Metta Spencer

Review: Continental Divide

Seymour Martin Lipset, Continental divide: The values and institutions of the United States and Canada. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Reviewed in Theory and Society 21:610-618, 1992.

To get to know one’s own society well, one must also get to know at least one other society well. In 1945, as a graduate student, Seymour Martin Lipset moved to Canada to study a prairies socialist movement that would later become the New Democratic Party. He taught sociology in Toronto for two years and began a comparison of the two societies that was to continue forty-five years. By now, he knows American society well.

Continental Divide, the current summation of his observations, offers what may be the clearest portrait ever drawn of Canada and an equally apt analysis of American society. Its primary focus is not on the relationship between these two countries, but on the comparison between them as distinct nations, presumably equal in their autonomy. Although the book provides extensive quantitative evidence, its explanatory approach is not structural, but cultural and historical. Lipset calls it an “interpretive essay,” but a generation ago it might have been called a study of …national character.” The book is among the most engaging works of a fine writer.

The differences between Canada and the United States are based, Lipset argues, on the differences between their respective founders during the American revolution. Those colonies that chose not to rebel became havens for fleeing loyalists and today are a country that remains devoted to Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. The war for independence indelibly marked American character as rebellious and Canadian character as counter-revolutionary. Despite the passage of two centuries and the comings and goings of millions of migrants, the two nations still follow some of their founders’ patterns of politics.

By the end of the eighteenth century, distinctive institutions had been established above and below the 49th parallel, which are still the operating institutions of the two societies. In explaining the persistence of historical tendencies, Lipset borrows an analogy from Weber: Earlier events influence later ones, just as if dice were loaded incrementally, time after time, in favor of the side that had just come up on the preceding throw.

Thus, says Lipset, the counter-revolutionary society perpetuates itself as more elitist, law-abiding, statist, collectivity-oriented, and particularistic than the post-revolutionary one. It would over-simplify the situation to call one society conservative and the other socialistic; Lipset teases such concepts apart to display the dilemmas and contradictions that they contain.

The United States was organized around the populist ideology expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Even today, to become American is an ideological—he even calls it a religious act … Americanism involves patriotism, religiosity, populism, anti-elitism, and a belief in meritocracy. Canadian national identity, on the other hand, offers only one ideological certainty: that Canadians are not Americans.

Literary comparisons show how the two societies look at authority and power. The heroes and heroines of Canadian novels are not rebels and revolutionaries, but self-deprecating survivors. Lipset quotes Margaret Atwood’s statement that such heroes “survive, but just barely. They are born losers failing to do anything but keep alive.” In the same vein, critics suggest that American writers are to Canadian ones as powerful males are to passive, well-mannered females. American — but not Canadian — writers represent an “adversary culture,” boldly criticizing their own country’s institutions.

Lipset attributes some of the differences between the two nations to religious factors, recalling that in 1775 Edmund Burke depicted the revolutionary Americans as the Protestants of Protestantism, the dissenters of dissent, the individualists par excellence. Even today, far more Americans than Canadians belong to sects — the groups to which Weber attributed the spirit of capitalism — instead of established churches. (Fully 87 percent of Canadians belong to three mainline denominations: Catholic, Anglican, and the United Church, a liberal, ecumenical Protestant church.) Sectarian American Protestants are said to believe in the perfectibility of humanity and hence in the obligation to avoid sin. They tend toward Utopian moralism, unlike members of churches, who accept the inherent weakness of people, their inability to escape sin and error, and the need for the church to be forgiving and protecting.

Churches are hierarchical and tend to support the state, unlike the Protestant sects of the United States, which reinforce egalitarianism and democratic individualism. In French Canada. the Roman Catholic Church was, in effect, the state church until the Quiet Revolution of the l960s. In English Canada, the Anglicans failed to become a national church, but nevertheless influenced the ethos of the country toward monarchy and against mass democracy and egalitarianism. In both societies the Catholic Church has moved toward socialist concerns about justice, but especially so in Canada, where the United Church likewise supports increased spending on social welfare programs and defends the rights of minorities. On the other hand, the evangelical sects, so popular among Americans, have become conservative in their social values and politics. For this reason, surveys show that Americans are more puritanical with respect to, say, sexual behavior than Canadians.

Lipset also finds marked differences in regard to law. Crime rates. particularly violent crimes. are much higher in the United States than in Canada, which, as Atwood notes. “must he the only country in the world where a policeman [the Mountie] is used as a national symbol.”

Such contrasts were prefigured in frontier days, when the American gunslinging settler” won the West but the Mounties kept the peace in Canada. Today the U.S. legal svstem emphasizes due process and the protection of individual rights against the states prosecutors. whereas the Canadian system is expected mainly to protect the community.

Canadians are more favorably disposed than Americans toward the police — and also toward gun control: Only 3 percent of Canadians own a handgun, as compared to 24 percent of Americans.

Until the new Canadian constitution was adopted in I982. along with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian courts could not overrule parliament to protect individual rights. One indication of Canada’s greater statism is that its constitution still does not offer as much protection as does the American Bill of Rights to persons charged with crime. Moreover, it enables the federal and provincial parliaments to opt out of many constitutional restrictions by stipulating that a law shall be valid “notwithstanding” its incompatibility with a given article of the Charter. Still, Lipset describes the new constitution’s impact as revolutionary, and predicts that it will make Canada resemble the United States over time.

Among nations. Canada is second only to the United States in economic productivity and wealth. Here too, nevertheless, Lipset discerns significant differences. Whether or not they are “born losers.” Canadian investors do tend to avoid risk, supplying little venture capital. Canadians spend little on research and development and, accordingly, export fewer hi-tech products. Whereas nationalists fretted during the 1970s that Americans werebuying, up Canadian industry, in recent years more capital has been invested in the U.S. by Canadians than by Americans in Canada.

Government spending is proportionally far higher in Canada than in the United States — including subsidies to aid business and to provide employment. Lipset calls Canada’s social democratic leanings—the other side of statist Conservatism. While the United States, because of its anti-statist and individualist values, lacks any significant socialist movement, the strength of the New Democratic Party demonstrates Canadians’ collectivity orientation. For the same reason, trade unions have proportionately twice as many members in Canada as in its neighbor to the. south.

On the other hand, Canada’s welfare-state should not be taken as evidence that class-consciousness and elitism are weak in Canada. On the contrary, when it comes to stratification, Canadians are described as more respectful of status and authority than arc Americans. Lipset reconciles the apparent incongruity of Canadians’ egalitarianism-cum-elitism by distinguishing, between “equality of result” and “equality of opportunity.” He claims that Canadian class conflict manifests itself politically as an effort to reduce “inequality of result” on a group level by providing a strong social safety net. Americans, on the other hand, favor individualistic, meritocratic competition and equality of opportunity — especially access to higher education as a basis for social mobility. The proportion of relevant American age cohorts in post-secondary education continues to exceed that of Canadians, even though in most other areas, such as health care and unemployment benefits, the U.S. government spends less on social services. Americans more often support social benefits and amenities through voluntary donations.

Although both countries are at present governed by conservative parties, the political center is much farther to the left in Canada — especially in Quebec — than below the 49th parallel. Lipset argues that all three of Canada’s largest parties — the New Democrats, the Liberals, and even the Progressive Conservatives — are to the left of the Democrats in the United Stales. American opposition to “big government- is part of an extreme anti-statist politics attributable to Lockean liberalism: it rests on the assumption that people should have freedom and a chance to make something of themselves and then, if they fail, it is their own problem, not that of their government. Lipset contrasts this American view to a statement by the Tory Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies, that “beneath all of this we arc a people firmly set in the socialist pattern.-

Lipset notes that several differences between the political structures of the two countries remain — and may even be increasing. First, while the United States has grown more centralized, Canada — always the most decentralized of nations — is further decentralizing, with the provinces retaining much local power. Second, the Canadian parliamentary system still exercises a degree of party discipline that would he inconceivable in Congress. Third, in Canada the New Democratic Party has gained strength, whereas no third party — and certainly not a socialist party — has much of a following in the United States.

On the other hand. Lipset sees some differences as diminishing, or even as reversing in direction. Canada, which historically supported group rights, now is fully committed to protecting individual political rights; its new constitution provides for judicial restraint on parliament.

Lipset also calls attention to Canada’s increasing emphasis on equality of opportunity, especially the expansion of access to education.

Indeed, instead of regarding itself as a conservative society, Canada now is situated to the left of the United States. In previous times Canadian nationalists were conservatives who kept a distance from their populist, social reformist neighbors to the south; nowadays, however, the nationalists are leftists who taunt their prime ministers for toadying to American administrations especially to the Republicans Reagan and Bush.

Readers are bound to give Lipset full marks for writing an interesting analysis, but a reviewer must go further and judge its accuracy. My own appraisal, in Canadianese: Not bad! (This is substantial praise in the land of self-deprecating losers, where a favorable reply to the greeting “How are you?” is “Not too had, thanks.”) Lipset has assembled a wonderfully pertinent collection of empirical facts and has displayed them cogently. His book will he assigned for years to come in sociology courses and many a passage will he read aloud to friends at the cottage. After all, forty-five years of research went into it.

Its contents, though rich, are not particularly surprising to Canadian sociologists, who have watched the themes develop over the years in several well-known articles. Initially, during the 1960s, Lipset painted with a broad brush; he was sometimes criticized for characterizing the two societies too loosely in terms of Parsonsian pattern variables. Over time, however, he referred less often to these familiar categories and handled evidence with increasing precision. Thus in Continental Divide, he seems no longer to apply the distinction of ascription versus achievement in describing the differences between Canadian and American culture.

He does, however, continue to distinguish between American egalitarianism and Canadian “elitism,” suggesting that Canadians are more “deferential” than Americans — a questionable conclusion, in my opinion. It is a small point, hut I think he mistakes politeness or aloofness for deference. To be sure, Canadians often seem guarded when addressing their social superiors — but also when addressing their equals or their inferiors. English Canadians, at any rate, are simply less expressive titan Americans, typically ignoring others in elevators, for example, hut that does not mean they are overawed by status differentials.

More importantly, Lipset also continues to emphasize the distinction between collectivity-orientation and individualism, and here too not everyone will accept his analysis. For example, Reginald Bibby’s Mosaic Madness (Toronto: Stoddard, 1990) offers quite a different view of Canada’s national character. Whereas Lipset describes Americans as individualistic and Canadians as collectivity-oriented, Bibby complains polemically of Canadians’ excessive individualism. American individualism, he says, is combined with an intense commitment to Ideological consensus, which binds Americans together. However, Canadians’ lack of a shared “Canadianism” ideology leaves them with only a tenuous willingness to coexist. When it conies to individualism, writes Bibby, we may well he leaving Americans in the dust:’

Bibby is something of a Jeremiah, purveying traditional religious values and an ethic of self-sacrifice. He reproaches Canadians because their individualism is so extreme as to threaten national unity. Lipset offers a more nuanced analysis that displays equanimity toward both Americans and Canadians. Yet Bibby has proven to be more prescient than Lipset: The supposedly individualistic United States is in no danger today of breaking up, as Canada is, despite its vaunted emphasis on group loyalty.

Every study can be criticized for what it omits. and some gaps in Lipset’s book arc large: Quebec, for example. Though he has done his best to provide statistics and poll data from both English and French Canada, Quebec is under-reported. Moreover, he generally conveys the impression that those two Canadian cultures are similar and that the big story concerns how greatly they differ from the United States. Canadians themselves. however, cannot deny the importance of the linguistic cleavage; they admit that crossing the border of Quebec is exactly like travelling to a foreign country. While writing this book, Lipset could not have anticipated (or at least, no one else in Canada did) that within two years the nation would be on file verge of breaking apart.

Lipset treats American-style “anti-statism” as the chief impediment to an effective national government. Since Canadians are not known to harbor such opposition to strong government, nothing in Continental Divide would lead one to expect the Canadian government to be in such a crisis. The cohesion of Canada is at risk — and not just from the threat of Quebec separatism. If Quebec quits, the remainder of Canada is unlikely to stay together as one country. It is not “anti-statism” that threatens Canada’s unity, but a factor that Lipset underestimated: regionalism. ln economic interests as well as geographical and social distance, the maritime provinces are remote from Quebec, which is remote from Ontario, which is remote from the prairies. which are remote from British Columbia — and hardly anyone has ever been to the Arctic or the northern territories. Localized “collectivity orientation” is not always compatible with loyalty to the federal government, which is the source of Canada’s present constitutional crisis.

Lipset mentioned the self-doubt of Americans, which after the Gulf War was replaced by triumphalism; however, he seemed sanguine about Canada’s cohesion. which since the Meech Lake fiasco has (I hope temporarily) been replaced by self-doubt. Prime Minister Mulroney’s initiative, the Meech Lake Accord, re-opened several old conflicts that had been placed in abeyance when Canada’s first independent constitution came into force in 1982, having been negotiated by Pierre Trudeau. Although Quebec’s demands for special status as a “distinct society” had not been accepted, its inclusion in Canada was successfully treated as a non-negotiable fait accompli, and objections had subsided. Unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie, however. Mulroney summoned the provincial premiers to a country house at Meech Lake and hammered out the Accord. (See, for example, Roger Gibbins, editor, Meech Lake and Canada: Perspectives from The West, Edmonton: Academic, 1988) Rather than give Quebec what it wanted — more autonomy than the other provinces — the Accord offered all provinces more autonomy vis-a-vis the federal government. According to former Prime Minister Trudeau. this weakening of federal powers would jeopardize the government’s viability. Two years were allotted for the provinces to ratify the accord, and the debates during that period exacerbated old tensions over region, gender, aboriginal peoples rights and, of course, linguistic rights. When the Accord was finally blocked in 1990, separatism had become a dominant force again in Quebec and many Canadians, especially in the West, would be glad to see Quebec go.

Lipset cited several opinion polls in his book that appraise the relative strength of provincial versus federal loyalty. The most prophetic one was done in 1980 and showed Ontario to be the only province in which a majority of respondents said that they were more attached to Canada than to their province. Although he was unable to find comparable polls for Americans, he was almost certainly correct in guessing, “I would hazard that Americans faced with a similar choice would opt for the nation over the state by a larger majority than their neighbors.”

New processes are required, but have not been established for resolving these issues within the next year or two. At present, Canadians’ morale and confidence in their federal government are at far lower levels than when Continental Divide was being written.

Finally, I conclude by mentioning a puzzle that Lipset has created for me that is not a puzzle for him. He demonstrates convincingly that cultural differences can persist over a long period of time, despite extreme changes of social structure. He seems satisfied that he has thereby explained everything that needs explaining. On the contrary, I found myself wondering how such persistence works. Millions of people have come to North America from all parts of the world, yet they selectively pick up habits and outlooks that have been passed down from Daniel Boone or the Marquis de Montcalm. How is this feat of acculturation accomplished? It cannot be television that does it: During about 50 percent of the time that anglophone Canadians spend in front of their TV sets, they are watching American programming.

Nor can it be history classes in school: Canadian students learn more about General Washington than about General Montcalm. Nor can it be the instructions given to immigrants. Before becoming a citizen, one must pass a test on the government of Canada, but the booklet on which it is based is only twenty pages long.

So how is it done? Culture is not the explanation; it’s the question.

Metta Spencer
Erindale College, University of Toronto