Green with Election Envy

February 7, 2008

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Regardless of who you were rooting for in yesterday’s “Super Tuesday” showdown, it’s hard to deny that American politics haven’t been this exciting for a very long time. In a primary season all about promises of “change,” Democrats know that, whatever they do, they’ll be making history, and Republicans know they desperately need to re-brand their party without alienating its base. There is a new race for the middle, a new recognition that a large chunk of the US population has been voiceless in the political arena for too long.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that, on the Democratic side especially, allegiances tend to be based more on what people represent than what we think they will actually do, but you can’t deny that the rhetoric has been commensurate to the times. It’s been darn good. Obama often feels like the oratorical love child of Martin Luther King and JFK. Just look at him last night in Chicago. He’s talking about “hymns that will heal this nation,” remaking “the world as it should be,” and making “this time different from all the rest.” “Yes we Can!” “Yes we Can!”

His speech invokes everything from Lincoln to the Old Testament, then ends with a self-help mantra. Brilliant.

The Clintonites are right. It’s just oratory. There isn’t enough of a record to judge Obama on. When he gets into office, is he going to save the economy by getting the whole nation to hold hands and chant “Yes we Can”? Is he going to solve Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, and poverty with a mantra? He’ll need more, and all we really know is he’s a well-intentioned man with a silver tongue and a record of being against Iraq. He’s the image that the US needs – internationally, at least. But what else is he?

Up in Canada, we’re very wary of flash and oratory. A few years ago, Paul wrote an article for Maisonneuve magazine about the history and practice Canadian speechwriting. He found that we typically distrust politicians who use grand phrases, epic flourishes, and crib lines from the Old Testament.

Political speechwriting in the US is a literary genre all its own – there are established conventions and tropes. In the mouth s of some, these conventions feel leaden and absurd. In the voice of a young Black senator and former community organizer they take wing. Hilary doesn’t do a bad job with them either. Neither does Huckabee (McCain doesn’t really need to pull off the flash – he’s got gravitas).

In Canada, passion is distrusted, especially outside of Quebec. Though Tommy Douglas was famous for his humorous political allegories and Trudeau defended the country with a sharp mix of ice cold reason and simmering passion, political discourse in this country is usually either bloodless or petty – especially since the end of the Mulroney years.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Doesn’t it mean we judge politicians based on the quality of their policy ideas and the strength of their records? Yes, perhaps.

But unless politicians give us something to believe in – something that appeals to our hearts and our heads and doesn’t sound like it was written by a corporate communications expert with one eye on their thesaurus and the other on the polls – young Canadians aren’t likely to come to the table.

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