WD Fyfe

A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society

American Election 101

It’s that time again — time for the American elections.  Remember how much fun we had last time with McCain and Palin?  It was way better than Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and Monica Lewinsky.  Anyway, Canadians love American elections but like most things American, we don’t really understand them.  So what I’ve done is prepare a quick cheat sheet to explain the finer points.  In most cases, I’ve compared their system to ours, but some things just don’t translate into our language.  Regardless, feel free to print this and keep it by the TV as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart and all the rest of your favourites duke it out ‘til November.

Americans elect everybody, not just Barack Obama.  They elect governors and senators, judges, and sheriffs, and sometimes even the guy who does the laundry, depending on which state you’re in.  Everybody!  Most of these elections don’t mean anything, even to the people doing the voting.  So you get weird things happening like Jesse (The Body) Ventura, a former professional wrestler, getting elected Governor of Minnesota.

In Canada, we elect a few things like MPs and MLAs, but, in general, we don’t let the serious business of government fall to the fickle whims of the public.  So we appoint most of our people.  People like Frank (Big M) Mahovlich a former professional hockey player, who was appointed to the Senate in 1998.  He scored 533 goals in the NHL.

In America politics is a participation sport – everybody who wants to gets a whack at it.  If you have an issue you’re concerned about, you can jump right in there.  You can find people who think the same way you do, organize them and take part in the body politic.  Then, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, you might find yourself or your candidate available to run in a primary election where other citizens vote for or against you and your issue.  All you have to do to start this process is register to vote.

In Canada, politics is a spectator sport.  Everybody watches carefully but the game is only played by lawyers, teachers and social workers, who are called “They.” And what it comes down to is this:

“Are you going to vote?”

“Probably, but “they” are just going to screw us again.”

America has a two party system.  They have one party which is right wing and conservative, called the Democrats, and they have another party that is further right wing and even more conservative called the Republicans.

As I mentioned before, in Canada, we have only one party called “They.”  This party split into two factions in 1873 when John A Macdonald and his friends got bribed and Alexander Mackenzie and his friends didn’t.  Even after all these years, “They” remain suspicious of each other, carefully calculating how much money each faction gets to distribute to its friends and screaming bloody murder if one side gets more.  “They” come together at election time and divide up the country in various ways.  Then, after the election “They” bugger off and go back to squabbling.

America has a vibrant political media.  They have talk radio, newspapers, magazines and tons of blogs and websites.  But the big hitters are on TV — lined up directly against each other — on two gigantic television outlets, Fox and MSNBC.  They act like a bunch of drunken pirates swearing and brawling across the airwaves.  They hiss and spit.  They call each other names.  They bite.  They pull hair.  They fight it out in the alley with chains.  They don’t have any rules, and they don’t give a damn who gets in the way.  This goes on non-stop 24/7.  They don’t even take a break for Christmas.

In Canada, we have the CBC with Peter Mansbridge and that “mild and crazy guy” George Stroumboulopoulos.  These shows are on late in the evening, but most people who watch CBC have PVRs now so they can tape them and watch them the next day — after Jeopardy and The Wheel.

Americans have election issues, like Health Care Reform, Illegal Immigration, Gay Rights in the Military and The Economic Stimulus Package.  They take these issues seriously.  They debate them vigorously, putting their opinions forward and arguing their points, pro and con.  Candidates let the people know where they stand on these issues and defend their positions in open debate.

We have no such concept in Canada.  There are certain things we just don’t talk about in public – it’s considered rude.  In some places, it’s even illegal to discuss certain things.

Just a few other notes to enhance your election experience:

  • 1 – Americans have a different culture than we do — just like every other country in the world — places like China, India, Mali, and Greece.  So when they do something we don’t understand, they’re not just trying to piss us off.  Tolerance is important.
    2 – A southern accent doesn’t necessarily mean stupid.  It just sounds that way.
    3 – Don’t try to figure out the primaries.  As I’ve already told you, certain things just don’t translate into our language.
    4 – Americans are not as anti-American as we are.  Despite what you might see in The Huffington Post or on Jon Stewart, they just aren’t.  You’ll have to trust me on this one.

And finally, a word of warning:

This is an off-year election which means a lot of things to Americans.  It is very complicated politically and extremely important.  Each election is significant.  It will dictate not only the makeup of the current Congress but also set the stage for future elections and determine the direction of the country for years to come.

What does this means to Canadians on election night?    Seriously, it’s not going to be like 2008.  It’s going to be dull.  You won’t know or care about 99% of the candidates.  Barack Obama isn’t running so it’s not going to be sexy, and the only dumb ass so far is Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (and that’s going to be over pretty early.)  Be prepared to switch channels, and don’t feel bad if you don’t have much fun.  But, stay tuned because it’s only 2 more years until Obama runs again.


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