Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Election Envy

(Full Disclosure: I am a dual Canadian/U.S. citizen who only voted in one major election this Fall).

“So, have you guys been following the election,” my buddy asked a couple of months ago over piping hot boxes of stir fry while Federal campaigns played out on both sides of the border.

“Which one?”

“Yeah, good question,” he chuckled, knowing full well that I knew he meant Canada's. Sadly, though, I was not joking. Even with our own significant federal election on the go this Fall (there is no such thing as an insignificant process of deciding who will make our laws), Canadians found it much more fun to peer over the fence and see what our neighbours were up to than to keep our own democratic home fires burning. Quantification of such things and the motivations for them is tricky at best (paging Dr. Loewen), but if I had a dollar for every Canadian I heard waxing philosophical about the American election – especially when compared with the number I didn’t hear talking about our own – I would be able to buy the Ottawa Senators a playoff-caliber goaltender.

“Well, it’s just that our election is so short,” people say. “I mean, it happened so quickly, we hardly had time to get into it.” Hardly had time to get into it? This is democracy in action, not season three of Desperate Housewives. The six weeks or so between the election call – which was hardly a surprise – and the day itself allowed ample time for the even the most discerning voter to decide upon priorities, research platforms and choose a candidate. The American model of astronomical spending (nearly $1 billion on this election alone) and a laborious two-year campaign (during which the public servants who are in the running largely ignore their existing representational duties) is hardly something to aspire to. That Canadians cite the efficiency of our multi-party Federal elections as a reason not to become engaged is like saying that you don’t want to spend less time and effort studying even if you know it would improve your grades. Shouldn’t we be proud that we can choose one Prime Minister out of five possibilities in a fraction of the time it takes Americans to choose one leader out of two?

Then again, the bi-partisan system presented by American politics is what makes those elections that much more palatable to the masses. Once the primaries are done there are only two major candidates to choose from (sorry Mr. Nader), so it becomes easy to choose your candidate based on “us versus them” thinking which leads naturally to a cozy and oversimplified “good vs. evil” narrative. Once you join that “1, 000, 000 Strong For Obama” Facebook group, you are proclaiming your progressive nature to the world and don’t have to bother acknowledging the fact that he supports coal-fired energy before a reduction in consumption, or is staunchly politically opposed to gay marriage. Conversely, slapping a McCain/Palin bumper sticker on your car tells the world that you believe in old-fashioned values and a laissez-faire approach to economic governance, irrespective of the fact that Senator McCain was all in favour of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Being outspokenly engaged during a multi-party election might mean having to explain yourself, whereas being cool and wearing an Obama t-shirt is a much safer way to let people know what a good person you are.

To that end, I think being cool has a lot to do with our chronic case of election envy: the fact of the matter is, theirs are much sexier than ours. Tina Fey’s Stephen Harper impression is rusty at best; Will.I.Am hasn’t made any glossy black-and-white videos name-checking Elizabeth May; and Jon Stewart has yet to invite St├ęphane Dion to pay him a visit. Once you strip away the pop culture hype, there is little left to talk about but the issues themselves, which aren’t as easy to discuss at the water cooler as this weekend’s Saturday Night Live.

I do realize that “pop culture hype” largely refers to the noise that surrounded the Obama campaign, and that is where much of my frustration on this topic comes from: the willingness of so many Canadians to openly embrace his politics and candidacy over those of any candidate closer to home.

And this is a practice which is entirely antithetical to the whole Obama brand.

The president-elect’s background and rhetoric speak very strongly to the importance of getting involved to affect change on the local level. If one wanted to heed his message, then, would it not make more sense to work towards change by speaking out (and voting) locally than it would to sip a Keith’s and cheer while watching CNN? There is a universality to what Barack Obama has to say – I myself have been inspired by it – but to pledge one’s support despite not being able to vote for him and then do little with his message in our own communities seems like a fruitless endeavour that has little more value than your run-of-the-mill celebrity worship. If every hip young Canadian who wore an Obama button or spoke out against John McCain put the same effort into, say, rallying behind his or her local NDP candidate, those same hip young Canadians might not now be complaining about another “evil” and “out of touch” Conservative government in Ottawa.

I am not in any way denying that the effects of an Obama presidency will be felt around the world – perhaps nowhere as strongly outside of the U.S. as here in Canada. Nor am I seeking to sell short the historical implications of the American election and its result, as I shared hugs and felt the chills last Tuesday night. What I am lamenting is the willingness of so many Canadians to choose watching history from a front row seat over taking ownership of the present from the driver’s seat. If our idea of being a part of change is watching it unfold on TV, then we have exactly the out-of-touch government we deserve.