Escape to Canada and the Ethics of Democracy
In the wake of President Bush’s re-election, there has been an avalanche of curses, accusations and dire warnings from mourning Kerry supporters, many of them angrily impugning the intelligence, motives, or sanity of the 51% of the country who passed on the opportunity to put their champion in the White House. This sort of intemperate venting is traditional after hard-fought national elections, and is usually harmless at worst, providing that the venters return to rationality once they have let off steam.
But this election has also spawned more than the usual number of citizens who are proclaiming that “they have had enough.” The choice of the majority is so offensive to them and so ominous in its implications that they are moving to Canada. Here I am not talking about the empty bravado of movie actors like Alec Baldwin, who made this “threat” four years ago and yet still managed to hang around and torture the rest of us with movies like “The Cat in the Hat.” No, Canada is beckoning typical American citizens, if indeed we can call typical voters whose response to losing a civic debate about national policy is to take their marbles and go north.
Such a decision seems to be viewed in dark corners of the media and the left as romantic and inspiring, a demonstration of true passion and commitment. It is not. It is, rather, the conduct of those who neither comprehend the American political culture nor respect its philosophy and institutions.
Democracy is based on belief in the wisdom of the people when those people constitute an informed electorate. Interestingly, recent research has begun to show that such a belief is based on more than ideological optimism. In James Surowiecki’s fascinating book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” the author describes many case studies that strongly suggest that large groups are often capable of making better decisions than any one member of the group alone. Why? The primary reason seems to be that when each member of a group views a choice or a problem from a slightly different perspective, the cumulative effect of their judgements, though each by itself may be inadequate or flawed, is deep and perceptive. That conclusion is consistent with the history of democracy in this country, which in two centuries of being guided by majority vote has reached levels of achievement that no other system has matched.
But democracy requires that each citizen taking part in the process believe in and respect it. Even when one is shocked by an election’s outcome, a voter must be able to acknowledge, with no small investment of faith, that the majority’s decision may contain wisdom that the individual might have missed. This is critical to the strength of our institutions, as America always must balance its celebration of individualism with its recognition that even the most independent among us must make concessions to the welfare of the community. The citizens who react to the election of someone other than their favored candidate with an abandonment of the community have signaled their breach of a promise. For just as your political opponents take part in an election agreeing to abide by the wisdom of the majority, so must you. To expect them to abide by your will if it prevails while being unwilling to reciprocate in kind is both unfair and dishonest, and is evidence of an unwillingness to commit to democracy as a either a concept or as a governing tool.
If you only support democracy when it supports you, then your version of it differs little from the “democracy” practiced by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and other despots, who received overwhelming majorities in elections because the electorate knew that no contrary vote would be tolerated or survived.
The discouraged Kerry supporter, Andrew Veal, who recently killed himself in despair at Ground Zero constructed his own fantasy totalitarian American state that punished him for opposing the majority. But of course, the state that took his life existed only in his mind. In America we honor and encourage an election’s minority, because we know that it may well contain the seeds of the next majority given the intervention of time, history, and consideration. After the 25 year old’s body was discovered, Jeffim Kuznetsov, a student friend of Veal’s, said, “This election is devastating to all who believe in democracy.” And he was completely wrong.
If you believe in American democracy, then the election cannot be “devastating.” Disappointing, puzzling perhaps, but not devastating. America, as it has in the past, has just observed two competing candidates for the highest American office and made a judgement passionately, peacefully, and finally. The continuation of the process is for all sides to accept the outcome, hope fervently that the winner does well for the country and the world, and pledge their assistance when it is needed. Blowing yourself to Kingdom Come, or, slightly less desperately, exiling yourself to the Great White North, is both a rejection of democracy and an effort to undermine it.
Ah, but some of our aspiring Canadians cite survival as their true motive. The policies of President Bush, they say, portend disaster, eventual annihilation by the Muslim zealots whose hatred we have fanned into fury. How can one question an action taken for self-preservation?
Easily, and the argument does not even have to dismantle the highly dubious logic behind an aspiring emigrant’s fears. America and Americans have benefited greatly from the country’s natural advantages, one of which has been its geographical removal from the epicenter of most of the world’s wars. With the help of those advantages, the country has had the chance to carry out a risky 200 year experiment in freedom, and through its results has become the most productive, creative, comfortable, rich and powerful nation on earth. Correctly and ethically, the country has not chosen to isolate itself and hoard its blessings, but has been willing to risk lives and resources on behalf of the cause of freedom worldwide. Success and visibility now has made America the prime target of cultures and organizations that see us as symbolic of all that is wrong with their world, and for the first time, American citizens must live with the same risk of potential harm that European civilians have lived with for centuries. Now, after absorbing all of America’s benefits in relative safety, we have come to a time when we each need to take a more active part in the support of American principles, and be willing to face potential danger in the process.
We owe our country that much, and more. Fleeing to Canada is an arrogant and ignorant act, and it is also profoundly cowardly. John Kerry isn’t taking his millions and flying off to a life as a professional wind-surfer in Pago-Pago; he’s going to stay in Washington D.C. and work for America. He believes in democracy, and just as he has before, he is willing to risk his safety on her behalf. In his quintessentially American commitment to our institutions and values, Kerry has antecedents going all the way back to the founding of the United States, when Pennsylvania’s John Dickenson, the Continental Congress’s most eloquent and passionate voice against American severance from the British Empire, agreed to vote for ratification of the Declaration of Independence once it was clear that an overwhelming majority of his colleagues favored it. Then, still convinced that the Revolution was folly and would lead to disaster, he enlisted in the army and fought for the fledgling United States of America.
Canada is a wonderful country, but its aspirations, values and influence on the world are profoundly different from those of its flamboyant southern neighbor. Being an American has always meant more than simply living in America. It signifies traits of character and idealism, including perseverance, respect, determination, responsibility, citizenship, sacrifice, risk-taking, and courage. Abandoning America when the majority opposed them was not in the repertoire of John Adams, or Abraham Lincoln, or Frederick Douglass, or Susan B. Anthony, or Samuel Gompers, or Martin Luther King, or Ralph Nader. It is the impulse of Thomas Paine’s “summer soldier,” who doesn’t understand that the rights and benefits of freedom carry responsibilities as well, one of which is to stay and fight for what you believe. So, sadly, this leaves only one thing to say to the distraught Kerry supporters on their way to Canada.