American Backlash, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2005, 230 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-06370-3

I don’t think it’s possible to be too laudatory about Michael Adams’ previous book, Fire and Ice: Canada, The United States and the Myth of Convergence. By putting some statistical rigour onto a national feeling that had been growing for years, Adams crystallized the Canadian zeitgeist at a time where it finally manifested itself. It’s a bit pretentious to say that 2003 was the year that Canada grew up, but it certainly stands as a significant moment where (thanks to marijuana, same-sex marriage and staying-the-hell-out-of-Iraq) the country realized it was truly different from the United States. That it wasn’t just not converging with the US, but actively moving in a different direction. Sharply written with a mixture of structured polling results and pop-culture references, Fire and Ice went to to earn wide acclaim and healthy sales.

American Backlash is more or less a direct sequel to Fire and Ice, except that the analysis focuses almost exclusively on the United States. Once again, Adams takes a look at the results of his periodical household opinion surveys and draws inferences about the American character. What’s that fuss about culture wars? Is it true that, socially, the US is made of very different regions? Is the US growing more nihilistic by the minute?

As a Canadian, I’m almost disturbed at Adams’ presumptuousness in daring to psychoanalyze another country, especially if that country is the US. Through written and published for Canada, American Backlash takes on the risky task of finding out what Americans think, and if Canadians know one things very well, it’s that the US never, ever reacts favourably to outside opinion. Wouldn’t it be better, asks the polite Canadian, if we just avoided the subject altogether? I wouldn’t enjoy reading Adams’ hate mail after the publication of this book. It’s hardly surprising if the book still hasn’t found an American publisher.

But never mind my nervous fretting of hands. What does Adams have to say about the US?

One of his early conclusions is that the so-called culture war in the US is taking place upon the least important social axis. While Adams finds clear differences between self-identified conservatives and liberals (although those differences are almost orthogonal to one another: “liberals have issues while conservatives has values” he memorably coins on page 156), committed voters on both sides are very similar in terms of aspirations and community engagement. The real difference comes when you study voters versus non-voters: Perhaps predictably, non-voters are more likely to be hedonistic, consumerist and accepting of violence. It’s not such a stretch to assume that those evils that conservative and liberals are arguing against are to be found not in each other, but in this politically disengaged third group. (Ha! And you thought gansgta rap fashion was just an aberration, not a personification!)

At a thin 230 pages (only 177 of which are the main text, the rest being taken up by notes on methodology, sources and an index), American Backlash doesn’t have much more space for other subjects. It still does manage to study regional characteristics of America (suggesting that the stereotypes about this or that area of the US are largely based on real differences) and present a short history of political trends in twentieth-century America. (Hence the title, painting a picture of American politics mostly defined by what it opposes rather that what unites: the modern conservative movement as an overreaction against the evils of those “liberal hippies” of the sixties, just as the hippies were overreacting against mainstream values of the fifties…)

Unfortunately, American Backlash is not designed to speak about Canada, or how the US compares to other nations. Beyond cursory mentions of increasing liberalism everywhere else in the first world, Adams remains focused on the American national character. Readers hoping to catch a glimpse of Adams’ 2004 survey results for Canada will have their appetites whetted but left unfulfilled: you can bet good dollars that those results will have to wait until Adams’ next book. (In the meantime, Adams shows a sharp turn toward authoritarianism in the US from 2000 to 2004, and suggests a similar, but not as extreme trend in Canada.)

This being said, I think that fans of Fire and Ice will be the most disappointed in American Backlash. While the book is interesting and relatively solid, it does cover a lot of ground already explained in the previous book, and adds only a few points of interest. I supposed that many American readers will be offended by the besmirching of their national character, but then again they will have to make an effort to get the book from its Canadian publisher. For everyone else, it’s an interesting analysis of the social mood south of the border: will it be proved right just as Fire and Ice found its own vindication?

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