Monday, January 26, 2009

J. Kaufman's "The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences"

Jason Kaufman is a sociologist and historian. He is the author of For the Common Good? American Civil Society and the Golden Age of Fraternity and numerous articles on American politics and culture. He is the former John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, where he is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences, and reported the following:
In a nutshell, Origins tries to answer a question that I have often mulled over with left-leaning friends: Why can’t the US be more like Canada? Even with a liberal President in the White House and a Conservative Prime Minister in Ottawa, the US is likely to remain a more competitive, litigious, individualistic place than Canada. Origins explores four centuries of North American history in search of answers.

Page 99 itself relates a little known fact about the American revolution: On the brink of the War of Independence, many Americans were just as upset over the King of England’s recent grant of religious freedom to French-Canadians (via the Quebec Act of 1774) as they were over issues relating to colonial political representation, taxation, and so forth.

Anti-Catholicism was a chief cause of the American Revolution!

Page 99 quotes famous patriot Samuel Adams, for example, who says, “I did verily believe, and I do so still, that much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery [i.e. Catholicism] in America, than from the Stamp Acts of any other Acts destructive of civil rights.”

Page 99 also relates how American military strategy in the ensuing War of Independence (mistakenly) revolved around the belief that French-Canadians could be easily convinced to join in this uprising against their English King. When Quebec rebuffed American diplomacy –led by none other than Benjamin Franklin — the American army tried, unsuccessfully, to invade Quebec. (Think Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

Lest you be misled, however, this episode is not mustered in an effort to harp on the Protestant origins of American exceptionalism but to point out the unusual nature of Canada’s founding. By nesting and protecting a pocket of French-Catholics in Anglo-Protestant Canada, the English colonial government laid the groundwork for many of Canada’s contemporary virtues: multi-culturalism; immigrant-friendly people and policies; a long tradition of respecting provincial and local rights; and a government dedicating to mitigating inequality and conflict across and among diverse peoples.

Most democratic countries don’t achieve even half of this. Canada does, I argue, in part because the Quebec Act of 1774 forced all Canadians to at least tacitly respect people from other ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. In contrast, the early American colonial system thrived on conflict, perpetually pitting colony against colony, group against group, and person against person in a winner-take-all system that still flourishes today.

The rest of the book is, I hope, equally as wide-ranging in its observations and conclusions. In particular, it examines how the ‘frontier’ was settled differently in the two countries, and how that impacted their respective economic, political, and civic systems; it also looks at legal culture and conflict-arbitration techniques in both societies over time; and it focuses on how many of the founding visions of each country were undermined over time, for better and worse.
Read an excerpt from The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences, and learn more about the author and his work at Jason Kaufman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue