02/18/2013 07:59 EST | Updated 04/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Media Bites: Why Obama Is More "Canadian" Than Stephen Harper


Here's a familiar story: You're attending a shindig with a bunch of Canadian pals, breezily discussing whatever topic strikes the collective fancy. Inevitably, someone brings up American politics.

"It's just so extreme in the States," she says, voice shuddering with liberal condescension. "Why, even a Democrat would be way to the right up here!"

I'm sure every Canadian's heard a comment of this sort at least once in the last month or so (maybe more, given the election). The belief that American politics are so fundamentally right-wing, and Canadian politics so impossibly, incompatibly liberal by comparison, is one of the most well-rehearsed lines in the preening party game that is modern Canuck nationalism. It's a proud trope of newspaper columns, a staple of politician talking-points. Hell, some have written entire books books about it.

And like most patriotic tropes, it's so culturally ingrained few bother to investigate if it's actually true. Even proposing the idea is like demanding we research whether maple syrup is sticky.


As Tabatha Southey writes in the Globe, however, this uncritically accepted thesis is becoming harder and harder to defend in the age of Obama and Harper, the longest era since World War I when there's been a Dem in the White House and a Conservative in 24 Sussex. Even if you believe a Canadian Tory is only as conservative as America's most liberal Democrat, you gotta concede there's a point where even slow-mo conservatism begins to pile up.

Listening to the President's State of the Union last week, Tabatha concluded that "many of the ideas Mr. Obama put forward are left of where we are now politically," and promote an agenda "more Canadian than Canada is today" -- at least in the historic sense that "Canadian" is defined by whatever's most fashionably progressive.

The American president is a dire Cassandra on the dangers of climate change, even to the point of pseudoscientific alarmism. The Canadian prime minister regards the whole subject as a nuisance standing in the way of unrestrained oilsands growth.

The American president wants universal daycare; the Canadian prime minister gleefully squashed that idea years ago.

The American president wants the rich to "pay a little more" in order to subsidize greater spending elsewhere; the Canadian prime minister has said tax hikes are off the table.

The American president is a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage; the Canadian prime minister leads a government that glumly inherited it, and does its best to remain as morally agnostic on the matter as circumstances allow.

Fine, replies the Canadian nationalist, so maybe the Harper interregnum is allowing Democrats to catch up to our Liberals. But what about issues where Obama is clearly to the right of Harper -- like guns and healthcare?

In this case, "right" is relative. Politicians -- even world leaders -- are far more weak and restrained than many want to believe, and even the ambitious ones have to play with the difficult hands previous administrations, parties, and even founding fathers have dealt them.

America's much maligned gun-culture, for instance, is the unavoidable product of a constitution that recognizes gun ownership as a basic right of citizenship.

For a guy like Obama to hold the correct left-wing "Canadian" position on guns (which I guess is a national revolver ban or something), he'd thus have to favor a fairly revolutionary constitutional amendment. And using constitutional amendments as a tool of social policy would unto itself place him far to the left of the NDP, a party which is deathly afraid of opening the constitution for much of anything, even abolishing an obvious classist eyesore like the monarchy.

Canadian medicare, likewise, is indeed to the left of Obamacare, at least in the sense that it's entirely government-run and leaves little legal space for private hospitals and insurers. But it was also created in 1962. Considering the emerging unanimity of provincial governments, economists, and other observers that our present single-payer regime is not financially sustainable in the long-term, it can hardly be taken for granted that "universal healthcare" in the style imagined by Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) a half-century ago is the sort of thing any lefty Canadian politician would scramble to create today if it didn't already exist.

Either way, at some point it becomes pointless to judge Democrats by the standard of Canada's past -- especially when they're so busily out-lefting Canada's present.

By the time they're both gone, the most lasting legacy of Harper and Obama's eight-year co-existence probably won't be a trade deal or a pipeline, but rather a continent-wide moderate consensus on many of North America's most contentious political issues.

Harper moves a centre-left country slowly to the right, while Obama moves a centre-right country slowly to the left. After decade or so, both wind up in the happy middle and the two nations look pretty indistinguishable.

Pundits in this country have chattered endlessly about the Tory administration's alleged efforts to forge some bold "new" Canadian patriotism where the ideological accomplishments of progressive governments past are undermined and old-fashioned, bourgeois symbols of national pride are promoted instead.

Supposedly, this is a way to re-brand Canada with a more "right-wing" flavour, but if Tabatha is right, and Canada's liberalism isn't actually that unique or interesting or special anymore, perhaps we don't really have a choice.

Hockey, Timbits, Nunavut, and Prince Charles might be corny, but if the steady Obamafication of America continues, they could soon be all we have left.


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