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.