As many readers may already know, I was born an American citizen just outside of Chicago, becoming a Canadian a little over two decades ago. As my birth family was politically minded, I became aware at an early age of events in our country and in the larger world. My earliest memory was of the 1960 presidential campaign, while easily the most traumatic event of my childhood was the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Cold War and the threat of communism were near the surface of our thoughts much of the time, especially because one of our neighbours had been a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag for 10 years after the end of the war.
Presidential election campaigns always elicited our interest. In those years both parties had progressive and conservative wings. White Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics tended to vote Democratic, while northern evangelical and mainline Protestants generally voted Republican. Democrats and Republicans were not that far apart, both claiming to stand in the larger liberal tradition, differing only on which party was its legitimate heir.
However, in the time I’ve lived in Canada the politics of my home country have become unrecognizable and increasingly puzzling, even to an academic political scientist. In 2008 Americans voted into the presidency a man whose campaign machine portrayed him in near messianic terms. Promising to reunite a polarized nation, he instead pursued divisive policies that indicated, among other things, a lack of understanding of the importance of religious freedom, especially outside the four walls of a church building. Yet his overall demeanour was presidential – almost regal – and he managed to inspire confidence with most of the electorate.
Unfortunately, his two opponents in 2008 and 2012 were less than outstanding contenders, and the results of the two elections only increased the polarization of the electorate.
This year in particular has me scratching my head, as Americans are supporting more extreme candidates in both parties.
Donald Trump has no political experience to speak of, but considerable familiarity with the dark world of rapacious capitalism, going so far as to sue an elderly widow over her house, which stood on property he coveted for one of his real estate developments. With his outrageous statements, Trump is obviously tapping into a vein of anger coursing through a certain segment of the electorate, bringing to the American scene something of the flavour of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nostalgia for a past when America was apparently greater than it is now somewhat parallels Russian wistfulness for a vanished Soviet Union.
On the Democratic side, increasing numbers of Americans support a professed democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In the past, the very word socialism was the kiss of death in a political campaign. After 1932, which represents the high water mark for a socialist party at the polls, it became tainted by at least verbal associations with German national socialism and Soviet-style communism, whose ideological illusions left scores of millions of victims in their wake.
However, Sanders’ socialism lacks the communitarian element in most socialist movements. He is something of a political loner, more resembling Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than Vladimir Lenin or even our own Thomas Mulcair. Instead Sanders is more of a Roosevelt-style New Dealer, pushing welfare state programmes that Canadians and Europeans take for granted. An independent at heart, he joined the Democratic Party only recently to run for its presidential nomination. What Sanders has been unable to explain to his supporters, however, is how a country running a $440 billion deficit and burdened by a $19 trillion debt will implement even a portion of his promises.
As I write Trump is doing better than expected in the state primary elections that have occurred thus far. On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton and Sanders are both garnering support. It is too early to say what the race will look like in November, but some pundits are sticking their necks out and predicting a contest between Trump and Clinton. Though Clinton is more of a mainstream candidate than Trump, her reputation has been sullied by controversies over her use of a private email server and her conduct as Secretary of State during the Benghazi attack in 2012. Many long-time Democrats are unenthusiastic about her candidacy.
This puts many Americans in a quandary. As a U.S. citizen, I have the right to vote by absentee ballot based on my one time residence in DuPage County, Illinois. However, after 30 years in Canada, I am becoming increasingly uneasy with doing so, as I am far removed from especially state and local issues. Moreover, the prospect of having to choose between two seriously flawed candidates makes me even more disinclined to vote this time around.
While I am at present unsure what I will do in November, I am altogether certain that I will continue to pray that the leaders of both countries will govern according to the principles of public justice. I would urge you to do the same.