Canada, you can learn from our recent electoral pratfalls
by Paul Constant
I’ve been in a dire mood over the last week for reasons that will become abundantly clear, so permit me a cheerful digression before we get started. Let me tell you about the funniest thing in the whole world. You know those illustrated boards at tourist spots with head-shaped holes and funny bodies painted on them? Say, the body of a muscleman with no head standing next to the headless body of a curvy beach babe? Then you stick your head through the hole and someone takes your picture with the ludicrous cartoon body seemingly sticking out of your neck? If the tourists are feeling especially wacky, the guy puts his head on top of the bikini girl’s body and the woman looks like she’s got a hunky bodybuilder’s physique. Some people call them head-in-the-holes. They’re not the funniest thing in the world.
The funniest thing in the world — and this is practically a subgenre in YouTube compilations of hilarious, painful accidents — is when people get stuck in the head-in-the-holes, lose their balance, and fall forward. At first they’re mugging for the camera, grinning senselessly, the way only tourists can. And when they’re in the middle of horsing around, they tip the head-in-the-hole forward. You can see the moment when they realize what’s happening; their faces fade from mirthful to terrified in a nanosecond. Finally, they fall forward and without their arms to protect them they smack face-first into the ground. Whenever I see that simple, naked helplessness in the face of gravity, I laugh. Every time.
That’s what just happened to the United States in the midterm elections last Tuesday.
At the beginning of the year, we liberals were feeling pretty good about ourselves. The Republicans had foolishly shut the government down for no apparent reason besides the fact that President Obama is black. My home city of Seattle passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Gay marriage was blossoming around the country. Progressive causes were doing okay, is what I’m saying. We were playing it up for the cameras, feeling pretty damn good about ourselves.
But then we lost our balance. It wasn’t any one particular thing, but we could still see it coming. The Obamacare website rollout didn’t work very well. Thanks in part to a sluggish recovery for the middle class, President Obama’s approval ratings are low; they’re not George W. Bush-low, but they’re well below 50 percent. Plus, there’s historical precedent; the sitting president’s party often loses a lot of seats in their second term’s midterm election. Combine that imbalance with the fact that the Supreme Court basically demolished our campaign finance reform laws over the last few years and sheer demographic gravity — midterm elections usually over-represent white, older, male voters, who almost always vote Republican — and all of a sudden liberals have got a black eye, a bloody nose, our left front tooth is chipped, and all the yokels at the carnival are pointing their half-eaten corn dogs at us and laughing. What’s hilarious on YouTube is frightening in real life.
How bad was it? Democrats lost their Senate leadership. They took a big hit in the already-Republican House. Republican governors won Democratic strongholds in the Northeast. More than 70 percent of our state legislatures are under Republican control now. Races that were polling as tossups went conservative in a big way. Every race that could go wrong, did go wrong.
Within two days of the election, House leadership was promising more pushes to repeal Obamacare — a futile gesture, since Republicans in Congress don’t hold a veto-proof majority, but Republicans have voted to repeal our Affordable Care Act over 50 times in the last four years, so by now it’s a pleasant hobby. In a post-election press conference, President Obama predicted Republicans were going to overrule him frequently and so he vowed to do as much as he could on his own with executive orders. Republicans responded by calling him an arrogant “man-child.”
The next two years are going to see the cliché of gridlock in Washington DC transform into something even more sinister—say, a mall parking lot on the weekend before Christmas.
Even though the Democratic Party failed in a big way on a national level, liberals succeeded in localized pockets throughout the country. Marijuana legalization passed almost everywhere it was on the ballot. Votes to raise the minimum wage passed in liberal and conservative strongholds across the country (it’s not often that Oakland and Arkansas agree on anything). In fact, every proposed minimum wage raise passed last week, a rare case of consensus in America.
In my home state of Washington, we accomplished something no other state has: we happily passed a common-sense gun control law that requires background checks to be done at gun shows. Why did Americans vote for positive liberal achievements in their own backyards while at the same time voting more power into the hands of a bunch of regressive goons on the national level? Who knows, exactly? We never claimed to have the smartest voters on Earth. And besides, only about a third of all eligible voters managed to cast a ballot in the midterms. That’s not what I’d call a representative sample.
Which brings me to you, Canada. There are plenty of lessons you can learn from our bad example. First of all, your voter turnout record is much better than America, but I’ve noticed it’s been declining in recent years (two of the lowest turnouts in your entire history of federal elections have happened in the last six years). That has to stop. Our insane mess down here — a system where members of the two parties are practically afraid to be photographed in the same room with each other — has come about in part because two-thirds of us can’t be bothered to vote in non-presidential election years.
Also, you can’t let the right keep pushing the conversation rightward. Are you familiar with the concept of the Overton window, Canada? It’s the small spectrum of political ideas the general public will accept as tolerable, and conservatives down here have demonstrated an astounding knack for pulling that spectrum rightward by acting more and more crazy. Your conservatives, with their tax cuts, deregulations and loosening of gun control laws, are taking baby steps toward becoming our Republicans. They’re forcing acceptable political conversation to shift and believe me, that’s a difficult conversation to change. It’s getting to the point now in America where if you dare suggest that a suburban adult male doesn’t need an assault rifle with armor piercing rounds, you are an enemy of the Constitution and likely a socialist. It wasn’t always like this, but when popular talk radio hosts regularly accuse anyone who wants nationalized health care of being worse than Hitler, the societal concept of acceptability changes, and not for the better.
The United States has gracelessly fallen down in public more times than I can count in my adult life. But in some ways, this midterm election was the most humiliating of them all, because we could see it coming. There’s nothing worse than seeing the earth flying straight at your face and knowing it’s impossible to dodge.
Take my word for this, Canada: electoral degradation is not as funny as it looks when it’s happening to you.
Paul Constant is Prairie Dog’s Official American™. He’s the books editor and blog editor at Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, and you can read his work at www.thestranger.com.