Since the differences between Canada and the United States are almost all political, we can learn much from the two countries’ recent deviations in the practice of democracy. Just as Canada’s rulers seem to be consolidating their privileges in an increasingly authoritarian parliamentary system, Americans have witnessed a number of inspiring episodes as of late highlighting the comparatively open nature of their republican institutions.
On June 10, Eric Cantor, the Republican House leader, was defeated in a primary election to continue representing his party in Virginia’s 7th district. It was the first time in American history a party leader had lost office in this fashion, and the greatest victory to date of Tea Party insurgents, who had never before unseated a politician of such standing.
Regardless of what one thinks of Cantor, or the right-wing arguments against his credibility as a conservative, the idea that a national party leader could be so easily overthrown simply through populist dissent in his own community says good things about the health of America’s representative democracy. Cantor, it was often said, harbored ambitions of being Speaker of the House someday, yet in the end it was his lack of respect for his present duties as a representative— namely, to represent his community —that ultimately torpedoed his career. He ran an aloof, condescending campaign (most glaringly personified by the fact that he wasn’t even in his state for most of election day) and took it for granted that his status as a national figure insulated him from domestic accountability. And he paid the price.
The opposite was true in Mississippi last week — though only barely. There, six-term Republican senator Thad Cochran kept his party’s loyalty by the narrowest of margins, winning the state GOP renomination by less than half a percent in the June 24 primary. Though his opponent, Tea Party-backed State Senator Chris McDaniel, has proven something of a sore loser, it’s clear Cochran won simply by playing the game better. In a state that’s nearly 40% African-American, Cochran appealed to the liberal sensibilities of black voters by playing up McDaniel’s harsher flavor of conservatism, and unapologetically embracing that which made him so loathed by Tea Party-types in the first place: his talents at ensuring Mississippians always amply benefitted from Washington contracts and subsidies. Or, as both backer and opponent alike were fond of putting it, his ability to “bring home the goodies.”
Neither of these stories would be possible in Canada. In this country, after all, party nominations are not accountable to voters at large, because Canadian political parties are not seen as public utilities within the nation’s democratic system, but privately-owned entities that operate independently within it — and tolerate only the barest minimum of public participation in their internal affairs.
In the United States, one becomes a party member — and thus an eligible primary voter — simply by declaring himself to be one. In Canada, the privilege must be purchased and continually renewed, and can be withdrawn by party elders at any point for misbehaviour. Despite the fact that most Americans are not generally interested in primary elections, over 65,000 Virginians voted in the Cantor race and 300,000 Mississippians in the Cochran one. By contrast, only 100,000 Canadians voted to make Justin Trudeau leader of a national political party (a participation rate of around .4% in a country with 24 million eligible voters). And that was an unprecedented high. Only 1% of Canadians are said to be registered members of political parties, but it’s impossible to know for sure, since the parties tend to be fairly cagey with their membership figures. That same caginess ensures we have no idea how many people are voting in MP nomination races, as Canadian political parties are not by law required to disclose such data to the media or anyone else.
Canadian party elites would no doubt find the fact that Senator Cochran was re-nominated, in part with the support of Democrats (as many of his black voters certainly were) thoroughly ghastly, but “open primary” states like Mississippi, in which voters choose for themselves which primaries they want to vote in — regardless of their party registration — the principle is that politicians are accountable to the voting public as a whole, rather than one narrow faction of it. Democrats have a right to ensure Republicans don’t get too conservative, Republicans have equal right to ensure Democrats don’t get too liberal. If done correctly, the result can be a less polarized, centrist party system in which even in periods of one-party dominance, the opposition can still exert some influence on outcomes.
That both the Cochran and Cantor results were upset shockers similarly highlights the degree of unpredictability in the American system, the very thing Justin Trudeau is currently waging his merry little jihad against as yesterday’s promises of “open nominations” decay into today’s practice of installing preferred candidates light bulb-like across the country. Doubtless much of the GOP national establishment did not want to see Congressman Cantor go down, yet because the American parties have no authoritarian bosses, there was no one available to pull a Trudeau and insulate him with the leader’s stamp of approval, as J-Tru did in anointing Adam Vaughan and Chrystia Freeland, his nominees of choice in successive Toronto by-elections.
Speaking of authoritarian bosses, last week was also notable for the US Supreme Court’s 9-0 smackdown of President Obama’s attempt to run ’round Congress and unilaterally appoint judges and federal board members without first seeking the Senate’s consent, as required by the constitution. Obama’s defense was that Article III gives him the right to install whomever he wants so long as the Senate’s in “recess,” and thus unable to convene to give his picks scrutiny, but as Justice Ginsburg said during arguments, in the age of jet travel “the Senate is always available.” Obtaining Congressional approval might be a slow and painful process, but so long as Congress claims it’s available to sit and consider presidential nominees — even if that availability consists of minute-long perfunctory sessions during breaks that exist only to signal their own availability — a president who claims there’s just no way to get an up-or-down vote for some guy he wants to stick somewhere is either ignorant or dishonest.
It was a fascinating clash of all three branches in which the Court upheld the legislature’s right to scrutinize executive branch appointments as one of the fundamental principles of American democracy — a principle, once again entirely unknown in Canada, where prime ministers just happily install whomever they please. In the US, unqualified Supreme Court judges get vetoed by Congressional consideration hearings. In Canada, they get expelled by the Court itself — but only after being inaugurated and having collected several months pay, as was the case with Justice Nadon. In America, cabinet ministers are expected to be eminently qualified for their positions —because the Senate reads their resumes line-by-line. In Canada, you simply wake up one morning and find Peter MacKay is attorney general for some reason.
Whatever polite pretences Canadians are given for the absence of truly open nomination races and greater scrutiny of prime ministerial appointments — stability, protection from extremism, anti-American contrarianism — the Occam’s razor explanation is clear enough: the elites at the top of the Canadian political pyramid simply don’t want their absolute powers diluted by a lot of fussy checks and balances. Ours is a system in which bottom-up input on important decisions — either from the people’s representatives or the people directly — is a force to be feared and distrusted.
Over the last few weeks, Americans have been reminded that despite its many flaws, their constitutional system is still one that provides considerable safeguards to ensure the little guy can triumph over the big. In Canada, the big guys simply trample — and we’re supposed to be grateful for the privilege.
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