Much has been written about the difference between Canadians and Americans. Tomes such as Seymour Martin Lipset’s classic, Continental Divide examined the many distinctions. Mr. Lipset’s work traced the contrasts back to the responses to the American revolution, when Canadians remained loyal to the British Crown.
The influential sociologist charted how Americans were more individualistic, suspicious of institutions and government power, while Canadians were more collectivist and deferential.
In trying to come to grips with what constitutes the Canadian identity, these and other differences with the American way have been endlessly examined.
But in recent times it’s become clear that we’ve missed a critically important distinction between the two countries, one which helps explain why American democracy threatens to go off the rails while the Canadian system, warts and all, remains relatively stable.
The difference is in the level of gullibility of the respective populations. Americans have become remarkably vulnerable and prone to myths, conspiracy theories, alternative facts and the charlatans who peddle them. They’ve been imbibing snake oil by the barrel. To the point where, as Kurt Andersen puts it in his book Fantasyland, “The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable.” To the point where “the reality-based community,” to use a term attributed to an official working with Karl Rove, is imperilled.
While Canada is by no means free of the problem, there is no comparison in terms of degree. Canadians are much less susceptible to falsehood bombardment, and nowhere near as politically exploitable. We’re taken aback by the gullibility, primarily on the conservative side, of such vast numbers of Americans. They’re being suckered into believing “the big lie” about the past presidential election being stolen from Donald Trump is but one example.
The power of the right-wing demagogues over public opinion was instrumental in the Jan. 6 upheaval. It is creating a crisis in American democracy not seen in ages.
North of the American border, you don’t find many Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Roger Stones, Alex Joneses, Michael Flynns, Sean Hannitys or Rush Limbaugh imitators.
Analysts see several aspects of the American culture, in contrast to Canada’s, as being at the root of the epistemological crisis, as Barack Obama termed it, an affliction that hasn’t manifested itself in such alarming ways until the past decade or so.
Religion plays a sizeable role. Many religious people are less accepting of science and easier to exploit. Americans are more religious than Canadians, with more than double the percentage of Americans praying daily. Donald Trump had the backing of an estimated 80 per cent of evangelicals.
Education is a factor. The less educated you are, the more susceptible to disinformation and myths you are. Canada ranks near the top amongst OECD countries in the proportion of the population with higher education. In the United States, Trumpism preys hugely on the least educated.
A population becomes more gullible with the discrediting of a consensus-building mainstream media. In the U.S., the credibility of such media has been battered by the arrival of a powerfully populist right-wing media ecosystem. In Canada, such media have a much smaller presence. Myth propagating possibilities are limited.
Another bilateral contrast is in Canada’s more open, immigrant-welcoming and collectivist approach. The U.S. population is more insular, more distrusting of institutions and more right wing, and therefore more receptive to unorthodox and eccentric views.
North of the border, trust in institutions is down, but hardly like in the U.S. As the perceptive David Brooks ominously wrote in The Atlantic, “When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”
Through much of history Canadians have looked up, if begrudgingly, to America. The respect continues to fade. We’ve been witness to a lot of their frailties, not to mention our own, but I didn’t think many of us foresaw an American population, at this stage of the country’s development, capable of being so easily duped.
The differences with Americans multiply. Convergence that was supposed to follow free trade has given way to divergence brought on by 9/11, which thickened the border, the Iraq war, the protectionism trend in Washington, sequestering brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and, emphatically, Trumpism.
In due part, the separation has derived from opposing positions on issues. But the cleavage runs far deeper than that. Palpable character differences are becoming more and more pronounced.
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