Sunday, September 07, 2008

Federal Elections the Canadian Way: Give me 5 Weeks

As a Canadian living the States for a dozen years now, I have found that I've never quite shaken the Canadian penchant for understatement--which is just a backhanded way of saying I've never warmed up the to gargantuan hype that characterizes so many facets of American life, which all look "Texan" from a Canadian perspective. So much of American culture and politics is characterized by a mammoth "spectrality." From kindergarten "graduations" to the recent national party conventions, to Canadian eyes all of these things look big and garish. In this respect, I think Canada remains a cultural colony of Britain. (These same tensions can be found in my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church or North America, which comprises both American and Canadian congregations. For instance, as my friend Peter Schuurman will point out, when synod meets and our college president is bragging about the successes of a multi-multi-million dollar campaign to build yet another flashy building on campus, the Canadians--their voices still tinged with more recent immigration--will quietly say, "Vell, OK...but of course vat's important is that vee remain faithful to the Lort." American Christians tend to be interested in big shows of cultural powers; Canadian Christians tend to be suspicious of anything that's big.)

Take, for instance, the shape of federal politics: an American presidential campaign is basically 2 years long. In short, an elected president is just barely halfway through his term before he needs to begin campaigning for re-election, kicking into gear a massive PR machine that will run for two years, eating up unbelievable amounts of time and money. In contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper just announced that Canada will have a federal election this fall--October 14, as a matter of fact. While the American press is focused on the "60-day homestretch" of the years-long American presidential campaign, the Canadian federal election will be announced, contested, and resolved in 38 days--total! And, of course, as a parliamentary system, the election is not so completely fixated on the election of a chief executive. In fact, Canadians can't select who will be Prime Minister; instead, they vote for members of parliament whose party they believe will best lead the country. (In fact, if the party leader--say, Harper--fails to win the seat in his riding, he can't be prime minister.)

I don't have any illusions that Canadian politics is any more pure or just than American politics. But it does seem to me that the "smallness" of Canadian politics--including the brevity of a federal election campaign--has a number of virtues vis-a-vis the mammoth political machines that churn up public discourse in multi-year American system of campaigning.