Who would have thought a decade ago, or even six months back, that Canada’s chances of surviving as a unified country would be better than those of the United States?
The thought the mighty United States of America — e pluribus unum, and all that — could be on the cusp of an existential crisis is still unthinkable to most in those disunited states. Little commentary anywhere has suggested this is even a vague possibility, let alone an actual thing. Not, at least, until California Governor Gavin Newsom declared himself to be the leader of a “nation-state.”
And yet, as the revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin famously observed, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” Now that we’ve lived through a few of those weeks, we might want to reassess our eternal verities.
The growing fault lines in American society are more obvious daily, even if no one is paying much attention.
The one most likely to be pointed out in online commentary is the sheer incompetence and malice of the Trump presidency. And yet, as many mainstream commentators have pointed out, Donald J. Trump is merely a product of a party, economy and political system that are deeply dysfunctional. Nevertheless, the United States has survived presidents almost as bad as Trump, and could survive his administration too, all things being equal.
Likewise, America has congenital flaws — its sclerotic, fundamentally undemocratic slaveholder constitution, and its deeply ingrained racism, two striking examples each tied one to the other. Yet in 244 years since the Declaration of Independence that has not been enough to tear the United States apart either, although it was a near thing in the 1860s.
Americans assumed, as did the rest of us, that president Abraham Lincoln had settled that question forever — as indeed he did for the past 155 years. But that the father of waters will flow unvexed to the sea for another century and a half no longer seems a certainty.
As Lincoln observed, drawing from scripture, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand.” And the United States in the annus horribilis 2020 is a house divided against itself — the immediate causes are the divisive intentions of the Trump presidency and the global coronavirus plague, but the underlying malady is the ideological virus of neoliberal economics.
The refusal to plan, reliance on globalized supply lines for food and medicine, the treatment of any prudent act of planning or stockpiling material as mere inefficiencies have exacerbated the current crisis. But these are merely symptoms of neoliberalism.
The problem is its deadly ideology — as potentially fatal to states as individuals — best summarized by neoliberalism’s patron saint Margaret Thatcher in 1987: “You know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
Thanks to this bogus doctrine, which serves both to mask and justify the power of certain families, the United States is now a house divided against itself, the fault lines made obvious by the dual catastrophes of Trumpism and COVID-19.
There is class war, of course, prosecuted not just by Trump and his administration, but by the whole United States Congress and its corporate funders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died 75 years ago yesterday, may have saved capitalism from itself for a few generations, but the dark spell cast by neoliberal dogma persuaded the American ruling class it could dispense with the New Deal altogether, and so it really seemed for a spell.
Now the only institution of the New Deal still mostly whole is the United States armed forces. This may not be England in 1819, but if you don’t think that’s a two-edged sword to all who wield, just watch the video of captain Brett Crozier departing the aircraft carrier named for the other president Roosevelt!
Beyond the continuing class war, the United States is almost literally two countries — or more, if you go as Newsom did by geography. One, a Third World backwater, bedevilled by ignorance and theocracy; the other, a modern social democratic state, educated and productive, being dragged kicking and screaming back into a darkening dystopia in which even the fiction of universal suffrage appears to be disappearing.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people, may not yet have perished from the earth, but everywhere in the United States it is under assault or the battle has been lost.
That could have gone on, possibly until the nightmare end, without Trump, without COVID. Now, I’m not so sure. Given the president’s conduct, the support for it in flyover America, and the death it is bringing, can Calexit or Nyexit be far away? Or even Texit?
Remember, the world laughed in 1970 when Andrei Alekseevich Amalrik asked “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” Well, you can argue, he was wrong about the details. There was no war with China, and the USSR survived until 1991.
Yet he laid bare many of the fissures in Soviet society. Of Russia under its sclerotic Communist party leadership, he observed: “many peasants find someone else’s success more painful than their own failure. In general, when the average Russian sees that he is living less well than his neighbor, he will concentrate not on trying to do better for himself but rather on trying to bring his neighbor down to his own level.” If this doesn’t sound like flyover America under Trump, seen through the lens of neoliberalism instead of communism, you haven’t been paying attention.
And consider this: If it had been the North that resolved in 1860 to leave the Union, the United States would undoubtedly be at least two disunited countries today. One would be of the Third World, the other of the First. The northern one would be a lot like Canada.
Our own domestic neoliberals are quick to cry “Canada is broken” whenever they aren’t getting their way. They scoff at the idea that our great system of national public health care, which began in Saskatchewan in only 1962 and quickly spread across the country, is a distinct part of our national character.
And yet, it is the popularity of our universal, national single-payer health care system that has been the rallying point of Canadian resistance to the worst depredations of neoliberal dogma, our vaccination against the virus of neoliberalism. It remains our hope.
As such, it is part of the glue that continues to hold our country together.
Canada is not broken, no matter how much the Conservative parties of the Prairies wish it were.
The U.S.A. is broken.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.