Canadian Perspectives on the US Election

By R. Alan Walks

“Morons Elect One of Their Own” was one of the more provocative headlines offered in the wake of the recent US election by commentators here in the Great White North. The phrase is in reference to the much criticized slip-of-the-tongue by Francoise Ducros, ex-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s communications advisor, who called Bush a “moron” in 2002.

The reaction to Bush’s victory “on the street” was a mixture of horror and sickness not unlike Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now. Polls showed that Kerry was preferred in Canada by almost 85 percent of the adult population. Even among the 35 percent of Canadians who see themselves as “right wing,” including our religious right (which is proportionately smaller than its US counterpart), opinions of Bush are divided (the above “morons” headline came from a self-styled right-wing blogger). As in the rest of the world, it is the war in Iraq that has most Canadians concerned, followed by the proposed continental ballistic missile defense system and Bush’s unilateralism. While such issues are important, they are not the most worrisome aspects of Bush’s victory for Canada.

Bush’s re-election clearly took many Canadians by surprise. A glance at the polarized electoral geography of the vote suggests why. The places where Canadians are most likely to become acquainted with US opinion and culture—the northern border regions and the largest cities—went to Kerry, whereas Bush took rural areas and outer suburbs, areas more distant from most Canadians.

It’s interesting that US residents living in areas most vulnerable to a terrorist attack—the largest and densest cities—opted for Kerry’s more internationalist foreign policy stance, while those far from the potential action voted for Bush’s aggressive gunslinger approach. Who, after all, is going to blow up Cactus Gulch, Nevada ? Might US settlement patterns, marked in part by low-density sprawl, political and social exclusion and a preferencing of rural lifestyles be responsible for producing an election result that effectively offers up central cities as sacrificial cows for some “clash of civilizations” in the distant future? To the extent that foreign policy played a role in US voter preferences, the results do not contradict such a hypothesis. Many urban Canadians were silently thankful they lived north of the border on November 3 rd but worried—with images of the Madrid subway bombing still fresh in their memory—for their counterparts in urban America.

Yet Bush’s victory spells trouble for Canada too. First, there are stark differences in policies, actions and values between the current Republican administration and mainstream Canada. Polls suggest that Canadians overwhelmingly believe the war in Iraq, the militarization of space and unilateralism to be wrong. Meanwhile, the majority in Canada supports same-sex marriage, the de-criminalization of small amounts of marijuana and the right to an abortion. Canadians are worried that Bush will push for Canada to go along with his plans for a Star Wars missile defense system and that he will continue to thumb his nose at the multilateral institutions that allow Canada some say in international affairs.

Bush’s victory is also worrisome for the direction of Canadian social and economic policy. Already, Bush’s sweeping income tax cuts are putting pressure on Canadian governments to compete by lowering their own tax rates. This can only happen if public expenditures are reduced, fuelling the privatization of public services such as health care, neoliberal urban development policies and cutbacks in welfare and education. And in such a tightly integrated continental economy, any rightward shift on behalf of the US lends urgency and legitimacy to those on the right in Canada, who argue for the shedding of progressive social policies and legislation.

The biggest problem facing Canada as a result of the recent US election, however, lies in Canadians’ smug reaction to it. Bush provides a foil for Canadian grievances, letting Canadians off the hook from having to deal seriously with their own government’s complicity in the unjust US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, structural inequalities within the global economic system and growing problems of social polarization and crumbling social infrastructure at home. As long as the Bush administration is worse than our own, as long as US cities are in poorer shape, Canadians too easily allow themselves to slacken in their efforts at improving their own cities, workplaces and schools.

Even worse is the cynical and self-interested revisionism that has appeared in some of the Canadian media post-election. The silver lining in the Bush victory, the story goes, is that at least he is less protectionist and thus more likely to get Canadian beef back on American shelves (despite the Canadian government’s refusal to guarantee its safety through mandatory BSE testing like Japan does). And it’s thought that Bush is less likely to close the Michigan border to Toronto ‘s garbage, as Kerry had proposed (but why should Toronto be allowed to send 120 trucks of garbage every day to a private dump in Michigan ?). Bush’s re-election thus provides an excuse for Canadian short-term economic interests to trump the health of American workers and North America ‘s environmental integrity.

The challenge for Canadians is to see beyond their distrust of Bush’s swaggering moralism or their own short-term economic interests to the geo-political realities that shape the contours of US-Canada relations and uneven development under global capitalism. Instead of scapegoating and stereotyping US voters for impious choices, Canadians need to reach out to those in the US and elsewhere actively working to educate, halt the war and make progressive change in the name of social justice.

R. Alan Walks ( awalks(at)utm(dot)utoronto(dot)ca ) is an assistant professor of urban geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

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