Let us get past the surface level topics which Continental Divide revolves. It is easy to become distracted in Lipset’s depiction of Canada and America. He recognized both societies had undergone dramatic change throughout the twentieth century that transformed their political images. The book is now thirty years old. It’s almost as old as I am. Some of his insights into Canadian and American culture continue to stand, but the political landscape has been transformed. A common theme within the work of Lipset is “the end of ideology.” Early in his career the political environment largely accepted the necessity for an expanded role for the government. Late in his career the zeitgeist had reversed, and deregulation was widely accepted. It amazed Lipset how little differentiation existed between the political left and right even as the political environment changed. It seemed to him everyone was a socialist until everyone was a capitalist. Today politics is defined by intense polarization and extremism. But this era gives Lipset’s masterpiece of comparative politics greater weight and meaning. Allow me to explain why I have grown obsessed with Seymour Martin Lipset.

The historical divide between the United States and Canada dates to the American Revolution. This is the era when the boundaries were established geographically. But a cultural divide emerged during this period as well. The United States established a political mythology based on a liberal ideology of individual rights. There is no comparable background to the creation of Canada as a country. Its independence emerged gradually over time. There was no clear moment which defined Canada’s national origin. Consequently, Lipset argues Canada is a nation in search of its identity. The Canadian political tradition was never revolutionary. On the contrary, it offered a counter-revolutionary narrative. So, while the United States embraced the liberal tradition, Canada remained quite conservative. The British Parliament of the time was divided between Whigs and Tories. America reflected the principles of the Whigs, while Canada became the refuge of the Tories.

But this account fails to explain the Canada and America of today. The United States was already more conservative than Canada when Lipset published this book. Americans were more religious and held more traditional values than Canadians. But this represented a change over the past two hundred years. Modernization had transformed politics in both nations in unique ways, but it had completely shifted the ideological landscape. Canadians today are more liberal. Indeed, they have embraced a degree of socialism Americans have fundamentally resisted. It is most evident in health care policy where Canada established a form of universal coverage decades ago while the United States continues to resist efforts to socialize medicine.

It is Lipset’s genius which recognized the contrasting strains within their political traditions. Some theorists simply believed the political and cultural differences were symptomatic of different stages of economic modernization. The United States has historically had a higher per capita income. It continues to have a slight edge, but its advantage has largely been erased for a long time while differences in their politics have remained. Lipset understood there were deep cultural differences between the way Americans and Canadians approached politics. Moreover, it was naïve to refer to this difference simply as conservative and liberal or left and right. There was a fundamental difference in their approaches to governance which are best described as philosophical rather than ideological.

It may be difficult for the reader to wrap their head around the notion that a fundamentally conservative tradition made a natural evolution to socialism. It is also difficult to understand how the radical politics of the United States became a fundamentally conservative nation. Samuel Huntington is not alone when he argues the American revolution wasn’t all that revolutionary. He argues American political institutions evolved in a premodern incubator which was isolated from the transformations of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. He calls them Tudor institutions to reflect how they predate the shift toward the consolidation of power under parliament. But Lipset sees the American Revolution as radical especially within comparison to the Canadian response. The radical vision of governance within the United States focuses on the rights of the individual. In contrast, Canadian political philosophy places an emphasis on political obligations. These contrasting political philosophies had gigantic consequences as political modernization led to democratization.

It helps to reflect upon the phenomenon of American individualism. Typically, a youthful America is contrasted with Europe. An expansive environment emphasized individual contributions and personal responsibility. The West especially was described as a vast wilderness devoid of law where every person is expected to make their own way. The American hero fights injustice largely outside the law. Americans have found ways to glorify their outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid through songs, stories and movies. Even Wyatt Earp is glorified because he approached the law like an outlaw. But Canada also has wide expanses of wilderness, yet its culture has glorified the symbol of law found in the Canadian Mounties. Moreover, its people have shown a greater deference for the law even when its presence was not directly felt. Relationships with Native Americans were better in Canada because its government and its people showed greater deference to their agreements. Lipset believes the rugged individualism of American culture was never based in its geographical environment. Rather, it was deeply entrenched within the political psyche of Americans long before the West became mythologized.

Lipset recognizes how a political philosophy is different from an ideology. It is a subtle but remarkably important distinction with implications for ideas about democracy. Debates between the left and right largely revolve around public policy. It is easier to become passionate about policy than the political process. But a political philosophy goes even deeper than process. It defines the relationship between the individual and the state. Indeed, it impacts the larger culture. The American political philosophy focuses on individual rights while Canadians focus on individual obligations. These contrasting approaches to governance help explain their divergent political histories.

The United States has fostered a rights-based political culture. The litigious environment has evolved out of disagreements over rights. Social programs focus on entitlements rather than a corresponding sense of obligation to contribute to social welfare. This odd dichotomy has fostered an odd truce between Democrats and Republicans where social programs are largely debt-financed to allow for a gradual reduction in taxes since the Reagan era. Consequently, the national debt has continued to climb despite a concerted effort to constrain expenses. Social Security is America’s largest social program, but it is financed not through taxes but “contributions.” The program has gained wide acceptance because its benefits are derived from each person’s contributions throughout their career. But this approach leads to a regressive distribution of benefits where the most affluent receive the greatest benefits. This outcome makes little social sense since high income earners should have the disposable income to save for their own retirement. Ultimately, the program is based not on a philosophy of social obligation, but entitlement rights.

Illiberal populism exploits the liberal emphasis on rights. It is largely a consequence rather than a cause of polarization. As people come to believe they have a right to their political demands, they become dissatisfied when their views are not reflected in public policy. Populism reinterprets democracy as a right to impose a political agenda upon the community. Populists simply believe it is their right for political policies to reflect their demands. But democracy requires gradual compromises to form public consensus because it is impossible for everyone to get their way.

Canada has delayed its descent into polarization and populism because it offers a contrasting political philosophy. Democracy is sometimes described as a human right, but it is better recognized as an obligation. The conservative Tory tradition is largely misinterpreted as an obligation to the state. Lipset correctly recognized it emphasized an obligation to the law. This is a subtle difference with enormous implications. Democracy is the natural consequence of the rule of law. It is not possible to offer equality under the law so long as rigid social classes remain. Ultimately, there is a necessity for the people to take control of their own governance. This approach redefines democratic governance as an obligation. Each person has an obligation to each other to make democracy work.

Democratic theory has often emerged out of the liberal tradition. Liberal democracy emphasizes individual rights within democratic governance. But there is an alternate conservative approach to democracy where it becomes an obligation rather than a right. Of course, rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. Yet the weight we place on one or the other is pivotal to our philosophy of governance. Neither approach belongs exclusively to the political left or right. Rather I am writing about a philosophy for how we govern rather than the decisions of governance. Lipset was a giant of political science in his time. His ideas have become more relevant in the era of polarization. Illiberal populism is the great challenge for democratic theory. It will require people to reinterpret the foundations of democratic governance, but it will eventually give us new insights which will help us better understand the meaning of democracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

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