Michael Adams is the president of the Environics Institute. This article is a precis of a chapter in a forthcoming book: Canada and the United States: Differences that Count (5th edition).
Almost a year ago, Canadians tuned in to watch one of the scariest reality TV shows ever produced: early 21st century American politics. On Jan. 6, thousands of radicalized, ill-informed Americans stormed the Capitol building to disrupt the certification of the results of the presidential election. Later in the year, our own federal election campaign was marred by conspiracy theorists hurling insults and stones at our Prime Minister. While the scale of these protests was much smaller than those in Washington, their angry tone was enough to deflate our sense of moral superiority. Were the events in the United States simply a preview of our own political future?
Like many Canadians, I once saw the United States as a bustling place where exciting developments of all kinds were constantly taking shape. Today, a society that was once marked by dynamism and possibility across so many areas of life – from technology to culture to politics – can look not only diminished but dangerous. One aspect of American life seems to overwhelm and contaminate all others: a furious, dysfunctional political culture where opponents are enemies. The two realities inhabited by Americans of different political stripes are so different that even an armed insurrection failed to engender bipartisan condemnation for more than a couple of weeks.
Are Canadians becoming similarly divided? No. When it comes to political polarization, there is no comparison between the two societies. The centre of gravity in each of our cultures is in a radically different place, and each is moving along a different trajectory.
Far from being divided on the virtues of the previous U.S. president, Canadians are united in condemnation of Donald Trump: Just 15 per cent of us expressed support for him in 2020. Canadians have differing opinions about their own leaders, as is normal in a democracy. But our research finds that Canadians generally trust their government and institutions, and their likelihood to feel good about their country does not swing wildly according to which party is in power. (That is, Conservatives don’t sour on Canada to an extreme degree when Liberals are in government and vice versa).
Of the many differences between Canada and the United States, an important one is that Canada, the country that says it celebrates difference, is relatively united, and America, whose motto is E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), is divided against itself.
Many observers have noted that Mr. Trump channels the values and attitudes of a segment of American society whose numbers and influence are in relative decline: generally older, white voters, disproportionately male, who are alarmed by demographic and social change. Although Mr. Trump summoned remarkable energy from this group (and emboldened many to express views that were previously taboo), the movement he galvanized is not an expression of the general direction of social change in America; it is a backlash against that change.
Continued attachment to authority-oriented values is arguably what most sharply differentiate Republicans from other Americans. But values associated with traditional authority are in decline in the United States. We find weakening attachment to religion specifically, to hierarchical authority in general, and to concepts like duty.
On average in the U.S., we also find a weakening of values that reflect both overt racism and forms of nationalism that are tinged with hostility to outsiders, and a growing embrace of values associated with respect for diversity. Republicans on average stand apart from this movement. About half of self-identified Republicans (53 per cent) agree that, “Overall there is too much immigration. It threatens the purity of our country,” compared with 30 per cent of independents and a quarter of Democrats.
In 2020, 68 per cent of Democrats totally disagreed that “Racism in the United States is by and large a thing of the past.” Among Republicans, 23 per cent totally disagreed. When it comes to economic questions – like how much inequality is acceptable, and how much redistribution through taxation is appropriate – we also find sharp partisan differences. Republicans across all income levels are more likely than Democrats at any income level to reject the statement, “The rich should be highly taxed to help the poor.” In other words, poor Republicans are less supportive of redistribution than either rich Democrats or poor Democrats.
All the values that distinguish Republicans from their fellow Americans have their constituencies in Canada – but their adherents are fewer and less fervent. Those who believe in rigid deference to authority; see diversity as a threat; or see radical inequality as acceptable represent a smaller share of Canadian society, and struggle to gain traction politically.
Between 2000 and 2021, Canadians have continued to grow weaker on authority-oriented values. On values related to diversity and social inclusion, Canadians have either been growing more open or holding steady. Canadians are generally more accepting of taxation and less likely to meet extreme inequality with a shrug.
Indeed, the values that are the animating forces of the Trump/Republican backlash in the United States are some of the values on which Canadians and Americans differ most strongly. Because these “backlash” values are so much less prevalent in Canada, our society is less divided by them.
For example, residents of Alberta – generally said to be the most conservative Canadians – are more likely than other Canadians to agree that “The father of the family must be master in his own house.” But Albertans are much less likely than the least patriarchal regions of the United States to hold this attitude. On this dimension, they are more similar to all regions in Canada than to any region in the United States.
With Canadians relatively united on bedrock issues such as the authority structure in the family, perhaps it’s not surprising that only about 3 in 10 Canadians (28 per cent) believe their society is divided by a culture war. The proportion of Americans who hold the same belief about their own society is about twice as high (57 per cent).
Only a quarter of Americans (28 per cent) think their country is going in the right direction; the majority (54 per cent) of Canadians have that optimistic view. If most Americans believe their country is badly off track, it’s perhaps also not surprising that only 53 per cent are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country. A considerably larger majority of Canadians (70 per cent) feel good about the way their country’s democratic system works.
Canada has political disagreements but our political culture is characterized by fairly broad consensus that government has a role to play in delivering universal health care, robust old age security, generous child tax benefits, and policies that help the unemployed transition to new jobs. By and large Canadians accept equalization among the provinces and territories, and other federal government transfers that keep the level of educational, health and social services at about the same level across the country.
Canada does have angry people at the edges of our political spectrum, including some who threaten violence. But the share of Canadians who see their political opponents as enemies is negligible.
The closest political entity in Canada to the Republican party as styled by Donald Trump is Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada; but supporters of that party make up a vastly smaller share of the Canadian population and political landscape. As for the Conservative Party, the social values of its supporters are much more similar to those of Liberal supporters than the values of Republican supporters are to those of Democrats. Indeed, on many dimensions Canadian Conservatives look more like American Democrats than American Republicans – an insight that’s driving Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to try (with difficulty) to push his party’s platform and image to the centre of the political spectrum.
Most Canadians wish America well: Americans are our cousins and friends, our business associates and military allies, and still the creators of many of our favourite things, from gadgets to great TV. But for all its strengths, America has recently been showing some alarming deficits in the arts of compromise, accommodation and governance as well as ensuring that the excesses of individual freedom (guns, extreme speech, violent hostility to the most benign government initiatives) don’t trample the country’s other historical virtues – such as equality of opportunity, a robust civil society, and, of course, the peaceful transition of power.