Positive-Sum Politics

Beyond entrenched divisions in the United States and Canada.

Is the promise of change nothing more than a sweet memory from the innocence of primary season? With the initial euphoria surrounding the landmark candidacies of senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as well as the early victory of Senator John McCain, the maverick conductor of the “Straight Talk Express,” in the Republican primary, many Americans—and people around the world—looked forward to the dawn of a new era in U.S. politics.

However, soon into the spring, the dark forces of political reality began to sink in. As it turned out, Obama was no saint and McCain was still largely beholden to the Republican base of President George W. Bush. As Obama and McCain’s skilled, calculating sides as politicians were burnished, many began asking what if anything is changing.

Perhaps the most striking change in the U.S. political landscape, underlined by the candidacies of Obama and McCain, is the shift away from the intense polarization of recent years toward greater pragmatism and convergence on key issues—a development that has significant implications for Canada. Obama’s call for “post-partisan” and “positive-sum” politics that would help transcend divisions of race, religion, class, gender and beyond is hyperbolic, but captures the desire of the nation for less rehearsal of entrenched debates and a more constructive policy making from Washington.

The polarization of U.S. politics has complicated roots. There are certainly longstanding structural reasons, including the increasing use of information technologies to “micro-target” the very small slice of voters that actually matter in an election, allowing candidates to ignore a greater part of the electorate. But sharpened divisions can also be attributed to the recent tactics of the two main parties. What Scott McClellan, the former Bush administration press secretary and now famous turncoat, characterizes in his memoir What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception as the Bush administration’s “permanent campaign approach” has plagued policy making. And the prominence of ideologues, particularly neoconservatives, in the Bush administration has amplified the voice of their Democratic counterparts at the expense of moderates in both parties.

Nonetheless, countervailing forces are reversing this trend. Generation change, most notably the tepid enthusiasm among the younger generation to restage the culture wars of the 1960s, has to a certain extent moderated the electorate. This shift has not been lost on Obama, who has pitched himself as a candidate of the next generation. In The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, he laments: “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.”

What has been fundamentally underlying this shift, however, is exhaustion with the zero-sum battles this kind of politics has fostered: political paralysis in Washington, leading to unconstructive debate and disengagement at the citizen level. The list of crises unaddressed by national legislation has ballooned. A short list of priorities for the next president includes devising policies on energy and climate, salvaging the U.S. economy from recession, expanding healthcare coverage, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and overhauling immigration policy, not to mention preparing for the budget crunch that looms ever nearer with the aging of the U.S. population.

Not surprisingly, as the United States looks out into the world, more and more it sees itself fighting off decline. A quick glance at the top of the Barnes and Nobles bestsellers list for international affairs chronicles the latest wave of books about U.S. decline: Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Joseph Stiglitz’s The Three-Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, Fred Caplan’s Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power; and Richard A. Clarke’s Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters.

Thus the nomination of Obama and McCain reflects not simply a rejection of unpopular Bush policies, but also a broader desire for positive-sum politics, aimed at finding pragmatic solutions to problems that concern the vast majority of voters. Rather than reinforcing entrenched ideological divisions, both candidates have a record of more often picking their battles issue by issue.

While painted by the Democratic campaign as a Bush clone, McCain is still the Republican maverick who briefly flirted with jumping ship to be John Kerry’s running mate. He has prominently broken with the Republican mainstream on legislation concerning climate change, gun control, campaign finance and comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama’s alleged move to the centre following the end of the Democratic primary was vilified by progressives, but was consistent with his intention to campaign for the whole country. In June, he launched a “50-state campaign.” Soon after, he distanced himself from the populist left by qualifying his calls to “bring the troops home” and renegotiate NAFTA while supporting the Supreme Court’s ruling against the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and legislation permitting wiretapping without warrants.

Division — A Familiar Canadian Theme

If U.S. politics is indeed entering a phase of convergence, should Canada follow? Although Canadian politics has historically been less polarized than U.S. politics, Canada is no stranger to the challenge of managing disunity. Our founding myth is one of accommodation among the British, French and First Nations, while today regional divisions continue to preoccupy much of Ottawa’s time. Quebec separatism, western alienation and Newfoundland disaffection are festering sores in the federation. In addition, the political map in Canada is sharply demarcated along urban-rural lines. Just as the U.S. Democrats thrive in cities and the heavily urban states on the coasts, Canadian Conservatives have struggled to crack the Liberal lock on Vancouver, Toronto and half of Montreal.

Although racial divisions do not define politics in Canada as they do in the United States, we cannot shake off furious controversies over multiculturalism, a concept that has appended itself to our founding myth. Some of the most fervent Canadian debates of late have been rooted in divergences over multiculturalism: the legitimacy of sharia courts, public funding for parochial schools, dual citizenship and the evacuation of Canadian citizens in Lebanon, and the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation in Quebec.

Nonetheless, like our neighbours to the south, Canadians face a set of fundamental policy challenges that demand truly national responses. These are challenges where partisan polarization in Canada has similarly distracted from constructive public discussion and policy making. But as the U.S. undergoes renewal, Canada could very well find itself clinging to the same old, hackneyed debates if the next parliament is as distinguished by petty squabbling as the present one. The McCain and Obama campaigns highlight U.S. rethinking of three core issues in particular—relations with the rest of the world, with the environment and with fellow citizens—that call for serious consideration in Canada beyond familiar but false choices.

Taking Responsibility for Our Foreign Relations

Over five years since the onset of the Iraq war—the single issue that epitomizes a divided America—bitterness over the decision to invade lingers among much of the public. And although the war received bipartisan support in 2003, the ensuing mismanagement of the occupation has inspired sharp partisan divisions, unusual for U.S. foreign policy. However, with the clear though delicate improvements in the security situation in Iraq in the past year and a slew of other problems regaining the front page, particularly regarding Iran, Russia, China and Afghanistan, U.S. foreign policy is returning to its normal state of bipartisan cooperation, with the major divisions within and not between the two parties.

In a poll conducted in December 2007 for CTV and The Globe and Mail, when asked which recent foreign policy position was Canada’s greatest achievement 33 percent of Canadians opted for something we did not do, that is join the U.S. war in Iraq. Fifteen percent said spearheading the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and 13 percent named signing the Kyoto protocol, and the current mission in Afghanistan was selected by one in ten Canadians.

Pride in the rebuff on Iraq speaks to deep Canadian unease with U.S. foreign policy but also to a certain complacency regarding our own foreign policy. Canadians are generally outward looking, with the country ranking as the world’s eighth most globalized in the 2007 Foreign Policy/A.T. Kearney Globalization Index, and they do not hesitate to opine on U.S. foreign policy. But rather than come to grips with our own national agenda, Canadians have been comfortable with being fed ear candy, as one observer calls it, about our role in the world, particularly our peacekeeping legacy and our bona fides in the developing world.

With this mentality, Canadian capabilities on the international stage, measurable by our expenditure in diplomacy, defence and development, have continued to decline. The budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, cut by almost one third in real terms between 1990 and 1996, continues to shrink slowly after an additional $100 million in cuts over the past five years. Our current defence spending, an estimated 1.3 percent of gross domestic product for 2007, is the third lowest by proportion in NATO after Belgium and Luxembourg, significantly lower than in Britain (2.3 percent) and France (2.4 percent). A report by the senate defence committee released in July concludes that the Harper government’s planned increases in defence spending do not keep up with inflation. Moreover, our development assistance is stagnating. Canada’s official development assistance stands at 0.28 percent of gross national income for 2007, actually down from 0.34 percent in 2005 in spite of the promises of major foreign aid made that year at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.1

This story is summarized no better than by the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s External Voices Project, a landmark survey in 2004 of 36 leading foreign policy authorities from around the world about Canada’s international role. The project’s conclusion, authored by Robert Greenhill (who later became president of the Canadian International Development Agency), is sweeping and unambiguous: “The overriding theme from 1989 to 2004 is one of decline—decline in our reputation and relevance with the United States, decline in our leadership role in development, and a decline in the international significance of our peacekeeping and other international security activities.”2

Unfortunately, rather than address that decline, discussion about foreign policy in Canada is too often mired in false debates about our ideals versus our interests or our approval versus disapproval of the United States. Lost in the noise is a dialogue about our basic capabilities on the world stage, whether Darfur or Kandahar. Although the foreign policy establishment has bemoaned Canadian decline for decades, with the notable exception of Andrew Cohen’s 2003 While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, the decline industry in Canada has been less pronounced than in the United States. Come January 2009, Canada will no longer be able to hide behind its opposition to the Bush administration. A step in the right direction would be for Canadian leaders to steer an honest discussion about how far we have fallen from being able to undertake any effective policies internationally, along with the very significant costs of reversing this trend.

The Manley Commission, which reported in January 2008, is an example of such a step in explaining the importance of the Afghanistan mission and Canada’s role in it. The truce between the Liberals and Conservatives on Afghanistan largely spared it a misleading debate between development versus security. Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is another issue that could either spawn a constructive policy discussion or lapse into a false opposition, with security and energy on the one side and the environment on the other. In fact, both our influence over who can enter and drill in that territory and our ability to manage the environmental fallout from the region’s transformation depend on our northern capabilities—the strength of our claim to sovereignty there.

Cooler Debate on Climate Change

The debate on climate change is also entering a new phase in the U.S., with a shift from entrenched ideological camps toward a working consensus about the need to act on the issue. Within the Republican Party, climate change is no longer simply a cheap punching bag. McCain has styled himself after Teddy Roosevelt, combining environmentalism with muscular foreign policy. In a major speech on the subject on June 17, 2008, the senator remarked, “in the face of climate change and other serious challenges, energy conservation is no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue. Conservation serves a critical national goal.” Even more remarkably, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives and one-time foe of the Clinton White House, is championing action on global warming with his new book Contract with the Earth.

As the United States inches closer toward national legislation regulating carbon emissions, Canada can either carve out its own policy or wait to follow the American lead. The Canadian record on carbon emission reduction is hardly more impressive than that of the United States. While Canada did ratify the Kyoto protocol, we have almost the worst record of any country in terms of actual emissions relative to commitments under the protocol, with 30 percent more emissions than our Kyoto target as of 2005.

Canadian inaction on climate is deeply rooted. As Jeffrey Simpson, Mark Jaccard and Nic Rivers go to great lengths to document in Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge, thanks to a steady diet of government rhetoric about Canada’s commitment to the environment and toothless policies (combining voluntary efficiency measures with modest investments in alternative energy), Canadians have become accustomed to the idea of cost-free solutions to reducing carbon emissions. Simultaneously, some vocal partisans have cast any form of regulation as avaricious government meddling, stoking in particular engrained western sensitivities about the National Energy Program.

Moving forward toward a constructive debate on climate will take some work unhooking the topic from both ideological barbs and idealistic platitudes. Polls consistently show that Canadians consider climate change to be the greatest threat to the country and support aggressive government action. The key hurdle in meeting this challenge is moving from acceptance that climate change is a threat and will be costly in the long run to acceptance that we must incur immediate costs to reduce our carbon emissions. The backlash against British Columbia’s premier Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax, resistance to the federal Liberals’ proposed “Green Shift” and seeming demand for a perfect policy that can sidestep any liabilities suggest that this hurdle may not yet have been jumped.

Overdue Civic Renewal

The current period of political renewal in the U.S. is also one of civic renewal. The presidential campaign has even featured a debate on the meaning and politicization of patriotism, a word that has become obsolete in most western countries. Obama and McCain each embody a side of the American archetype of the patriot: Obama came of age as a community organizer in the projects in Chicago, McCain as a prisoner of war in a Vietnamese internment camp. Sparked by accusations of being unpatriotic for not wearing a flag pin on his lapel, Obama embarked on a “patriotism theme week” at the end of June to define patriotism on his terms.

While we may cast aside the word “patriotism,” it is worth raising this issue of civic virtue and public service on our own terms. Beyond the regional and cultural divisions mentioned above, there is one further split increasingly evident in Canadian society: the gap between those who see Canada as a nation of citizens and those who see it as a territory of individuals, haunted by what Governor General Michaëlle Jean called in her installation speech the “spectre of solitudes.” National unity in this sense has seen better days.

In fact, the 2007 Annual Canada Day Survey conducted by the Dominion Institute found that 31 percent of Canadians attribute the country’s success not to having a “strong national identity that individuals and groups are expected to adopt” but to sharing common history, heroes and national symbols. With a remarkable 38 percent of Canadians between 18 and 34 holding this view, this division is both generational and likely growing.

This civic deficit is particularly acute since citizens find themselves squeezed between the forces of globalization and decentralization, leaving little room for fealty to the 1867 construct that is Canada. Many Canadians contest the relevance of Ottawa, maintaining that what happens in Regina or Quebec City or, alternatively, Washington or Beijing affects them more directly. To this point, Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn recently stated that “to a substantial extent, Canadian politics is no longer about Canadian politics. It’s instead now largely, and in an increasing number of instances is so entirely, about the politics of this or that province or region, or about the politics of this or that identity group or ethnic group.” Indeed, Canada is considered one of the most fiscally decentralized countries in the world, alongside places such as Switzerland—i.e., Ottawa accounts for a smaller share of national spending than almost any other central government—even as the Foreign Policy/A.T. Kearney survey confirms its international orientation.

As a consequence, in Canada the relevance of the nation—and thus citizenship—has become a significant division. And while Canadians too often dismiss civic virtue as quaint idealism or even bellicose nationalism, rather than considering it a practical societal imperative, this raises a number of basic questions.

First, at a time when Canadians find the performance of Parliament wanting, what quality of public policies can we expect without a critical mass of engaged citizens that identify with one another?

Second, what quality of public service can we expect without renewed efforts to inculcate civic responsibility? So much of Canada runs on the talented individuals who dedicate themselves to serving the public: teachers, soldiers, healthcare and social workers, to name just some. Today, Canada’s public service faces a talent shortage as baby boomers head into retirement. The average age of a Canadian public servant is 44, while 50 percent of executives are eligible to retire by 2012 with non-reduced pensions. The military has performed admirably in increasing recruitment to replace existing staff and fulfil mandated increases, but faces shortages in key technical areas. Former chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier describes the military as in a “war for talent.” At the end of the day, will our best and brightest want to work for the country?

Although civic responsibility is difficult to instil—gestures like distributing Canadian flags are certainly insufficient—one answer to the second question could be to get more from our youth through meaningful public service programs. Rather than (or in addition to) having the state subsidize prolonged undergraduate education and symbolic graduate degrees, which so often just lead to years more wondering about the future, why not sponsor a public service corps that would provide challenging and engaging opportunities for promising youth to serve the country? Such a corps could promote service more generally and complement existing entry-level recruitment programs in areas such as public education, local government, the military and aboriginal services. While much more is needed in the way of improving civic education, when it comes to service, there is no substitute for doing.

The Road to Better Policy

The ability to organize a society’s divisions in a party system lies at the heart of representative democracy. Political divisions only become corrosive to a democracy when they exacerbate societal divisions and impede compromise and practical policy making. The United States is emerging from such a period of unhealthy polarization. Canada has its own set of divisions, both health and unhealthy, and faces many comparable national challenges. In adapting to the incoming White House administration, rather than congratulate ourselves Canadians should therefore take the opportunity to examine our own democracy critically. We should ask ourselves how much of our energy is lost to fighting zero-sum partisan or ideological battles instead of being channelled into honest, constructive debate. As a first step, we could acknowledge that you cannot have international influence without investment, cleaner air without cost and civic virtue without commitment.


  1. Derek Fraser, “Just How Effective Is Canada’s Foreign Policy?” Canadian International Council International Insights volume 5, number 2, March 2008.  

  2. Robert Greenhill, “The Decline of Canada’s Influence in the World: What Is to Be Done for It?” Policy Options, February 2005 http://www.irpp.org/po/archive/feb05/greenhill.pdf.