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What Canada can learn from America's problems

I recently came across a powerful presentation on coping with the problems facing the United States by the widely respected Daniel Yankelovich. For 30 years he has been a leading interpreter of trends shaping American society and the global economy, and has authored ten books, including Coming to Public Judgment.

There are lessons for us as Canadians in his insights.

Among some of the severe problems confronting the US, Yankelovich lists are the staggering national debt, which is swelling as America ages; global warming, which is exacerbated by the U.S. and China’s policies; severe loss of standing in the world; and the rising costs of health care and education which threaten the social contract.

He also says that those problems are solvable because of an abundance of resources: human, capital, corporate, and technological/scientific; all of which are anchored in a history and culture of problem-solving. Yet that capacity to solve problems has eroded badly. The symptoms are massive denial, ideology instead of practicality, leadership pandering, polarization instead of cooperation, and growing public mistrust.

The reasons for this erosion are mainly cultural, according to Yankelovich. He says that they are a widening gap between experts and the general public, the increasing polarization of society, and a magnified “culture war” over core values. Those are the most visible. Less visible and more politically incorrect, is a public that is demanding a greater voice without learning about issues, technological hubris, the growth of self-isolating communities, and generations that are unaccustomed to sacrifice for the greater good.

When the obstacles are cultural like this, the conventional strategies for solving problems – throwing money at the problem, legislation and regulation, media coverage and public relations, and technological fixes - don’t work. So, Yankelovich argues that America needs to fight culture with culture. Culture should be a “new pragmatism” that transcends partisanship and heightens cooperation.

What does that mean?

To be pragmatic is to be action-oriented, rather than theoretical and to be open to compromise and seek out the art of the possible. But it is also strongly value-driven. Freedom of thought and action are critical and so too is the opportunity to develop one’s gifts and capabilities. It is to have faith in optimism and be hopeful, trusting and cooperative. It is strongly against authoritarianism, dogma, ideology, and fundamentalism. And it has a strong reformist (that’s small “r”) strain.

I have long been concerned that the Tea Party movement is infecting Canadian life. Our politics are increasingly driven by an East vs. West; English vs. French; urban vs. rural; rich vs. the middle class and poor; business vs. environmentalists; “new” Canadians vs. old; regions vs. regions.  

Some politicians cynically exploit these natural tensions for electoral advantage by identifying hot-button issues that they can drive wedges through. These are not nation-builders, but opportunists that divide and conquer to win elections.

That has never been the Canadian way.  

Yankelovich argues that a new pragmatism is a powerful way to transcend many negative cultural forces that exist in our society today and helps us focus on the issues that really matter. It can also provide the common ground we need to revitalize our national gift for solving big problems.

New national leadership is the right place to start. I think we’re ready. 

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