There was never a time Canadians were this interested in an American election process, or, as they say, an American election cycle, which goes full steam for 18 exhausting months. Even people who never thought much about politics find themselves watching this one.
This American election cycle turned the usually predictable, stiff collared series of debates and speeches into a full blown vaudeville act. So often, commentators said, a new low in outrage was reached and Americans can now only hope the worst is behind them.
Regardless of what’s ahead, there’s something unique about having Donald Trump insult so many people. Crossing lines no one has dared cross before, people watch him on TV because they can’t imagine what he might say next. And therein is the fuse that lit up the primary race for the U.S. presidency.
A primary election debate normally draws an audience of about three million people. At its high point, one of the recent Republican debates drew 23 million. Like true theatre, pure entertainment is about people sitting on the edge of their seats not knowing what to expect.
Like a school yard fight, there is no doubt Trump started it, and the result was the pious atmosphere. For cable news networks, big money and big audiences are the dream of TV executives who hold their noses as politics is transformed into a spectacle that is ruled by the economics of how profitable outrage can be.
In the British parliamentary system, upon which so many democracies are based, the words “liar” and “lies” are outlawed by the rules of debate in parliament. For centuries, it has been considered rude, undignified and terribly insulting to state that an opponent is a liar, or that he or she told a lie. Well, so much for that.
In this American election race, calling an opponent a “liar” has become so common there is not the slightest speck of shock value left. It will be interesting to see how far it goes. Our neighbours have entered a new political world where anything goes, leaving them wondering just how low it can go.
When traditions, good and bad, are swallowed up by change, there are always brief periods of sadness. Nostalgic reflections are part of the mourning process. But, remarkably quickly, it becomes business as usual as the new reality replaces the old.
And while this huge sea change has occurred in the United States, it will not necessarily end there. We are fortunate in Canada. Our election campaign last fall was just winding down as Donald Trump was winding up, but you can sense in other Western capitals that the rules of engagement in the political world may very well be turning to a harsher reality. Just look at today’s world of hyper-connectivity with reality TV daring to go further and further.
It used to be reassuring to think leaders could oppose each other while respecting the rules of the game, as well as each other. While voters always knew in their hearts that real life wasn’t like that, at least they knew people in the public eye made an effort to set a higher standard for society to strive for.
In a utopian way, it was good to see political leaders lead the way in terms of proper codes of public discourse and decorum. For many, for so long, it actually provided examples of leadership qualities Americans were comfortable with. The problem was it was never authentic. Making it seem so was, and remains, the art of politics.
There is an indisputable truth about politics. Politics are about human beings trying to beat each other – and history tells us most political losers carry grudges forever. Within political parties, the interpersonal competition is ferocious. One’s opponents, it was once said, are one’s opponents, while people in one’s own party are the enemy.
Openly bringing politics to its baseline of human frailties like jealousy, greed and ego is a remarkable change, and abandoning political correctness means an unavoidable public display of ugliness. There is no middle ground.
How is it going to swing back to a more sane and subtle political environment? There is hope the American campaign will become more “presidential” now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. No doubt, however, the dykes have been sprung open.
Canadians can only hope the spillover is contained.