat or Republican simply by self-identifying as one -- no fees to pay, no rules to follow. In 2010 the Republican National Committee even struck down a proposal to require self-identifying Republican candidates to agree to a shared set of principles, an event which must have prompted more than a few envious sighs from pro-gun New Democrats, pro-life Liberals, and other members of this country's barely-tolerated constituencies.
Canadians sometimes righteously puff their chests at the fact that Canada has a robust rainbow of parties while America only has two, but the number of parties is really far less significant than the amount of ideological freedom afforded to members within them. And here, the U.S. unquestionably has Canada soundly beat.
Thankfully, there are signs that a long overdue Americanization of the ossified Canadian party regime is beginning to unfold. After years of propping up their particularly closed-door model, next weekend the Liberal Party of Canada will vote on adopting a U.S.-style open primary to pick their next leader, complete with voters whose commitment to the party is no firmer than temporary self-identification -- the same system that has allowed unorthodox contrarians like Ron Paul to enjoy such success south of the border.
As party presidential candidate Mike Crawly noted in a National Post editorial, this would hopefully help raise party membership in Canada above its present pathetically low rate of one to two per cent, and avoid future abnormalities like the prime minister being chosen by a smaller group of Canadians than those who list their religion as "Jedi."
Of course, the status quo has lasted this long for a reason. A heavily bureaucratized, hierarchical party system obviously concentrates a great deal of power and control among the bureaucrats and leaders themselves, and helps ensure the terms of partisan debate on any given issue can be carefully stage-managed.
In a country like Canada, where the political elite would generally not enjoy an honest, open discussion on any number of issues the public feels strongly about -- immigration, abortion, bilingualism, etc. -- the last thing the politicians want is a system that makes it easier for the non-partisan 99 per cent to exercise greater influence over the sorts of people who wind up in Parliament.
It would be little surprise if the Liberals' primary proposal goes down in flames amid "concerns" of the entrenched party elders, but at least the conversation has begun, and at this point it will be hard to stop.
After all, there are still 49 states to go.