Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Brace yourself: A classic US election is only four months away

While the promise of stable government passes for political discourse in Canada, the Americans are playing out Act One of a classic American drama.

Necessary bipartisan problem-solving will return to Washington with the winners and only a handful of losers will give up and move to Canada. In the meantime, however, Americans will participate in a bitter, high-stakes debate and then a decision about who should guide American power at home and abroad.

The least certain—the deciders—will be swayed by the most certain. So, both Obama and Romney and their campaigns will have to keep raising the temperature.

The prospect of a loud, divisive election is unnerving. Too much shouldn’t be decided on in one day. Also, it compromises good government to tie elected representatives to too many detailed positions in advance of assuming their responsibilities. These concerns have been around as long as mass democracy on this continent. Fortunately, the American public—like people everywhere—quickly tires of loud-mouths and inflexible dreams.

In event, one postponed decision after another and one political calculation after another have forced a big election on America. So, Americans: Enjoy the Fourth of July because the next four months will be hard work.

There’s a school of opinion that extreme language in American politics is uniquely American—that it’s in your character. Writers who want to find something pleasingly different to say about how Canadians practice democracy can be counted on to call us temperate and Americans, less so.

In John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, a character is quoted favorably in the Literary Review of Canada this month saying:

“But don’t you see how your … opinions can be disturbing?” a Canadian confides to him. “It’s very American—to have opinions … as strong as your opinions. It’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions.”

You can’t overstate the abundance of fresh water up here. But, our reputation for watery opinions is exaggerated. Canada’s persistence as a British Dominion is testament enough to the power of dogged opinion over almost all else. 

What may have caught Irving's attention is our reticence. Yet, that isn’t a virtue in a democracy or in a family of adults.

The faith that energizes America’s extravagant democracy is profound: Americans who are attracted to politics or simply love their country still believe that their fellow Americans are persuadable.

That’s what brings their opinions to the service; that’s the optimism that we should celebrate with Americans today.

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