Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Spending time up north while the U.S. descended into a circus of political dread often felt a parallel universe.
I spent a good amount of the months leading up to Election Day in Canada. I thought the distance might insulate me from the parade of nightmares that this election season has become. It did not. Canadians—at least the ones I got to know—are more informed about (nay, morbidly fascinated by) the intricacies of U.S. politics than most Americans in my milieu. It dominates their media’s bandwidth, and a large share of conversations I had with friends and acquaintances.
That fascination put me in a position of having to explain my country a lot, because just what exactly is happening in America has become a valid and common question, abroad and at home. In Canada, it is asked with earnest, brow-furrowing worry, like a neighbor who keeps hearing an alarming crash next door. (This well-meaning anxiety is also on display in video campaigns produced to reassure Americans we are “already great,” and the hundreds of Canadians who’ve donated to the Clinton campaign.) In response, I’d pull out the usual explanations: a labor market that’s alienated white blue-collar workers; the scapegoating of immigrants among people who don’t really know any; an outsider strain in American politics, over-fed by a demagogue with over-easy answers; a centuries-old sinkhole of racism re-opened by Obama’s election.
But these answers always felt inadequate. America’s seam-splitting might be particularly hard to explain to Canadians because our countries have so many similarities. Our national economies resemble one another, as do the make-up and shape of many of our cities and suburbs. Our founding histories trace similar trajectories of Native American colonization and European clashes for control; we both wound up with Thanksgivings to commemorate that past. We speak the same primary language. The landmasses we both inhabit are vast, vast, vast, and geographically varied.
I wonder if that vastness has worked against America. This country is nearly four million square miles, with landscapes as diverse as the people and identities who shape and inhabit them. The 2016 election has cast a hard light on how tenuous any cohesive identity is, and perhaps always has been. To say we are all Americans—particularly when many of us hardly noticed the block of citizens who felt as if on the verge of extinction, until Trump came along—feels deeply questionable.
Instead there seem to be many Americas, increasingly divergent. You can see them even when they are in close proximity, even in the nation’s capital, where overbuilt luxury developments not far from Congress advertise the appeal of “coming home” while people sleep on the surrounding sidewalks. You see multiple Americas again not 90 minutes south into Virginia, where Confederate flags start flying just past I-495 and distrust for the federal government runs deep. More versions can be found turning north into Maryland’s suburban Montgomery County, with its white affluence, soaring black poverty, and immigrants struggling and prospering along fairly strict ethnic lines. The social, economic, and moral disconnects feel profound—and these are places within less than 60 square miles of each other. It doesn’t take a month-long, cross-country trip to meditate on this stuff, as Jim Yardley recently did for The New York Times, although that helps, too.
Canadians know vast. Their chunk of North America is even larger than ours. There is more than one Canada, too—the stark realities of life on aboriginal lands in the north, compared to affluent cities the world knows better, is just one example. Canada is an imperfect nation; examples of racialized policing and flare-ups of anti-Islam sentiments abound. Quebec still harbors secessionists who would happily see a return to 1970s Francophone nationalism—an era when many Canadians feared that the country seemed to be on the precipice of fracturing. And yet, today, the country is not breaking apart. Currently, larger national conversations are not about returning to an imagined time of “greatness.” Besides news coverage that is concerned (deeply!) with America, the top stories in Canada are about making life better, for more people.
Perhaps that sounds naive, but look at the headlines. Discussions revolve around reforming—not dismantling!—the health care system, which, by the way, is one of the top three factors that contribute to Canadians’ sense of national pride. Environmental issues also matter deeply to many citizens, and the federal government has made it a top goal to reduce carbon emissions and disinvest from dirty energy sources—a goal shared even by provinces with a lot to lose, financially speaking. Another big theme is improving relationships with indigenous peoples, especially through a rigorous government investigation of an epidemic of lost and murdered aboriginal women, who represent at least one in four Canadian female homicide victims. And that’s to say nothing of Canada’s overall embrace of Syrian refugees.
These priorities seem to have something in common: They’re informed by a collective interest in the future of fellow citizens. Is that what makes them virtually unimaginable in an American context? Americans outnumber our northern neighbors nearly tenfold, but I wonder if that sense of social compact also helps keep Canada feeling small, and most people’s interests on (more or less) the same page. By contrast, this U.S. election season seems uniquely fueled by a sense of individual alienation. The debates have centered strongly around the personal, mutual antipathies of the candidates themselves.
Spending time in Canada as the U.S. descended into a circus of political dread often felt like a parallel universe, a version of America that actually lived up to its old promises of melting-pot progress. In some ways it was refreshing to merely have to explain, rather than live among, my fellow Americans, splitting further apart on both the left and right. Within the U.S. and in Canada, there will always be political disagreements—that is why our respective party systems exist. But it’s hard not to wish for a stronger sense of collective interest motivating the American electorate. Looking at Canada suggests the distance we’ve yet to travel.