Maybe it’s the impact of the humidity on my lingering cold or maybe the long-tradition of voodoo practices here is at play, but I’ve just stepped out of the opening luncheon at the American Trucking Associations annual conference in New Orleans and I feel I’ve just stepped into the twilight zone. Or, more precisely, into the bizarro reality of US politics.
The luncheon speaker was Dr. Frank Luntz, a high-profile pollster and political analyst (he had made Time’s list for America’s most promising leaders under 40) and I was looking forward to hearing him sort out the issues in the closing rounds of the 2008 campaign. After all, what happens in the US often has a great impact on what happens in Canada – both economically and politically.
Funny enough, one of the last conversations I had in Canada before heading to the airport was about the likely outcome of the US election. The jist of that conversation was me being reminded that despite the fact the latest polls show the Democrats with a comfortable lead, Canadians (at least those of us who consider ourselves to be in the political mainstream) have a hard time understanding what drives US voters. George Bush did somehow manage to be re-elected.
There were probably over 1,000 people at this luncheon, most of them executives, and I got an instant lesson in just how tribalistic US politics can be. Luntz asked the audience to indicate, by clapping, how they would be voting. I was astonished to see just how little support there was for Barrack Obama in the room.
When Luntz asked them if they would have preferred Hillary Clinton a total of one person dared to clap. And it wasn’t because they disliked women. They actually preferred Sarah Pallin to John McCain.
The fact that the Republican ticket would be favored in a room full of business executives is not surprising. What was shocking, to me anyway, was the strength and depth of the anti-Democrat sentiment. Based on the audience’s reaction it seemed to feel no Democrat could ever have its interests in mind.
Both sides have talked a lot about the need for politicians to set aside their partisan differences and work together. But this admitted outsider didn’t see much room for bipartisanship in that room. In fact, once the speaker saw that he had a predominantly Republican audience, the speech degenerated into basically a call to raise funds for the Republican party. I’ve attended countless speeches at industry events and this has to rank as the most bizarre.
It made me wonder what would happen if the Democratic ticket did win. Unless they also carried the Senate and Congress just how gridlocked would the political system become? And even if they did, could the Democrats work effectively with business interests, or at least with the transport industry that seems to loathe them? And how would a Democrat government in the US work with a Conservative government in Canada? Efficient commerce and transportation require smooth flows between borders, which requires a great deal of cooperation between Ottawa and Washington. Would this be possible when the two governments involved sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum? For example, some of the current initiatives such as the Transportation Worker Identification Card, are not supported by the unions, which have greater sway with the Democrats.
As sobering as I found those questions to be, experiencing first hand the pessimism Americans feel right now for the future was even more sobering. I’ve travelled to the US countless times over the past 20 years; never have I seen them so down. Even after 9/11 they were not like this. To me they seem angry and they’re confused about what’s happening to their economy. Those who believe the market works best when it’s left to work on its own have to face the reality that their deregulated business leaders screwed up so bad they ended up begging to be bailed out. And that their Republican president is responsible for the largest government intervention since the Great Depression.
For most, the events leading to the economic meltdown are so convoluted it is beyond their understanding. And as long as they remain concerned and confused they’re not likely to spend, which is bad news considering two-thirds of the American economy is dependent on the consumer. This could be a long economic downturn indeed.
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