Ron Berger —
During the 1950s to 1970s, social scientists were interested in the question of “national character,” that is, whether people in a nation could be characterized as having a common sociocultural orientation that structured the way they view the world and that penetrates individual consciousness or personality. Although this line of inquiry fell in disfavor by scholars who felt that the concept lacked empirical verification and was prone to overgeneralizations regarding people in a given society, it was later given more serious foundation by scholars such as sociologist Alex Inkeles (1920-2010) in his book National Character: A Psycho-Social Perspective, published in 1997.
Social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) advanced a similar concept with his notion of “social character,” which I first came across in Escape From Freedom, his book about the psychology of Nazism, published in 1941, and updated in his book To Have or To Be?, published in 1976. Fromm defined social character as “the character structure of the average individual” that is interdependent with the social structure in which he or she is embedded. Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Fromm’s colleague at the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory in Germany, also advanced this line of thinking in his book The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950.
I was recently reminded of this scholarly tradition when the latest issue of The Sociological Quarterly, the journal of the Midwest Sociological Society, arrived in the mail. The lead article was by a Canadian sociologist Ralph Matthews, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia, former president of the Canadian Sociological Association, and former editor of the Canadian Review of Sociology. The article titled “Canada and the United States: Alternative Realities” makes the case that the two countries are, in fact, marked by different national characters that are reflected in the political outlooks of the majority of people in these societies.
With the rise of Donald Trump and the far-right turn of the Republican Party in the United States, I have often heard people on the political left express their preference for living in Canada. So I thought there might be an interest in what Matthews has to say.
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Matthews addresses the historical differences between Canada and the United States that provide the foundation of different national characters. Canada began as a British colony with a significant amount of territory that previously had been French. In a series of wars between 1689 and 1763 Britain conquered New France and renamed it Quebec. While the British were staunchly Protestant and anti-Catholic, 60,000 French Catholics (few who had been born in France) lived in the country, and according to Matthews, Britain really had “no alternative but to accommodate these new subjects even if … [they] would have been vehemently persecuted in England.” Thus, Matthews argue, ethnic and cultural accommodation “is at the heart of Canadian culture,” and even today most Canadians have bifurcated identities and call themselves English-Canadians, French-Canadians, Italian-Canadians, and more recently Somali-Canadians, Iranian-Canadians, Syrian-Canadians, and so forth.
One might ask whether Americans, too, adhere to bifurcated identities. Matthews does not address this question, but I think he would say that in Canada this is a dominant orientation, while in the United States it is held largely by people of minority status.
Another feature of Canadian history highlighted by Matthews is that westward expansion took place under the very orderly control of the government, not through wagon trains of settlers and gunslingers in unsupervised territories as occurred in the United States. The Northwest Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, built and operated forts that were designed less as military garrisons and more as sanctuaries where settlers could find protection in the face of opposition from indigenous people who “rebelled against intrusion into their land and cultures.”
Matthews also notes that Canada became a nation not through a Revolutionary War but through an act of legislation, the British North American Act (BNA) of 1867. Neither did Canada have anything equivalent to the U.S. Declaration of Independence that expressed the individualist goals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Rather, the BNA enshrined the collective goals of “peace, order, and good government.” These are the values that are at “the heart of Canadian history and heritage,” while individual liberty and freedom are at the heart of America.
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Matthews goes on to explain the difference between Canada and the United States in terms of the nature of the “social contract” between individuals and their government. The concept of the social contract developed in the works of European political theorists who postulated, in Matthews’s words, that individuals will give up “much (if not all) of their individual liberty in return for the protection offered by the state and its leaders.” In the seventeenth century this concept focused largely on the obligations of citizens to the state, but “today it seems more appropriate to invert the concept … and focus on the obligations of the state to its citizens.”
The Canada Health Act of 1982, for example, “declares the principle of quality care for all citizens and permanent residents” and lays out “five principles on which the health system is based: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility.” Surveys find that Canadians overwhelming support their healthcare system, and the people frequently identify this system “as something they regard as fundamental to their experiences as Canadians.” One comprehensive study conducted by the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada found that “91 percent believed that health care should be based on need, 72 percent believed that Medicare embodies Canadian values, and only 8 believed that the American system is better.” A national survey conducted by the Environics Institute asked respondents to rank nine things about Canada that best symbolize the country, and 88 percent rated the healthcare system as the most important. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation held a national contest to name “The Greatest Canadian,” the winner was Tommy Douglas. As premier of Saskatchewan in 1961, Douglas initiated the first universal Medicare system in Canada upon which the national system was largely modeled.
Matthews notes that most Canadians are dumbfound by the opposition to universal healthcare that exists in the United States. As he writes, “It would be incomprehensible to most Canadians that a system seeking universal fairness and open access for all would even be a point of contention.”
Another issue Matthews raises that is relevant to current events in the United States involves the question of immigration. Another survey by the Environics Institute found that 57 percent of Canadians disagreed with the statement that there is too much immigration in Canada, while 82 percent said they thought immigration had a positive impact on the Canadian economy, and 95 percent thought that immigrants are as likely as native-born Canadians to be good citizens.
As for the quality of life experienced by Canadians compared to the United States, research shows that Canadians, on average, live longer, are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives, and have more sex. There is less income inequality in Canada, the banking system is on a sounder footing (Canada does not allow subprime mortgages), the rate of home ownership is higher, there are more college graduates per capita, and children score better on reading, science, and math tests. In contrast, the rate of incarceration in the United States is six times higher than in Canada. As for Americans’ cherished notion of freedom, a Cato Institute rated Canada as sixth in the world and the United States as twenty-third. Thus an article in Maclean’s, Canada’s largest circulation magazine, published in February 2017, was titled “The American Dream Has Moved to Canada.”
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To be sure, Canada is not without its problems. Indigenous people still suffer from discrimination and high rates of poverty. There are concerns about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policy toward accepting refugees into the country. But whereas Americans decry that their government is broken, or in Ronald Reagan’s words, government is not the solution but the problem, the majority of Canadians express satisfaction with the workings of their government and are more likely to think that the government is more important than the private sector in determining the quality of life in Canada.
Returning to the notion of national character, Matthews thinks that an understanding of the public policies that differentiate Canada from the United States would be enhanced by illuminating the foundational sociocultural patterns that underlie these policies. Political strategies that take this social fabric into account are more likely to be successful than those that do not.
At the same time, I am skeptical of how far the notion of national character gets us in understanding the current American dilemma. At best, it might be useful to think of the United States as consisting of multiple national characters. Beyond the individualism that is characteristic of American society, for example, the election of Donald Trump has revealed a strong authoritarian streak among a substantial portion of the population. The authoritarian character includes, among other elements, a high value placed on obedience to strong masculinist leaders, a rigid adherence to conventional values, and a fear of and hostility toward people who are viewed as outsiders. I do not think this orientation describes a majority of Americans, or even a majority of Trump supporters, but there is reason to be concerned that a large number of people, if not authoritarian themselves, are willing to align themselves politically with those who are.
There is also the question of race, perhaps the elephant in the room, where white supremacy has recently raised its ugly head. Journalist and author Ta-Nehisis Coates is of the opinion that at its core Trump’s electoral victory represents an attempt to repudiate the first black president. As the preeminent birther who attempted to delegitimize the Obama presidency, Trump’s rise as a national political figure hinged on his ability to make this hideous notion appear reasonable. Indeed, in the summer of 2016, a national survey found that 72 percent of registered Republicans still had doubts about Obama’s country of birth!
Whether or not the people who voted for Trump are racist is not the point, but it is a sobering fact to realize that 58 percent of white voters overall, and even 54 percent of white women, voted for this man. No one can imagine that a man as personally flawed and devoid of moral compass as Trump could ever be elected president of the United States if he was nonwhite. In this sense, Coates thinks, whiteness lies at the very core of Trump’s power, for “he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.”
How we can appeal to people’s better nature, to support policies that are in the interest of the “general welfare,” as enshrined in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, when so many of our fellow Americans are willing to make this type of devil’s bargain? I, for one, do not intend to move to Canada. So I will be searching for that part of our national character that offers a way out of our current quagmire.
Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson & Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. Harper.
Ta-Nehisis Coates. 2017. “The First White President,” The Atlantic (Oct.), pp. 74-87.
Erich Fromm.  1965. Escape from Freedom. Discus Books.
Erich Fromm.  1997. To Have or To Be? Bloomsbury.
Alex Inkeles. 1997. National Character: A Psycho-Social Perspective. Routledge.
Ralph Matthews. 2017. “Canada and the United States: Alternative Realities?” The Sociological Quarterly (vol. 58), pp. 340-49.