The Canadian and American Debates: Ice and Fire?

Watching the debates – both the Canadian and US Veep contest – last night I was struck by how the debates both reflect each country’s political traditions and, in doing so ran counter to some old myths we have about Canadians and Americans.

In the US I thought that Biden easily trumped Palin – who managed to survive without too many big gaffs (although there were some very painful moments). In Canada, I thought May was the most interesting – aggressive, but grounded. Layton was good and Dion was not bad as well. Duceppe seemed relatively disengaged and Harper suffered both from the fact that he was able to rise above the fray and that he was getting attacked on all sides. Killer line of the night – delivered by Layton against Harper – came during an exchange of whether or not the Conservatives had a plan for the economy: “Where’s the platform, under the sweater?

More interesting than who won however, is what the debates say about the United States and Canada. Each of the debate formats seemed to play to the traditions of the office and political system of its participants. In Canada I feel this was a first – we finally got the format right. Rather than try to adopt the US presidential template, this year’s Canadian debate was downright parliamentarian in its style: raucous, aggressive, with lots of back and forth. Personally, I believe this was both more effective and engaging for the audience. Unlike presidents, who often try to stay above the fray, parliamentarians should be in the thick of it – and this debate format allowed these skills and that energy to come to the fore.

In contrast the US veep debate was very controlled, orderly and, well, patrician in comparison. As with the Presidential debate there was virtually no back and forth. Very little sparring and engagement between the principles. Indeed, the participants were almost passive aggressive – a little dig here or there – rather than engaging one another in battle. But then, this also reflects the traditional of the executive branch in the United States, which historically has often been patrician, less partisan and above the fray of congress (and especially the house of representatives). Presidents don’t debate people once in office like a Prime Minister does during Question Period – they lecture and talk, such as during the State of the Union.

I find the difference in debate styles still more interesting since they seem to run counter to the ideas Canadians and Americans have about each other and themselves. Michael Adams, when writing about Canadians and Americans in his 2004 best seller, entitled his work Fire and Ice to highlight that there was a (growing) difference between the two country’s cultures. Watching these two debates doesn’t make me believe the two country’s culture are converging, but it does feel like they are inversed.

The Canadian debate was downright aggressive. Attacks were unrelenting, constant interrupting, candidates raising their hands in despair, shouting one down. Looked at under different circumstances, I’m sure many Canadians would have considered it all to be very… American.

In contrast the American debate appeared all civilized, and yet had a strong under current of passive aggression. Everybody was very polite and on their best behaviour, even as they sought to tear into their counterpart – in a polite way of course. Watching the debate, it struck me as all very… well… Canadian.

It’s like for one evening Canadians and Americans switched personalities. We had an engaging, aggressive, uncompromising format where the issues and the people came out. The Americans candidates were forced to be polite and thus passive aggressive. Or perhaps there was no switch… it really was like hockey versus baseball. One’s a contact sport, the other isn’t. I just never thought I’d say that about our respective politics.

11 thoughts on “The Canadian and American Debates: Ice and Fire?

  1. Igniter

    David – great post. Was thinking much the same and am wondering how much of it has to do with the increased number of participants and that more than I can remember the leaders seeming so deeply, personally passionate. Seems like they feel there is a lot riding on this election. The fire was fantastic.On a side note it was also interesting to see after the debate how cbc even picked up on twitter – showing some tweets and graphing the twitter activity along the election timeline to find highs and lows. Politics has never been so interesting.

    Reply
  2. SB

    I was really happy with the Canadian debate — it showed the real diversity of political opinion in Canada — so lacking in the United States.It's a bad thing that the center-left vote is split amongst 4 parties — but it is very healthy for Canadian democracy to have such a wide spectrum of views.The *entire* US political spectrum is to the right of the Cons in Canada — imagine Obama saying that he's “never used private health insurance” or that he wants the US to be a country of peace and fairness in the world — would never happen.We have it good, comparatively speaking. Harper wants to make it worse and must be defeated or slowed down.

    Reply
  3. Michael Molson

    Good one David – my thoughts exactly. I was surprised at the vigorous spontaneous nature of the Canadian debate and likewise at the staleness of the American one. I thought May was the surprise – envived and engaging. Layton was good too although unfortunately he is heading the wrong party.On the US side I was looking forward to more gaffs on both sides but there were almost none to be had unfortunately. I guess the questions were pre-prepared. I was looking forward to some more fireworks from 'shoot-from-the-hip' Biden vs. 'the firecracka-from-Alaska' (you can't use that – i've trademarked it).

    Reply
  4. Brenton

    I am watching the Canadian debate now on cbc.ca, and I'm really enjoying it. Duceppe and Harper don't seem too engaged, but Dion, May and Layton were on fire. The structure is great, far more engaging than the podiums (podia?) of the past. Layton's sweater comment was brilliant, as was his jibe at Dion's lack of leadership while in Opposition. Further comments at http://brentonwalters.blogspot.com

    Reply
  5. Brenton

    I would love to see television ratings numbers. While talking to people last night about the election, many were watching the Canadian debate but checking in with the US V-P debate. Anyone have a link to this info?

    Reply
  6. Kim Feraday

    Great post — my only criticism was that having the debates back to back was too much for the candidates and at least for voters in Quebec. Making them a week apart would be good. Also it might be good to isolate some issues and allow some short one on one debates. One example is carbon tax versus cap and trade. Allow Dion and Layton, May and Layton to exchange on these issues. Would move away from the 4 on 1 and allow viewers to see how the parties compare and contrast. Tax policy would be another example — why each party is favouring different approaches.

    Reply
  7. david_a_eaves

    Hey everyone, thank you for the comments glad people are enjoying the post. Interesting to see the new numbers coming out in the polls. These have been, of course, quite volatile, so no need to put too much stock in them but they are interesting. Nano's daily poll which he just released (which is the first to take into account the french debate) has the liberals gaining serious ground. CPAC-Nanos Daily Election Tracking (ending October 2)CP 35LP 30 NDP 18 BQ 10GP 9

    Reply
  8. Brenton

    I am watching the Canadian debate now on cbc.ca, and I'm really enjoying it. Duceppe and Harper don't seem too engaged, but Dion, May and Layton were on fire. The structure is great, far more engaging than the podiums (podia?) of the past. Layton's sweater comment was brilliant, as was his jibe at Dion's lack of leadership while in Opposition. Further comments at http://brentonwalters.blogspot.com

    Reply
  9. Brenton

    I would love to see television ratings numbers. While talking to people last night about the election, many were watching the Canadian debate but checking in with the US V-P debate. Anyone have a link to this info?

    Reply
  10. Kim Feraday

    Great post — my only criticism was that having the debates back to back was too much for the candidates and at least for voters in Quebec. Making them a week apart would be good. Also it might be good to isolate some issues and allow some short one on one debates. One example is carbon tax versus cap and trade. Allow Dion and Layton, May and Layton to exchange on these issues. Would move away from the 4 on 1 and allow viewers to see how the parties compare and contrast. Tax policy would be another example — why each party is favouring different approaches.

    Reply
  11. david_a_eaves

    Hey everyone, thank you for the comments glad people are enjoying the post. Interesting to see the new numbers coming out in the polls. These have been, of course, quite volatile, so no need to put too much stock in them but they are interesting. Nano's daily poll which he just released (which is the first to take into account the french debate) has the liberals gaining serious ground. CPAC-Nanos Daily Election Tracking (ending October 2)CP 35LP 30 NDP 18 BQ 10GP 9

    Reply

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