The president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. This is why every presidential campaign attracts such wide attention, both the primaries of the two main parties and then the election itself.
The campaign for the 2016 election is in its early stages. A candidate who has made a striking impression is the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is making surprising progress in the Democratic primary. Sanders is 74, and thus the oldest person in the race (on either side). And he is a self-confessed socialist, in a country where socialists were long considered Soviet or Chinese stooges.
In an interview to The Nation magazine last year, Sanders spelt out his ideals for his country. He did not want ‘to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling economic and political life’. He hoped for an America where ‘all people are entitled to quality education as a right; all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income’.
Having summarised his political philosophy, Sanders continued: ‘The truth is that, very sadly, the corporate media ignore some of the huge accomplishments that have taken place in countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries, which have a long history of democratic socialist or labor governments, have excellent and universal healthcare systems, excellent educational systems, and they have gone a long way toward eliminating poverty and creating a far more egalitarian society than we have. I think there are economic and social models out there that we can learn a heck of a lot from, and that’s something I would be talking about’.
The list of countries that Sanders thought the United States could emulate is interesting, if not entirely surprising. For, the countries of Western Europe have long been admired for combining the best features of capitalism and socialism by encouraging entrepreneurial innovation and safeguarding individual freedoms, while providing decent education and health care for their citizens.
Sanders’s view might not be shared by other American politicians. But some scholars too have asked America to look towards Europe. In his 2010 book Ill Fares the Land, the historian Tony Judt, a naturalised American, presented an excoriating critique of the inequalities within his adopted country, before offering Sweden and Denmark as among the models to aspire to. More recently, in his two-volume comparative history of state systems, Francis Fukuyama has argued that the most perfect, or perhaps least imperfect, country in the world is Denmark.
It is always hard for Americans to acknowledge that there may be countries better-run or whose citizens are more contented than theirs. The political and intellectual elite in the US considers their country the ‘last, best hope of humankind’, the City on the Hill that inspires poor or oppressed people all over the world. So we should welcome the cosmopolitanism, as well as capacity for self-critique, of Sanders, Judt, and Fukuyama.
It has fine state-run schools and state-run universities. But perhaps its most remarkable achievement lies in the domains of society and culture. Once a country reserved for whites, it has more recently welcomed large numbers of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, and the Caribbean. It has a far better record in managing cultural diversity than the United States. In fact, even Sweden and Denmark, who have had problems honourably integrating immigrants, could learn a thing or two from Canada in this regard.
In the last decade, I have made three trips to Canada, visiting all its major cities, and meeting a wide cross-section of its citizens. I have spoken at Canadian universities and been treated at Canadian hospitals, and been impressed by both. I have also noted the progress of gender equality and the quality (and independence) of the country’s public broadcasting services.
However, what impressed me most is the easy, unaffected way in which Canadians of Asian, African, European, and American origin interact with one another. New Yorkers make a big show of their city’s multiculturalism; in fact, Toronto is as multicultural, but in a more natural, organic way (such that its citizens need not brag about it). Canada has also treated its indigenous peoples better than the United States.
Bernie Sanders has on occasion praised the Canadian health system. But when it comes to identifying countries to learn from, he named Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, but left out Canada. This despite the fact that his native State, Vermont, has a 90-mile-long border with Canada.
Is this absence deliberate or accidental? One can’t say.
But one must not be harsh on Sanders for not offering Canada as a model. For he knows Americans have long condescended to their northern neighbour. It is the ‘fifty-first state of the United States’; acquiring an independent existence only in times of war, when, if the US government announces a draft, young men not wanting to fight can take refuge in Canada.
In 2009, President Barack Obama was criticised for saying that while America believed it was exceptional, so did other countries like Britain and Greece. He quickly backtracked, making it a point to say, and say repeatedly, that, as he put it in a 2014 speech to the US Military Academy: ‘I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.’
In this context, it was brave enough of Bernie Sanders to say that there were countries in Europe that were better-run that the United States. Had he gone on to include Canada as well, he would have been well and truly roasted.
The views expressed are personal