The mysteries of political philosophy | Columns


TORONTO — The great Canadian historian John Bartlet Brebner, who taught at the University of Toronto before moving to Columbia, once said Americans were benevolently ignorant about Canada while Canadians were malevolently well-informed about the United States. Had he not died 60 years ago, he would have been astonished to see just how well-informed Canadians are about American affairs today, and how malevolently they view their neighbor to the south.

How malevolently? An Environics Institute for Survey Research study showed that just over four Canadians in 10 hold a favorable view of the United States, a low point in the three decades the organization has examined this matter. Meanwhile, during a 10-day survey period this past winter, President Donald J. Trump’s overall approval rating here in Canada hit a high of 28 percent and a low of just 15 percent.

Trump’s unpopularity is only one element in this phenomenon, though his determination to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement has most unsettled Canadians. They see flaws in the pact, but they worry the president’s negative view of trade agreements endangers a vital link between the two countries.

But Canadians — many as preoccupied with the president and with our politics as Americans are this year — are mystified about the U.S. political system in general, and their bewilderment might be distilled to one sentence:

In no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.

Now that wasn’t written in the 21st century, and it wasn’t set out by a Canadian, though it was written in French. It does, however, bear serious consideration by Americans, and not only because its author is Alexis de Toqueville. The passage is the opening of Book II of his classic “Democracy in America,” written in 1835.

Even Americans might agree that in our current condition it is hard to discern a general philosophy to our politics. Canadians surely feel that way.

The president is the second Republican chief executive of his party to come to office in three dozen years as a onetime Democrat. Ronald Reagan had an easily identifiable credo — keep government small and the country strong — that has no analogue in the Trump repertoire, which is more a slogan (Make America Great Again) and a vague goal (win) than a governing philosophy.

Nor do the Republicans or Democrats on Capitol Hill espouse a philosophy. The Reagan Republicans believed in small government, unaware of, or unburdened by, the notion that many of the original Republicans favored big government — government big enough to enforce its notions of civil rights in the South after the Civil War. At that time, it was the Democrats who believed in restraining Washington, for those political figures, clustered in the South, reckoned that a small government would have little interest in imposing its race views on the conquered Confederacy, and even less capacity to do so.

The Republicans adjusted their views as they became the party of industrialization, favoring tariffs to protect America’s fledgling manufacturing expansion from competition. They eventually morphed into a pro-business party, the top protectionist being William McKinley, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But as president, McKinley understood that America’s continued industrial and agricultural production growth required overseas markets. He formulated what he called “reciprocity” — still believing in tariffs, but hoping to negotiate bilateral agreements where American trade barriers could be reduced if other nations reduced theirs.

“McKinley represented a turning point in the thinking of Republicans on trade and the need for a more balanced approach,” said Robert Merry, author of a forthcoming biography of the 25th president. “Later it was Republicans who gave the country the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which aborted McKinley’s approach.”

By 1952, the Republicans had become — no demerits if you can’t follow this — a free-trade party. But it won’t remain that way if the current Republican president has his way; he is a general skeptic of trade agreements, an important departure from his party’s recent heritage — but a central element of his appeal in the election.

It was in that campaign that Trump spoke for the people who considered themselves victims of the trade agreements at the heart of Clintonism. But during the campaign, Hillary Clinton, once an advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, made a midcourse correction, abandoning that pact in the face of opposition from voters who eventually would abandon her as well.

As General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt argued recently at Georgetown University, globalization “became synonymous with outsourcing and low wages.” He added: “Somehow, ‘global thinkers’ grew increasingly distant from the needs at ground level. We made globalization its own political party. The ‘party’ saw globalization as a theory, rather than understanding the impact on normal people.”

But the contradictions in American civic life get deeper the more deeply you examine our politics. No wonder our Canadian neighbors can’t understand us. Most Americans can’t either.

“We have the same liter

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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