In the United States where voter turnout is rarely as high as it is in Canada, American politicians nearly always claim that the election at hand is the most important election ever. This year is no exception as candidates from the two major parties try to motivate voters remotely during the COVID-19 quarantine. To listen to either side, the 2020 election is a choice between the candidate before you and the triumph of pure evil. Who could be sanguine about that?
Yet, this election year, hyperbole does suggest that something important is happening in the United States. The political polarization of the electorate that has been evident for decades has intensified. Each side accuses the others of breaking norms and conventions that once set limits on rhetoric or public behavior. New rules of a “cancel culture” police the public square in America now, but somehow violence for political ends is uncancelable, and even in some quarters lauded.
Take a step back from the roaring flames and burning embers of American political debates and it is possible to see the conflict along another dividing line, not between right and left but between the Baby Boomer generation that has dominated American politics from the 1960s and the Millennials who became the largest generation in the American electorate in 2016 when, arguably, the tenor of U.S. politics took a sharp turn for the worse.
The Boomers and the Millennials are activists as well as idealists. In the United States today, they agree that the status quo is not acceptable. But they don’t agree, even within each generational cohort, about the direction of change that is needed.
Since 1992 when Bill Clinton became the first Boomer President of the United States, voters unhappy with the present have turned each election into a referendum of sorts, with the ultimate winner promising to deliver change. All of the presidents since Clinton have won two terms, with the incumbent pledging to deliver even more change to hold on to office. This makes the loss harder for the idealists of the other party to bear. When Republicans win, pundits ask if the Democratic Party will die out; when Democrats win re-election, it is Republicans who are said to be on the way to extinction.Politics in the United States are, in this sense, quite unlike Canadian politics. True, some of the rough tactics and harsh language common in the United States are copied by Canadian politicians. But the parties compete for the middle of the electorate. Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole may debate and compete, but neither sees the other as the embodiment of evil.
U.S. politics used to be more like Canada’s in tone and temperament and may be that way again soon. The reason is sheer exhaustion from the extreme rhetoric and outrages that now mark public life in the United States. As in recent elections, voters want change – even if they cannot agree on the direction of that change on specific policy questions confronting the country. For Canadians, the most important aspect of the 2020 elections is not who wins, but rather what clues does it provide about the direction of future change in the United States?
At the presidential level, whoever wins the White House will be a transitional figure. This is almost certainly the last election in which the leading candidates will be Boomers. Should President Donald Trump be re-elected, the next four years are likely to see policy debates continue in the same manner as they have since 2016, with debates over the legitimacy of the election outcome, protest marches and sadly, continued violence on American streets. Should former Vice President Joseph Biden win, his advanced age and health will make a second term unlikely and it is unclear that the energetic progressives in the Democratic Party will be able to pass legislation or implement their policy agenda with uncertain support from a centrist president and a divided electorate. In both scenarios, frustration and violent disagreement will lead many Americans and Canadians, too, to look for rising stars among the younger politicians who could run in 2024.
Personally, I am optimistic that the 2024 election will bring change and even a revival of centrism to American politics. When all the shouting and threats subside, there is a surprising degree of public consensus on policy questions that our pundits claim divide the United States irreparably. We oppose racism and police brutality, value protests, and abhor riots. We want science and public policy to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control.
And on the international scene, bipartisan majorities support the mix of trade liberalization for our competitive sectors and protection for declining industries and workers that is embodied in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. After the Obama and Trump administrations sought to pull the military back from wars and nation-building abroad, few miss the interventionism of the Clinton and Bush years. The recent fiscal approach that combines tax cuts with more spending may dishearten free market mavens, but it is popular in Congress and with voters.
What characterizes each of the areas of agreement on policy is compromise, which is at odds with the “all-or-nothing” rhetoric of both the right and the left in politics and political activism in 2020. While breathless commentators warn that Trump’s re-election or a Biden victory will mean the end of all and a policy apocalypse, and many Millennials despair that 2020 will amount to nothing but more of the same, looking past this election to 2024 offers hope for the end of all-or-nothing politics and a rediscovery of compromise that would render U.S. politics more Canadian. We can only hope.
Christopher Sands is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Canada Institute and a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, both in Washington D.C.