It’s all over but the complaining and the cheering. Barack Obama won in a tight race and Mitt Romney put up a spirited campaign. But what now that it’s over? Just the same old bitterness and decline? There are some lessons to learn from this recent campaign and they are just as important for Canada as our neighbours to the south.
Uppermost in the minds of many conservative strategists is where the Republicans go now. With a good many Republican commentators blaming the loss on the polarizing influence of the Tea Party, the party has to seriously discuss whether flirting with that kind of extremism can work for them if it loses their moderate vote. They have lost the popular presidential vote for the fifth time in six elections. While the margins have been slim, winning the popular vote still provides bragging rights; to lose it repeatedly means that something isn’t connecting.
For the conservative movement north and south of the 49th parallel, rubbing shoulders with more extremist right-wing elements appeared to be a good thing. But this 2012 election revealed the there were more independent voters than ever before. Americans are growing tired of political spectacle that leaves no room for maneuvering. Partisanship has become a poison threatening to undermine the democratic state, as increasing numbers of voters either stay away from parties altogether, or the voting booth. The long line-ups in this election likely signified many things – electoral system malfunction, issue-driven responses, and an electoral turnout indicative of a nation going through hard times. But it did show that voters are still engaged – just not the way the political parties want them to be. The near 50/50 split in the popular vote reveals a nation deeply divided. Drilling down deeper we find even more fundamental divisions – Obama does well in cities, Romney in rural regions and some suburbs; Romney won the senior vote, Obama those under 30; Obama pro-government, Romney anti-government; Obama did well with women, the less wealthy and the Hispanic vote; Romney captured the older white male vote and the wealthy.
What’s to become of all this? How does a nation divided along so many lines and with an increasingly strident political system forge its way into the coming decades? Supporters of both camps were sure they would win because, in truth, they only listen to those polls and media venues that support their leanings. Many prominent Republicans felt Obama was done for the simple reason they were only reading their own press clippings.
And how will Canada deal with such a divided neighbour when it too is becoming increasingly polarized? More and more Canadians are refusing to join political parties and refusing to vote. Canada’s multi-party system spreads preferences more democratically along the political spectrum, but our media is primarily Left or Right, the House of Commons is Left or Right, policy is becoming more stridently Left or Right, and partisans of both sides simple refuse to even listen to the logic of people who once were their opponents but who are now their enemies.
The Conservative Party has been dominant in the last half-decade, but within their ranks is an increasingly vocal minority of extremists, spouting everything from anti-Palestinian diatribes to pro-life sermons. This is their right, but for the party that houses them there is in the increasing risk that such stridency will alienate the moderate forces that help bring conservatives to power in the suburbs. The Right enjoyed some good years under both Bush Jr. and Stephen Harper, but the political and religious baggage they collected along the way could prove its undoing.
All this is going on when our greatest challenges show no sign of remediation. When those seasons come where the political system inclines itself in ways that are not reflective of citizens it is usually because it is being manipulated from within. The financial system suffers the same malady. When a prime minister refuses to accept the will of Parliament, or Republicans or Democrats stoically stand against the results of an election result, then partisanship has reached levels that actually undermine the effective of the system. Both the U.S. and Canada are now at that point. To state that Canada is not as bad as America is to miss the point – we are arcing in that direction. As Bill Clinton once told me at a UN conference regarding the Haiti earthquake: “Any president would give his eye teeth to have the power of a Canadian prime minister.” This deterioration of democracy irked MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow upon hearing the reaction of many Republicans last night:
“To decide that a result isn’t a result as long as you don’t like the outcome is something that means that we cannot work together as a country anymore. And we can’t go down this road very much further.”
Naturally results can be questioned when inconsistencies appear, such as robocalls or the “hanging chads” of the 2000 election in Florida. But the issue here isn’t the legitimacy of the outcome but the troubling nature of the results. Politics in Canada and the U.S. will not survive the challenges of the next decade unless they bring that one element in from the wings: compromise. It can’t come a moment to soon, for the fate of citizen belief in the system is hanging in the balance. All Obama won was the leadership of a deeply divided nation. If he wants to really succeed, he’ll have to teach us all how to come together again.