Two sides of the same coin

What the U.S. and Canadian elections reveal about “democracy”

Alternative View
By Lance Crossley

On the surface, the recent Canadian and U.S. elections seem like a study in contrast. The Canadian election recorded the nation’s lowest voter turnout in history – a paltry 59 per cent – which is a shameful outcome for a country whose average turnout for the last half century exceeded 70 per cent.
Meanwhile in the U.S., voters turned out in historic numbers. Early estimates report that two-thirds of eligible voters made their voices heard – no small feat for a country where only about half of eligible voters marked their ballots during the last 50 years.  
But upon closer examination, both of the North American elections point to two countries that are alarmingly removed from real democracy; that is, an informed public making rational decisions based on how proposed policies will affect them.
Both campaigns, albeit in very different ways, illustrate how elections have moved away from real democracy and have been taken over by advertising firms. Elections are now about selling a product – the candidate’s personality – and not ideas.
Canadians had four national parties that offered a number of distinct policy visions. We had the most neoliberal party in the country’s history (Conservatives), an idea to fundamentally change our tax system (Liberals), an offer to implement a national pharmacare program (NDP), and some of the most environmentally progressive policies this country has ever seen (Green).
These various political visions were met by a collective yawn from the Canadian public. Voting was reduced to whether Dion was a “real leader” and what kind of sweater Harper was wearing.
The Canadian election’s failure was one of branding, not policy.
In contrast, the U.S. offered two candidates whose political differences were grossly exaggerated. Neither candidate represented any real change to American imperial policy. There was virtually no difference in their stance toward so-called Russian and Iranian “aggression”, except for John McCain’s more macho rhetoric. There were real differences to their ideas on Iraq. But the sum of American foreign military involvement will be about the same, as President-elect Barack Obama wants to transfer many of the troops in Iraq to Afghanistan.
Domestically, both McCain and Obama hurriedly offered a no-strings-attached endorsement of Wall Street’s $700-billion bailout, confirming the fact that both parties are firmly in the pockets of the financial elite.
But Americans were galvanized by a despised president and an ailing economy. They were desperate for a hero. Obama, an articulate and poetic speaker, was the perfect personality for the times. He managed to inspire not only Americans but the entire world. But his success was largely based on enthusiasm for his charismatic personality and motivational speeches, not his political ideas.
It’s not that inspiration is not important. But if our elections continue to be determined by either the presence or absence of a cult of personality, then “change” will remain more of a feeling than a reality for both countries.