The election of Nov. 8 has now occurred, though the outcome is not likely to be decided until today at the earliest. When I originally wrote what follows, polls were predicting a Clinton victory; as I write these lines, at midnight, Nov. 9, Trump leads 216-209 in electoral college votes.
But whatever the result, whenever known, partisans on each side not only oppose the election of the other candidate (as we should expect), but many, overheated by dislike and disdain, threaten to reject his or her election should it occur. Some Republicans are already talking about endless investigations and even impeachment, while some Democrats are inquiring about emigration to Nova Scotia, where Cape Breton Island has been proposed as a refuge.
This fear was evident last Friday night, on the Bill Maher HBO show, where, after a previously recorded interview with President Obama, Maher greeted his panel of three invitees with an earnest but misplaced claim that Trump was a neo-fascist and that his election would be similar to that of Hitler in 1932.
The panel consisted of the comedian Martin Short, the former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm (a Democrat), and the Bush administration speech writer (and sometime neo-conservative) David Frum. They all shared two characteristics, the first of which was evident in their attempts to mitigate Maher’s fears: they all believed that America’s democratic institutions would survive whomever won and whatever the reaction of the losing side. The other common factor went unnoticed by Maher and most of his audience: the panelists were all Canadians by birth and upbringing.
It struck me that part of their confidence in the USA was their comparative point of view as dual citizens, and I write this brief essay based on the generalization that Canadians living in the U.S. (such as myself), whether dual citizens or permanent residents may have a role to play post-election, in drawing to the attention of overheated and disappointed partisans of the losing side the following Canadian-like observations. In what follows I hope to say nothing that betrays a preference for one side over the other, but rather a hope that American institutions will continue to demonstrate the values that drew us here in the first place – opportunity, innovation, and resilience.
Elections are not final even for the loser, since they can be repeated with potentially different results, if only the losers can draw the lessons of their defeat and do better the next time. The view that some Republicans have that a Clinton victory would be worse than Watergate, 9/11 and perhaps Pearl Harbor combined – a virtual “end of the world as we know it,” mirrors the view of some Democrats that they would have no choice but to leave the country for refuge in Canada in the event of a Trump triumph, which they equate to Hitler’s victory in Weimar Germany.
The comparison to Nazi Germany is not well founded: As David Frum pointed out to Bill Maher: Hitler did not win the election of 1932 but came second, with just over one third of the vote, to Hindenburg’s more than 50 percent (as an independent). Hitler came to power only after Hindenburg named him Chancellor in January 1933 – in retrospect, a very big mistake. Trump is a populist and given to extreme claims, but he doesn’t have an army of brown and black shirts, nor is the U.S. in the grips of a collapsing economy as Germany was in the early 1930s, under the joint effect of the depression and reparations.
And for those on the other side who plan on fleeing to Cape Breton Island: beware. The island is warm and pleasant during the summer, but frosty and windy in the winter, as it catches every Nor’easter passing up the coast, even those that miss us in Connecticut. It’s a lonely and cold place that time of year, a far cry from the diverse and energized USA. In the event of a loss to their side, partisans should use their time more profitably preparing for a better showing in the off year election of 2018, and presenting a better candidate with fewer negatives for 2020.
Let me add one further lesson that Canadians can suggest to our American friends. Elections, though essential to the democratic process, are not central to life itself – which offers, in addition to elections, other, often more important and pleasant activities: children, friends, school, sports, religion, science, even movies — to mention just a few.
In Canada elections are time delimited (usually at most eight weeks) and fairly infrequent. Even in the case of minority governments, campaigning takes a rest for a while as the parties contemplate alliances and get down to the business of at least some government. The hyper-politicization of American government has as its correlate an over-extension of campaigning, which begins anew, as preparation or posturing, soon after the election and may, sadly, continue this time even after the election.
Some years ago I was invited by the president of Central Connecticut State University to introduce the speaker for the then annual Vance Lecture Series, who that year was Brian Mulroney, the former Conservative Prime Minister of Canada. I declined, on the ground that I would have only done so for the former Liberal Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau (for whom I had been a pledged delegate at the leadership convention that he won in 1968).
I attended the lecture, as I have for most Vance Lectures (the cancellation of which is to be regretted), and to my pleasant surprise, Mulroney made the following the keystone of his presentation: As a friend of the U.S., who had sung Irish songs with President Reagan and supported him in many of his international initiatives, he had two words of advice for his American audience: make sure your children don’t have access to guns, and provide health care to all your citizens. In retrospect, I would have introduced that speaker, with whom I found common ground.
Should Donald Trump win the election, the search for common ground will be difficult but not impossible for his opponents, in particular for those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and share his critique of the political establishment, the economic elite and their neo-liberal ideology of globalization, to the detriment of workers and students who have been left behind.
Trump, at least in words, has appealed to them; the question is whether, if elected, he can deliver on his promises. A similar challenge, though in very different terms, exists for Trump supporters should Clinton win. Can they put aside their personal attacks, and cooperate to make government work again?
That may be a lesson for Nov. 9: What common ground can opponents of the victor find with the winning side? And more importantly, do we have the confidence that America’s democratic institutions, and in particular, its repeatable elections, can weather the disappointment and reaction of the losing side?
There may be flaws in American democracy — notably, the absence of a constitutional right to vote– but the checks and balances in U.S. political institutions have survived nearly two and half centuries of elections, however divisive they may have been.
This may be the exception, but Canadians may help to overcome that, as they did last Friday with Bill Maher.
David Blitz is a faculty member in the Philosophy Department at CCSU since 1989. He is a resident of Colebrook, CT since 2010.