Stephen Marche’s latest book is The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future.
In the old Road Runner cartoons, the Coyote doesn’t immediately fall when he sprints off the edge of a cliff. He can keep going for quite a while with no solid ground beneath him. It’s only when he looks down that he plunges to the bottom. That’s America’s reality today. Its democracy ran off a cliff sometime in the middle of the past decade. And Americans are about to look down.
In 2022, the Supreme Court decision on abortion, whichever way it falls, will result in half the country feeling their court system is illegitimate. In 2022, elections will take place after an extended program to limit voting rights and intimidate electoral workers. Capitol police recently reported that threats against members of Congress have increased 107 per cent this year over last. America has sown the wind. The whirlwind is rising. Nobody wants to face the inevitable fallout, least of all America’s neighbours and allies.
For Canadians, the sudden, shocking vulnerability of the United States is unsettling on the deepest conceivable level. We are supposed to be the country that threatens to fall apart, not them. A referendum almost ended Canada as we know it when I was five, then again when I was 19. The United States, by contrast, has been, for most of my life, an undisputed icon of stability – the lynchpin of international law, the centre of the global economy, the model democracy. Pierre Trudeau said that living next to America was like sleeping beside an elephant – “one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” But there’s something comfortable about sleeping beside an elephant. At least nobody else is going to roll over you.
The elephant is now on the rampage. The trends leading to this calamity have not been hard to detect: the hyperpartisanship afflicting government, the high levels of vertical and horizontal inequality, environmental degradation, the rapid decline of faith in institutions of all kinds. But the roots of the current American crisis go back to the very beginnings of the United States.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington was almost fantastically lucid about the situation the United States faces at this exact moment. “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations,” he warned. “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.” The Founding Father saw hyperpartisanship as the greatest danger to American democracy. Almost 250 years later, he’s been proven correct.
Washington issued his warning at the moment of supreme national and personal triumph. He wrote the Farewell Address – with help from Alexander Hamilton – at the end of his second term of office, as he was preparing to return to Mount Vernon. His archenemy, King George III, had admitted in private that if Washington relinquished his power and returned to his farm, he would be “the greatest man in the world.” Washington had built an extraordinary country and was in the act of handing it over peacefully. Why, at this moment of personal moral supremacy, did he choose the dangers of partisanship as the subject of his speech?
The first president recognized the vulnerability that he himself had helped create – the vulnerability inherent to the glory of the American experiment. Difference is the core of the American experience. Difference is its genius. There has never been a country so comfortable with difference, so full of difference. The great insight of its founders was that they based government not on the drive toward consensus (like the early compacts that built Canada) but on the permission for disagreement. They structured U.S. government to ensure as little domination by one faction as possible.
But that only worked so long as there was a tension between the forces allowing difference and the forces insisting on unity. For 250 years, U.S. legal and political institutions provided a system through which to negotiate its incomparable competition of interests and perspectives, creating the world’s greatest democracy and economy in the process. But once partisan drive takes precedence over the national interest, it shreds the tension underlying the system. Unless both sides believe they’re on the same side, they aren’t. And once shared purpose disappears, it’s gone. A flaw lurked right at the core of the experiment, as flaws so often do in works of ambitious genius.
Increasingly, the question facing those who care about the United States is how, not if, the republic will end. There are several possible scenarios. At least one former general has already called for a Myanmar-style coup. Senior figures in government – senators, governors – have started openly discussing secession. Hard-right partisans, the ones who sparked the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, have not been quietly ruing the day; they’ve been planning for the next time. Countries require solidarity to survive. Solidarity in the United States has evaporated. The American political system is very dry tinder indeed. One spark is all it will take.
Northrop Frye once defined a Canadian as “an American who rejects the Revolution.” Canadians are, to a large extent, Americans in resistance to America. Sometimes that resistance is shallow – “Yankee, go home” – and sometimes it goes deeper. The Canadian experiment has been built, in large part, around the American experiment: They have the melting pot, we have the cultural mosaic; they have the free market, we have sensible regulation; they have “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we have “peace, order and good government.” We have been defined, from the beginning, by the successes and failures of a country that is not our own. Now that the American experiment is failing, where does that leave us?
An American collapse will change Canada’s position in the world and our sense of national identity. It will force a reinvention from the ground up. Once again, Canada will have to respond to the American reality. Once again, we will be in resistance. We already are. Obviously, every political and corporate leader should prepare for American chaos – at the border, in the markets, in international institutions, in the spillover of their toxic political discourse.
But a U.S. retreat from the world, as it turns inward to try to quell its own chaos, will expose our own vulnerabilities, too. The sheer power of the United States has given us the capacity for a particular breed of self-righteousness, which will be sorely tested in the coming years. The luxury of U.S. military protection – of U.S. security in general – has allowed us to forgo realpolitik for more or less straight idealism. The challenge will be to preserve our ideals in the absence of that security. Our national self-interest and our faith in the international rules-based order have been more or less aligned. How will we act when they aren’t?
Confederation began during the first U.S. Civil War. The next civil war will require as much vision and fortitude on the part of Canadian leaders as the first. The question that faces Canada is not just “What do we do?” It’s “Who will we be?”
Washington’s Farewell Address, every bit as powerful and important a document as any of the Founding Fathers’ writings, was once as popular and as studied as the Declaration of Independence. Schoolchildren across the U.S. used to memorize and recite passages. But its popularity waned after the Second World War, when shared national purpose was an easy sell. Perhaps the time has come to revive the Farewell Address. Senators and congressmen and presidents would do well to listen to what Washington had to say: “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
At a Trump rally after the election, a reporter spotted a pair of Republicans wearing shirts that read, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” Centuries before, George Washington, riding out of thriving Philadelphia toward the lush hills of Mount Vernon, foresaw what the failure of American democracy would look like. It looks like them.