Cognitive dissonance, they say, is the unique discomfort that comes with attempting to think two wildly contradictory thoughts at the same time. For many Canadians, whose patronizingly jealous views towards the United States so often combine a bizarre mix of sympathy and schadenfreude, last night's re-election of President Obama could not serve as a better example.
On the one hand, as the press has never tired of repeating, Obama was the overwhelming pick of the Canadian people. Frankly, I think polls of this sort mostly reveal that we're vastly less knowledgeable of presidential candidates than we like to think (even hyper-liberal Massachusetts still gave Mitt Romney a decent 37 per cent -- what do they know that we don't?).
But for the sake of argument let's assume that the conventional wisdom is right, and we actually did believe Obama to be the functionally superior candidate, the man best equipped to resolve the American economic mess, yadda yadda.
On the other hand, however, a lot of Canadian pride over the last four years has derived from a certain sense of smugness over precisely that economic mess. Pundits -- on both the left and right alike -- endlessly praise Canadian fiscal superiority, gleefully chronicle American dysfunction, and happily posit grand theories on just how lovely this new power imbalance has been for Canuck self-esteem.
Certainly Prime Minister Harper has rode this narrative to tremendous partisan success; despite much overblown press fussing about the Tory government's monarchist or militaristic noises, the most evident attribute of the "new patriotism" championed by the Conservatives seems mostly based around a constant refrain that Canada has "weathered the recession" better than other western democracies -- particularly the one below us.
A successful Obama presidency, in short, one that trims the debt, shrinks the deficit, reforms entitlements, and spurs GDP growth is one dangerously likely to revive the old Canadian demons of insecurity and inferiority. Regardless of how much it may satiate our fiscal interests, an economically resurgent America almost certainly means a return to second-place status for this country -- quite literally, in fact, if the President moves ahead with a corporate tax plan intended to lure American corporations home from lower-taxed nations like this one.
The same can easily be said of an America that's pro-same-sex marriage, pro-universal health care, and increasingly pro-pot -- directions voters across the country seem to be pushing it. Theoretically, these are the sorts of socially enlightened ideas Canada's vast pro-Obama majority favors, yet as they take ever-firmer hold the States, Canada's righteous claim to be a unique bastion of progressive tolerance on a hostile continent becomes a much trickier pitch to make. For a nation that puts such tremendous emotional stock into anti-American distinctions, it's hard to imagine a White House more determined to shrink the observable gap.
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Granted, this may all be a bit upbeat. In all likelihood, Obama will not spend the the next four years proving himself any more skilled at whipping joblessness, curtailing spending, and reforming the tax code than he did in the previous four. In particular, with the so-called sequestration package of automatic tax hikes and social program cuts looming, there's still plenty of cause for pessimism in America's economic future -- as I'm sure Conrad Black will be happy to remind.
Similarly, as the President's second term progresses, the opportunistically anti-American character of the Harper government is only likely to become more pronounced, with the current mad dash for greater Chinese, Indian, European, and Latin American trade justified with manufactured malaise about the hopelessness of Obama's America. Canadian anxiety about the economic future of the United States is probably the Prime Minister's greatest asset at present, since it so easily allows fiscally conservative ideas once thought to be anti-Canadian to finally achieve some thin veneer of patriotic legitimacy. The frightening "bad example" posed by a supposedly broken and backwards America can justify just about any policy north of the border, in fact -- so long as the Yankees are content to keep playing the role we've assigned them.
But increasingly they're not. It really can't be understated what a liberal election this was for the United States, both symbolically and functionally. Watching the results trickle in last night, from the re-election of their progressive, minority president, to the filling of Congress with aggressive, fresh, and unapologetically liberal leaders, to the string of successful citizen referenda on left-wing pet causes, it was hard to escape the feeling that America is a country with a strong progressive momentum, and activist energy that has no real equivalent in dour, static Harperland.
To those who believe that there's something fundamentally wrong about this state of affairs, that Canada should be the country with non-white leaders and gay senators and legalized marijuana and sentencing reform and euthanasia, perhaps some second-guessing of Republican-bashing would be in order.
To those of us who have long recognized the fundamentally absurd and unsustainable nature of a Canadian patriotism defined entirely by a bitter, boastful game of compare-and-contrast with our southern neighbours however, maybe a little schadenfreude is warranted after all.