There are lessons for Canada's elites in the U.S. election

Photo: Marco Verch/flickr

Hubris: extreme pride, especially pride and ambition so great that they offend the gods and lead to one's downfall.

In the aftermath of the stunning results of the U.S. election, the mix of emotions and hard-nosed analysis spans the spectrum from feeling sorry for the irrational and politically illiterate American voter to visceral fear about the consequences of their electing a thuggish buffoon as president. But common to all reactions, I suspect, is a smugness rooted in our sense of superiority -- as if our elites are somehow more attentive to the public interest and the lives of ordinary Canadians.

Well, yes and no. Hubris doesn't appear full-blown -- it's a process. It's not as advanced in Canada but it is alive and well in Ottawa, provincial capitals and on Bay Street. But more on that in a moment.

Roots of downfall

In the U.S. it was the elite's spectacular hubris, nurtured with impunity for decades by the 1 per cent and their captive political class, which did in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. It's probably foolish to try to summarize the results of the election, but an alternative to alarm and raw despair is possible. Millions of those who voted for Trump, like many of those who voted for Brexit, dealt a clumsy and crude -- and largely unconscious -- blow against an ideology and an era that had crushed them economically and socially, and took them for granted politically. In this reality, there is a great irony: a U.S. democracy widely seen to be in its death throes was used to reject the very people responsible for incrementally killing it. And it wasn't just "stupid white men": Trump won among young white voters as well, and Clinton did worse among Black and Latino voters (65 per cent versus 71) than Obama did.

Set aside for a moment the disturbing reality of a President Trump and recognize that in rejecting Clinton, the American electorate rejected an elite who consistently showed total contempt for the public interest and for ordinary Americans, represented by an odious Hillary Clinton -- immoral, corrupt, lying, war mongering and stunningly greedy. (Is this really the person that women want as the first female president of the U.S.?) She represented a malignancy that the U.S. is well rid of. It can be convincingly argued that the price will be far too high and that may turn out to be true. Yet it is clear that something had to give -- as messy and ugly as it is. The dumbing down of U.S. civil society through the gutting of public education, and the devolution of media to reality TV combined with levels of brutal inequality unmatched since 1928, are creating the conditions for neo-fascism. The only debate is how far it has developed.

But here's the thing. The progressive promises made by Clinton were made exclusively as a desperate response to the campaign threat from socialist Bernie Sanders and would never have been kept had she prevailed. And Trump will not -- cannot -- deport 11 million people, or ban Muslims and will likely not build a wall -- and certainly not force Mexico to pay for it if he does. Who knows how his rabid, hateful supporters will react to his broken promises -- but whatever they do, it will be him and the Republican Congress and Senate who will have to wear it. "Liberal" Democrats and the despised media have been cowed.

The ball is firmly in Trump's court. And the question we will never be able to answer is this: will electing Trump now move the U.S. closer to fascism or serve to let off steam? Would Trump have been even more dangerous had he lost and "refused to accept" the results, unleashing his version of Nazi Brownshirts to wreak revenge? Regardless of Trump's constant lying, his racist and misogynist rhetoric, and even his overt incitement of violence, being president brings with it constraints on his ability to act. And we even get bonuses: no war with Russia and no Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Elite reckoning

Will the Democratic Party seize the opportunity to cleanse itself? It's extremely unlikely without pressure from its rank and file. But we can hope and expect that in response to the other dangerous promises Trump is more likely to keep -- such as denying women the right to an abortion through Supreme Court appointments, repealing Obamacare and rejecting the Paris Climate Accord -- millions of progressives in the U.S., still inspired by the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, will find a renewed motivation to take advantage of the purging of American democracy. There is now an unprecedented urgency in the moral imperative for real change that would have been absent if Clinton had won and the unsustainable status quo endorsed. And that fight will be a lot easier than it would have been if they had to face right-wing mobs in the streets angered at an allegedly "rigged" election.

In the meantime, Canadians have little to be smug about. It took liberal and progressive voters 10 years to rid the country of Stephen Harper who was openly contemptuous of all democratic institutions and of the values of two-thirds of the citizens he governed. Justin Trudeau is gradually showing his true colours as was inevitable for the leader of a Bay Street party. Will he and his coterie of clever advisers look to the south and learn any lessons?

We can hope -- but if that is all we do, we will see the same conditions we face now get worse. While clearly not as grim as the U.S., features in Canadian politics and society mimic those that led to the election result in the U.S.: the largest income gap between rich and poor since the late 1920s; incomes that have been stagnant since the early 1980s; the second-highest proportion of low-wage jobs in the OECD (after the U.S.); the highest personal debt-to-income ratio in Canadian history; work-life balance statistics that demonstrate most workers effectively "have no family life"; the rewarding of unbridled corporate greed with tax rates that make us look like a banana republic; the eager handing over to corporations the power, through "trade" deals, to neutralize our ability to govern ourselves democratically; the continued loss of tens of thousands of the best industrial jobs; welfare rates that deliberately punish the poor; the cynical continuation of absolutely unconscionable conditions for hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people from coast to coast.

Canada is not the U.S. and, fortunately for our arrogant elites, we are less likely to rise up in populist anger and shake the system to its core. That's a pity because like their American counterparts, they demonstrate "pride and ambition so great that they offend the gods." But unless Canadians are equally offended and motivated to act, there will be no downfall.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column.

Photo: Marco Verch/flickr

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