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Dumbing down the electorate

Are we getting dumber? More specifically, are Americans getting dumber, with Canadians following in their wake?
Looking at the political scene, we’d be forced to say ‘yes.’ And we’ve been doing nothing if not taking in the political theatre south of the border.

There’s nothing like watching American politics for sheer entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s more amusement than it is the thoughtful political philosophy of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Yet like an accident on the side of the highway, we can’t help but gawk.

As Canadians, we have the luxury of watching at a distance. While the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections have no direct impact on us, our boat will be rocked too, as we sail the same waters.

Americans are angry. So are we, though not to the same extent. And our outlets for anger are fewer and much less shrill. What’s playing out next door could be a version of our future. Go beyond the “entertainment” value of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin – who columnist Eric Margolis calls the patron saint of low IQ Americans – and we see just what politics has become in the U.S., and what it’s threatening to become here.

Dumb. Partisan. Bereft of policies. And the opposite of an engaged citizenry, despite the populist trappings.

Yes, Americans are angry. And scared. They have every right to be, given the state of their economy. But the anger is directed at the wrong targets. Supporters of the Tea Party movement who voted for fringe candidates Tuesday night do so in direct opposition to their own best interests. There’s the obvious stuff – the so-called grassroots organization was created and funded by the billionaire Koch family, which has been working for decades to undermine the public good for its own benefit. Then there’s the underlying issue of corporatism and consumerism-trumps-citizenship, far more difficult to get on the agenda, let alone resolve.

The problems in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, are complex. Partisan sniping and sloganeering won’t help. Apparently, that’s the best we can do. That’s why we have pundits yelling on TV. Ersatz politicians using homey platitudes – you betcha. And issues reduced to the lowest common denominator.

The crazy-making rhetoric was in full stride leading up to Nov. 2. It hasn’t subsided much since then, such is the polarization in the circus tent that is U.S. politics.

The gravel pit debate playing out in Woolwich provides something of an analogy for the political situation at play, albeit on a much smaller scale.

You have a few people looking to make money through the extraction of aggregate. You have a whole lot more people facing big loss in their quality of life, including financially. The latter are looking to their elected representatives to, well, represent them. Locally, they should get the support of councillors, who are best advised to vote against the projects.

Where things start to go sideways, however, is at the provincial level. Rather than do what’s right for these people, the Ministry of Natural Resources, usually aided by the Ontario Municipal Board, sides with the business interests.

Money and political influence trump what’s right.

While unfair, that scenario is commonplace when extended to the national level and affecting many facets of life on a much, much larger scale. Further complicating things, and this is where it gets weird, it’s not unusual for the people who stand to lose the most to be supporters of those out to do them harm. It would be like members of the BridgeKeepers organization, for instance, rallying to prevent a gravel pit in West Montrose by supporting a gravel-industry group.

It’s easy to laugh at that silly notion, but the same thing plays out nationally here and in the U.S.

It’s the kind of reasoning that has Americans believing Republicans are all about smaller government and fiscal responsibility, when just the opposite is true. Substitute Canadians and Conservatives here and you can see we’re in the same boat, albeit without some of the worst fundamentalist dogma coming out of the States.

If voters are so polarized that they can’t see the obvious – they truly drank deeply of the Kool-Aid – then
Americans can never have a rational debate about how to move forward.

Of course, that assumes real change is actually a possibility. Keeping the public occupied with mindless partisanship, petty bickering and, above all, pop-culture distractions works out just fine for those who are happy with the status quo: the real power elites who have no interest in changing a good thing.

Powerful corporate interests spend millions to influence public policy, from fighting public health care to quashing environmental controls. Their efforts pay off. Need proof? Look no further than Tuesday’s election results. Look at what’s happened under Barack Obama’s presidency, where two years after the financial services industry brought the economy to its knees, there have been no real reforms and we’re starting to see a return to business as usual – huge profits, big bonuses – even as unemployment remains high (officially 10 per cent, but the real number has been pegged at 18), Americans lose their homes and small businesses are strangled by a lack of credit.

And who’s footing the bill for the massive debt? Not the elite – they’ll get tax cuts – but the average taxpayer, including those diehard supporters of those creating the mess in the first place.

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