The US Election is a Cautionary Tale for Progressive Government

… by Terrance Hunsley

The Democratic Party spent about $1B on advertising for Joe Biden. Stars endorsed him.  An unpopular and widely demonized President botched-up the response to the pandemic, with people dying or losing their jobs. The Democrats had increasing education levels in the population and increasing urbanization on their side.  Biden got support from a powerful group of Republicans. There were record turnouts for the vote. And yet, Biden received barely over half of the votes, squeaking out a narrow victory. 

What some thought would be a tsunami of support for a progressive party was offset to some degree by people becoming more conservative as they age. But more importantly, there is in the US, across most of the political spectrum,  a deep-seated mistrust of politicians, public institutions and collective policies. The election was combat, not competition, and political discourse reached an abysmal low.  It would be hard to say that the Democrats have the confidence of the American people.

As WIlliam Galston wrote for the Brookings Brief;

For their part, Democrats must recognize that they defeated Trump but not Trumpism. The new coalition that the outgoing president forged will be a prominent feature of the political landscape for years to come, and there is little evidence that the forces that energized its formation have weakened. If Democrats are counting on demographic change to expand their modest popular edge into a truly national majority, they will likely have a long wait.


Of course, Canada is not the US.  Our attitudes and our internal differences are more muted.  But they are not contrasting. We are also experiencing a hardening of political attitudes. Our elections are increasingly characterized by attack ads, and we witness the spread of hate and social paranoia on social media.  Too many Canadians consider government to be inept and corrupt. Respectful discussion of governance and goals for public policy are hard to find outside policy wonk circles. Parliament is a place more for political manoeuvring than policy debate. How often do we hear candidates tell us “I will fight for you!”?   Who is fighting against us and why? And how often do we hear from friends, in discussion of our leaders,  “I don’t like them” rather than “I don’t like their policies.”

The pandemic has helped us to see the mutual dependence of government and the economy, and to appreciate the hard work by competent public servants and front line workers.  But mistrust and non-confidence are still strong, and as we see in the US, the rejection of government can be virulent.  

However, most people do seem to still value democracy, even if they think it’s not working for them. So perhaps society’s challenge is a better connection between democracy and accountable government. There could be better communication of the role and value of public goods and sharing risk. And perhaps we could articulate and value the reciprocal contract of citizenship. 

National Goals

How to get there isn’t totally clear, but we might start with better information on the goals of government, and how we are doing in getting there. That might mean formulating national goals for each main area of policy, and systematically reporting on progress.  These goals need to be something that all parties can support, like increasing the health and education levels of the population, increasing employment levels, improving child health, decreasing opioid-induced deaths, decreasing homelessness, decreasing poverty.  The development of these goals and their enactment in legislation, would be a unifying act in itself. Every government could be required to report regularly on them, snd political candidates could explain how their policy ideas would advance those goals. 

Currently, government policies are sold to us as cure-alls, and we are told only the price tag – how many billions of dollars will be spent.  But really, most of us have no way of knowing whether any figure – be it $20Billion or $80Million spent over five years –  is the right amount, what its measurable goals are. and what other options could be considered. We hear opposing parties saying it will cost too much and lead to disaster, rather than present a better version. 

We should receive regular, objective information on the progress and results of all government programs.  How many people are lifted out of poverty? How many unemployed people found good jobs? How many people have a general practitioner to see about their health? How are we doing with cancer treatment? How many people graduate college or university each year, and at what public cost? How many jobs are supported by public money, and how many companies sell goods or services to governments? How many people are receiving CPP payments? What are the results of legalization of marijuana for crime and prisons?  Each week could be a report on a major national goal.

Problem areas or performance shortfalls should be reported as well, emphasizing accountability over self-congratulation.  This could be a responsibility of the Auditor General, reporting directly to Parliament and the public. 

The goals would remain in place and be central to the discussion of progress in the country and its provinces, reevaluated at every election. It would be a bit like fact-checking in advance. It would help citizens understand the effectiveness of the government and for whom they might wish to vote.

Making citizenship important and reciprocal

During times of war and crises, including the pandemic, people feel more affinity for others. “We’re in this together” appears on signs. For the most part, there is support for the authority and actions of government during these times. But, aside perhaps from the courses that immigrants are provided, people do not seem to be aware of the extent that citizenship makes them interdependent with government and each other.

We could provide better information on the underlying rationale of public policy. I have mentioned the CPP for example. Not everyone knows that the returns they receive from their contributions – not even counting the disability insurance they receive –  their returns are better and more secure than they would receive if they had invested the same amount into the average mutual fund portfolio that banks peddle. 

They might not realize that as children, their school costs are being paid for by the adult generation and that they will in turn support the health costs of children and the elderly when they are in the work force. 

When they are in university they might feel that their student loans are burdensome, but those loans equal only about half of the educational investment in them by the society. 

If they are a median-income household, they may feel that paying a third of their income for all levels and kinds of taxes is a lot.  But their benefits over their lifetime will more than offset the investment. 

And if they become wealthy, then they have very likely benefitted from an economy underpinned by government procurement for infrastructure and public services, secured by rule of law. Perhaps they have created their own engineering or construction firm. But they have probably sold their product to public institutions directly or indirectly, or to public institution employees or other people whose jobs are supported by public spending.   

Our understanding of our relationship with government would improve if our personal accounts with the Canada Revenue Agency were more like our online banking accounts. They could provide current and historical information on our contributions and withdrawals, provide prorated estimates of the individual costs of public services, like health and education, provide information on any and all government benefits for which we are eligible, and a simple application access. It would be nice to know how much we have paid in taxes over the years, and what benefits we have received.  It wouldn’t make everyone happy of course, but we would have a better appreciation of our citizenship benefits and obligations.

The millions of dollars that are spent on both sides of the border communicating to citizens that they should vote one way or the other is not building confidence in the government or the democratic system. Redirecting some of that money to continuing, transparent and measurable indicators of the real progress that democracies are making and having these indicators brought to a personal level in our CRA account, could help to reestablish social trust and appreciation of citizenship and government.


  1. I agree in principle with what you are saying but the elephant in the room is missed in my view, all the reporting in the world about what the government is or is not doing with the money pales in comparison to the looming crisis. I was heartened to see that the City of Vancouver just declared a climate crisis, and are going to act on it.


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