The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canadian intellectuals worry about the U.S. becoming a dictatorship. Maybe they should worry about Canada.

A marker in Richford, Vt., in August 2011 indicates the official border between the United States and Canada. (Toby Talbot/AP)
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There is no country on Earth whose intellectuals are more confident they understand the United States than the ones found in Canada. This is because the entire project of building a Canadian sense of nationalism has always required a cadre of professional thinkers capable of offering reasons to reject the lure of the larger country to the south, thus ensuring Canada has never been short of writers and academics who are, as the famous quote goes, “malevolently well-informed about the United States” — at least in their own heads.

Readers who think I exaggerate should browse the editorial page of the Globe and Mail, the Canadian newspaper with the most overt pretense of being a world-class journal of opinion. In the run-up to the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, the Globe and Mail recruited several of Canada’s brightest minds to opine on the state of “America in 2022” and — surprise! — their verdicts were not good. Each essay painted a dire portrait of a country in irreparable decline, coasting toward fascism, with the only uncertainty being how Canada should respond.

Stephen Marche, whom I’d describe as Canada’s most articulate and strident anti-American intellectual, says “the American experiment is failing” with the only question being “how, not if, the republic will end.”

Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon thinks he knows, predicting that “by 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship,” adding “some experts believe it could descend into civil war.”

“A terrible storm is coming from the south, and Canada is woefully unprepared,” he concludes.

Columnist John Ibbitson finds a similar opinion at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, whose director he characterizes as saying “Canada’s economic and political leadership must prepare now for the possibility of a postdemocratic America.”

The reason much of this hand wringing comes off as disingenuous — why it’s hard to take Ibbitson seriously when he theatrically states that “a future in which the United States is no longer a stable democracy is not a future any of us want to face” or when Michael Adams, who has been writing books about the superiority of Canadian values for decades, claims “I once saw the United States as a bustling place where exciting developments of all kinds were constantly taking shape” — is because the power of Canada’s patriotic thought leaders have always thrived when fear and hatred of America are at a peak. The American Revolution, Civil War, Vietnam, the war on terrorism, and even covid-19 have all been exploited as opportunities to pump new theories of Canadian exceptionalism, and with it, new, and often highly elitist forms of state power to “protect” Canadians from the troubles to their south.

So as long as we’re making wild premonitions about the future, allow me to offer my own: Any scenario in which the United States becomes a “right-wing dictatorship” will almost certainly be swiftly followed by Canada becoming some sort of left-wing dictatorship in response. American fascism would be blamed — as many of the Globe and Mail pundits openly do — on things such as conservative talk radio and Fox News, as well as an excess of “polarization” and disagreement among its politicians.

In response, it’s easy to imagine Canada’s rulers proceeding to ban a generous swatch of “dangerous” opinions from the country’s Internet, airwaves and bookstores, and turning Canadian elections into a sort of Iran-style sham, wherein only carefully screened candidates holding the correct political views are permitted by the state to run. A soothing and paternalistic Big Brother-type leader would propagandize the populace with endless finger-wagging about how good Canadians don’t undermine national unity with naughty “American-style” questions or thoughts.

Canada would become a country with little freedom of speech or political choice, but the oppression would be justified by a compliant media insisting that the American form of dictatorship is worse, and that anyway the only true measure of freedom is a single-payer health-care system and a lot of restrictions on firearm ownership. So long as nobody’s property was seized and taxes didn’t get too high, there’d probably be fairly broad middle-class acceptance of this argument.

I don’t think this scenario is any more likely than the United States facing a “Myanmar-style coup” (as Marche writes). But anyone who wants to play a game of anticipating “Canada’s response” to some theoretical fall-of-America scenario should at least be honest enough to admit it probably won’t be this country’s shining hour.

In characterizing the Jan. 6 rioters, Homer-Dixon notes “the people involved didn’t think they were attacking U.S. democracy — although they unquestionably were. Instead, they believed their ‘patriotic’ actions were needed to save it.”

It could happen here.