“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”

—H.L. Mencken

North Americans voted this fall.

Both American and Canadian elections featured conservative regimes fighting to maintain their hold on office even as the consequences of conservative policies made a mockery of conservative beliefs. Both elections were overshadowed by the rising tsunami of a compounded global crisis: looming environmental catastrophe matched by the collapse of huge financial institutions.

The elections were like games played on the deck of vessels that are being sucked inexorably toward a whirlpool. And the players, especially those in office, but not excluding their opponents, seemed worse than witless in the face of impending disasters. If anything, they seemed bent on outright perversity. Decision time in North America was a major test of democratic institutions. The prognosis is not encouraging.

Americans were facing the most serious decision of the postwar era. The full Bush catastrophe has hit the global fan. A vast empire of debt has been built on deepening federal government deficits ballooning into a multitrillion-dollar national debt (much of it owed to the Chinese and Arab oil sheikhs), not to speak of a gigantic imbalance with the rest of the world.

A world built on borrowed money does not stop with government. Growing income inequality (75 per cent of the economic gains made during the Bush presidency have accrued to the top 1 per cent of superrich income earners) was masked for years by easy consumer credit, much of that leveraged on housing assets (consumer debt is between $2 and $3 trillion). The housing bubble, itself grossly inflated by unsustainable subprime mortgage lending, burst. Ordinary folks could no longer keep their heads above the rising tide of red ink. A deregulated financial sector that had built castles in the air out of securitized debt on the basis of the inane assumption that everything would continue to expand indefinitely imploded, sucking much of the globalized financial sector down with it. In the usual manner of Wall Street intelligence, greed turned to fear, and fear turned to a panicky worldwide stampede of the capitalist herd. Collateral damage to the innocents cannot even begin to be measured.

The first answer of the Bush White House was massive bailouts: socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. Then, as the crisis spun toward the abyss, relief, temporary at least, was provided by a new plan instigated by the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, and copied dutifully by Washington, to take government equity positions in failing banks (nationalization by any other name). Under extreme duress, Bush was repudiating Reaganism, his party’s cherished ruling ideology of deregulation and letting “free markets” run unchecked, and turning to – Roosevelt and the spirit of the New Deal.

Since it was the Republicans who were squarely responsible for the mess in the first place, in an election year they should have been run out of Washington by an enraged public, and counted themselves lucky not to find their heads fixed on pikes.

Yet John McCain, whose idea of getting out of the hole his own party has dug is to dig even deeper and faster (more, bigger tax cuts for the rich!), was not entirely thrown out of the race with Barack Obama. Understanding that elections are not rational mechanisms, the Republicans (who held the executive, legislative and judicial branches in a death grip for eight years) came up with the brazen strategy of running against Washington! With the moose-huntin’ hockey mom Sarah Palin on the ticket to fling charges that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” the Republicans posed as populist mavericks riding in to right the very wrongs that they themselves had brought down on the nation.

Neither candidate was willing to acknowledge that his ambitious promises might have to be curtailed in the face of the gravest crisis since the Great Depression. Neither would even recognize the massive debt problem that weighs down the body politic. Global climate and energy crisis? No problem: it’s “drill, baby, drill!” Even ultra-right-wing Texan oil magnate T. Boone Pickens deems offshore drilling as an answer to the energy crisis “pure moonshine.” No matter: polls shot up for McCain from the first mention of more drilling, and Democrats fell obediently into line.

This is a spectacle so loony that one has to go back to that mordant critic of democracy, H.L. Mencken, who confessed that he enjoyed democracy immensely: “It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” Given that the stakes are higher than in Mencken’s day, it is harder to be amused.

Turning to Canada, our neocons have only been in for less than three years. But Stephen Harper, who believes in letting market forces play unimpeded, has done much through tax cuts and giveaways to the provinces to run federal government surpluses close to deficit, thus crippling the capacity of the government to respond to economic crisis. In the face of the economic storm that struck in the midst of the election campaign, the PM came up with Marie Antoinette advice to fearful Canadians: let them buy stocks!

The opposition was no better: Stéphane Dion had a “Plan” – to call a meeting. Jack Layton threatened to soak the big corporations, knowing he would never have to follow through. The political cupboard was bare of ideas.

Midway through the campaign, Harper tried to set off an American-style culture war by sneering at “rich” artists who should be cut off the public purse and threatening to throw 14-year-old offenders into adult prisons. Instead of winning the Tim Horton’s vote, he only succeeded in shooting himself in the foot in Quebec where the Conservatives proved to have a tin ear. On the issue of climate change, Harper, who once declared global warming a socialist plot, proved more successful in advancing his real interest, which seems to be shielding the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta oil sands from interference.

The Liberals came up with a climate plan so rational that it terrified the public into the arms of the Conservatives. The Green Shift would use the tax system to make the market reflect the cost of pollution, and offset carbon taxes with income tax breaks geared to those who need relief the most. A range of independent experts, from conservative economists to environmental activists, praised the plan as a sane first step toward meeting the challenge.

It would be nice to live in a country that would welcome a calm, reasoned debate on such a serious idea. But alas, this is Canada.

The Conservatives, who spent the past year running demeaning attack ads framing Dion as an incompetent wimp, shifted to framing him as a dangerous crank. The Green Shift, said Harper (who never takes the high road if a low road is available), was an “insane” plan to “tax everything”, “screw everybody”, plunge the country into ruin, and even destroy national unity (I’m not making this up).

For all that Canadians have professed in recent years to be deeply concerned about the environment and prepared to sacrifice to do something about it, it seems that as soon as a carbon tax is raised their brains freeze up. The British Columbia Liberal government has pioneered a modest carbon tax, with offsets. The B.C. NDP has tossed away all its alleged green credentials and taken up a right-wing-style “axe the tax” campaign. The result: the NDP has surpassed the Liberals in the polls. This lesson was not lost on Jack Layton, who foolishly played into the hands of Stephen Harper by joining in the hysteria against the Green Shift. The results became clear on election night, especially in the anti-Liberal backlash in B.C. and suburban Ontario. The lesson is even clearer: a carbon tax is politically toxic, and thus there is no possibility in the near future of a rational debate on dealing with climate change.

Harper asked the Canadian electorate a silly question (give me a majority since I have made sure that minority government can’t work) and got back a silly answer (another minority in which all parties were to some degree losers). The most telling observation was that a record low number of electors (58 per cent) even bothered to cast ballots.

Conservatism was once a disposition that stressed prudence as the primary political virtue and looked to wise leadership that would rise above popular delusions. Today it is conservatives who recklessly promote divisiveness as an electoral strategy, a resentful populism that labels anyone who opposes them “elitists.” Above all, they play on fear – of terrorists, of crime, of taxes.

The last word goes to Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Conservatives have usually played this game well; their opponents have been at best evasive, and at worst incompetent. The result is a degraded democratic process.