A Canadian Take on American Greatness

I’ve missed posting for a while: blame it on a perfect storm of obligations – the Jewish holidays and an assignment to grade – and celebrations – a fantastic reunion of my Harvard undergraduate class and two post-season games that we saw the Blue Jays win.

A Toronto-based social media campaign titled Tell American its Great features random Canadian’s pointing out things they think are great about the United States. This is a typically understated Canadian way of intervening in the election campaign. If we think the US is already great, then we don’t accept an election campaign that starts from the premise that the US is no longer great.

Despite Donald Trump’s belligerent xenophobia, he has said virtually nothing about Canada. The only Canadian content I could find on the New York Times’s recent list of 282 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted is his calling Canadian singer Neil Young a “total hypocrite,” which is mild in comparison to much of his other invective.

With Canada not in the Trumpian cross-hairs, official Canada has said little about the election, though it is clear that the strong preference at both the official and public levels is for Hillary Clinton. In addition to Democratic Party values being closer to those of most Canadians, electing Trump would be harmful to our national interest. Canada signed a free trade agreement with the US in 1988, and the Conservatives were re-elected with a majority that year in an election dominated by the issue of free trade (personal disclosure: I voted Conservative). The FTA, as it was then called, was thus the precursor of NAFTA.

NAFTA has led to much greater integration of Canadian and US industry, most notably automobile manufacturing. It has also opened the border to investment going in both directions. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which predates Confederation by two centuries, is now owned by NRDC Equity Partners, the parent of Lord and Taylor. TD (originally Toronto-Dominion) Bank and TD Ameritrade are now major players in financial services in the US (though many Americans are unaware of the bank’s origins or domicile.) For Canadians, an attack on NAFTA would be an economic disaster. There are numerous other areas of economic and military cooperation between Canada and the US; one that comes to mind is the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge between Detroit and Windsor. Presumably, Trump would try to halt construction as a bargaining tactic. Disrupting a mutually advantageous economic relationship in pursuit of an autarkic vision is madness, and we oppose it.

I find myself in considerable agreement with my compatriots who are out there telling America it is great. In a panel at our reunion that discussed the State of our (American) Union I spoke about good, bad, and ugly aspects of American exceptionalism. Americans refer to their country as being exceptional, which I think citizens of few other countries do. Canadians muse about the countries that are most similar to Canada and think about advancing our national interest through trade, partnerships, and strategic alliances.

If one were to measure exceptionalism on international league tables, some of the good aspects of American exceptionalism include its elite universities, both public and private; its powerhouse in both basic research and technological application; its dominance of the global information technology sector, to the extent that Silicon Valley has become a magnet for the best graduates of leading technical universities world-wide; its globally influential culture; and its status as the world’s only military superpower. One ready indicator that shows this dominance is the 360 Nobel prizes won by Americans, with the next highest countries being the UK (130) and Germany (105). These are achievements that many people throughout the world, including me and my online compatriots, admire, some envy, and, regrettably, a few despise.

In my view, the bad aspects of American exceptionalism are the domination of the health insurance system by the private sector, rather than the single-payer insurance systems of all the other economically-advanced countries, and the political power wielded by America’s wealthiest citizens. The latter is the result of low rates of taxation on the vast wealth amassed by the most successful individuals, as well as court decisions, most notably Citizens United, which have equated election spending to freedom of speech, and have therefore removed virtually any constraints on the wealthiest citizens to influence elections.

Finally, the ugly aspects of American exceptionalism are its world-leading rates of gun ownership, gun violence, and incarceration.

Like my compatriots who are telling America it’s great, I hope that Americans are not seduced by a world-champion liar who is talking down his country as a way of achieving power. A realistic assessment of a country’s strength is essential to any serious effort to confront its problems.


  1. And there are those of us in the U.S. who find much to admire about Canada and Canadians! We could learn some valuable lessons from our neighbors north of the border, although we rarely admit that.

  2. Are the bad and ugly aspects of American exceptionalism a corollary of its commitment to individualism and private enterprise?

  3. Our election campaigns are exceptional. My sense is that a great majority of Americans are exhausted by the anger and vitriol and triviality. The election campaigns are ugly. But there is an upside to the bad: this is a large country yet voters had every chance to see and meet the candidates. The election season is long. The candidates went to Iowa for a caucus, one version of an American microcosm, with about one percent of the nation’s population. Then on to New Hampshire, another microcosm, with 1/3 of one percent of the population. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie had over 100 town meetings each in NH and learned their campaign didn’t catch on–but not for lack of trying. They had their shot. Bernie Sanders showed Hillary Clinton that the Democrats were restless. It sent a signal. New Hampshire Town Halls took place in small venues. Citizens had a chance to hear all the candidates repeated times, ask questions, examine them. A candidate with a message that caught on could go all the way. The elections are tiresome for the candidates and for people who follow them closely but there is one very exceptional thing to say about them: citizens are getting their chance to see the candidates and make a decision. Peter Sage, Oregon http://www.peterwsage.blogspot.com

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