Title: Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit
Author: Michael Adams
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got a copy: S&S sent me a free copy in exchange for a review
When Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister, I watched the ceremony via livestream on my computer at work. I saw the cabinet ministers take their oaths, and I heard the two Inuit girls do throat singing. I saw the Metis dance at the end, and felt a swell of good things. Pride that Trudeau was a charismatic change. Relief that Harper was out.
When the Brexit referendum happened, I was surprised because I didn’t think it was a huge issue. The idea of the UK leaving the EU seemed so outlandish to me that it was low on my radar. I spent my commute that morning feeling unmoored, adrift. I eventually felt better when I had the opportunity to help two women find the right platform they needed at Union Station. Helping someone do something small but important – something immediate and unambiguous – did a lot to improve my state of mind.
When the US election happened and Trump won, I fell off a cliff for the next few months.
I don’t think I’m alone in having felt that spectrum of emotion: hope to disbelief to despair. And, as a Canadian, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether that tide of unbelievability and surprise and chaos that Trump and his nationalist ilk represent will start spilling over into Canada.
Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, by Michael Adams, attempts to answer that question. Adams, a prominent Canadian pollster and market researcher, uses this book to examine how opinions on political topics have converged and diverged between Canada and the US, focusing on such issues as immigration, Islamophobia, and income inequality.
By necessity, this book is short. Adams needed to make it as up-to-the-minute as possible, and the book references extremely recent events within 2017, like the snap election in the UK this summer that caused a majority government to lose seats.
However, the answer that Adams presents, over and over, to the question of “could it happen here” is even shorter: it probably won’t.
Canadians, he says, consistently show a more open, tolerant, and progressive attitude towards several political issues than Americans do. Immigration? Overall, we’re okay with it, he says. Should the father be the “master” of the household? In general, he says, Canadians believe this far less often than Americans do. In his words, we may have our flirtations with nationalist, xenophobic thinking, but sooner or later we eventually “muddle to the middle”.
In other words, his research seems to justify a sense of Canadian exceptionalism. Isn’t that comforting?
Never mind that Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who shot 6 congregants at a mosque in Quebec City in January, hasn’t actually been charged with committing terrorism. Never mind that a conservative protester interrupted Jagmeet Singh during a speech and said that he was going to “bring Sharia law to Canada.” Never mind that Canada has shown itself perfectly capable of electing politicians who destroy archives of scientific research and have ties with alt-right media outlets.
Canada, Adams says, is resilient enough to recover from that sort of thing. But didn’t that optimism lead to the complacency that resulted in Trump and Brexit in the first place?
While he does address things like how Canada has a relative lack of gerrymandering compared to the US, he doesn’t examine the way that our first-past-the-post voting system gives disproportionate power to swing voters. Both Harper and Justin Trudeau won majorities despite getting only around 40% of the popular vote. If people consider it a travesty that Clinton lost despite winning the popular vote, how is this fact of Canadian politics any less disconcerting?
It doesn’t help that his prose is anodyne, filled with mealy-mouthed caveats and generalizations like this:
Similarly, the high level of support among Canadians for ethnocultural diversity doesn’t necessarily mean that some people won’t look askance at new neighbours whose religious customs are unfamiliar, or cast votes for traditionalist politicians who hint at bringing in more socially conservative policies if elected. The question is whether shared public services offer a suitably weighty counterbalance to the socioeconomic and racial sorting that is redrawing the geographies of our largest urban regions. Does the taxi driver with the PhD who can’t find suitable work become radicalized in his marginalization? Does his anger trigger a backlash among affluent urbanites, who lose confidence in immigration if low-income newcomers become more dependent on social services instead of becoming culturally integrated citizens contributing to the country’s economic growth?
The answer is that there seems to be a constellation of other factors and shared values that have prevented this kind of downwards spiral – some combination of policies that do produce upwards mobility, plus, crucially, a public discourse that emphasizes the benefits of a tolerant and welcoming society as opposed to a closed and hostile one.
It also doesn’t help that Adams treats Brexit and the 2016 election as purely democratic phenomena when there is significant speculation that voting machines were hacked in the US and that Russian organizations had notable ties to both the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Canadian people may be more tolerant, but that doesn’t preclude outside actors from trying to exert undue influence.
I wanted to like Could It Happen Here? I wanted to be encouraged by it. But its insistence on saying that Canada is inherently more tolerant and more resilient than other western democracies sounds very naive.