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American and Canadian voters yearn for something they might never get

​Ian Bremmer addresses the audience at the 2024 US-Canada Summit in Toronto.

Ian Bremmer addresses the audience at the 2024 US-Canada Summit in Toronto.

David Pike

Is there a deep, secret yearning from American and Canadian voters for a radically open border? Do people really want Canada and the US to be more like the EU? OR, is border politics all about isolationism, security fears, and building walls? The results of an exclusive new poll from GZERO and Data Science will surprise you – and ought to be shaping the election campaigns in both countries.

We revealed part of the poll at the US-Canada Summit that I had the pleasure of co-hosting in Toronto, put on by the teams at Eurasia Group and BMO. Led off by our own Ian Bremmer and BMO’s CEO Darryl White, it included a remarkable collection of over 500 people, including political leaders from across the spectrum in both countries who debated, speechified, conversed, and argued.

Why are so many people so keen to discuss the US-Canada relationship? As Bremmer said, this is a hinge moment in history, with three wars raging — one in Ukraine, one in the Middle East, and one in the United States — a remark that caused gasps and nods. On top of that, 60+ elections are reshaping the world this year (Modi humbled in India, Macron in a showdown with the far right in France, Sunak shambolically slinking off in the UK). Meanwhile, China is threatening Taiwan, and AI is grinding its way through our economies and imaginations.

Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council under Trump and the vice chairman of IBM, admitted that what worries him most is the collision between geopolitics and the economy. They are inextricably linked and making things worse. With the political bombs falling so close, people are desperately looking for a safe shelter, and that shelter is the US-Canada relationship. As Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said, squabbles between the two countries over tariffs or softwood lumber don’t add up to a pile of shell casing next to say China and Taiwan, which may be why the relationship is so often taken for granted or outright ignored. It is and remains one of the biggest bilateral trading relationships in the world.

Globalization is giving way to new forms of regionalism, or “friend-shoring with a vengeance.” But should the region have internal walls or not?

The mandate of the conference is to bring together people tired of partisan bickering, slogan swamping, and dizzying disinformationalizing – in other words, the bubble-blowing BS of everyday politics. They are urged to be authentic, honest, and, despite their political differences, get on with figuring out how to build something better and more secure than we have now. And they did.

Who joined in?

This is a partial list (pause for a long breath): Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Industry Minister Francois Phillippe Champagne, Treasury Board President Anita Anand, who settled a major border strike during the conference, Ontario and Saskatchewan Premiers Doug Ford and Scott Moe, Alaska Gov. MikeDunleavy, political wizards like David Axelrod from the Obama campaign and Christopher Liddell, the former White House Deputy Chief of Staff to Donald Trump.

Speaking of the Trump folks, there was Gary Cohn, mentioned above, giving Canada a shot and saying it can “tag along” on US economic progress. Former Bank of Canada and England Governor Mark Carney spoke about building together based on common values, and there was Mitch Landrieu, the Biden/Harris 2024 National Campaign Co-Chair, who was in full fight mode over Trump. They were joined by more than 150 CEOs, dozens of policy wonks, and experts on everything from AI, security, economic policy, and more.

There were tray loads of interesting insights and ideas:

  • On Trade: The 2026 review of the USMCA is widely seen as the most important framework for the economic future of North America, and there are genuine fears that if Trump wins (Turns out, Ivermectin may actually be a political vaccine against felony convictions) and senses that trade imbalances with the US have not changed, he will rip it up and send the economies reeling with nasty and counterproductive tariffs.
  • On the Inflation Reduction Act: Candid admissions from US politicians that protectionism and US industrial policy can sideswipe Canada, simply because Canada gets forgotten.
  • On Biden vs. Trump: A quote attributed to Bill Clinton was repeated as to why Biden’s good economic record is not reflected in his polling: “Strong and wrong beats weak and right.”
  • On why Democrats are losing working-class voters: I asked David Axelrod why Democrats and progressives spend so much time convincing themselves that people like Trump are not fit for office but so little time reflecting on why their own policies are failing to connect with so many people. He told me — and later told the audience — that Democrats treat working-class Americans with such condescension it’s like anthropologist Margaret Mead studying what were then called “primitive societies” and telling them, “You need to be more like us, and we can teach you.” A devastating critique.
  • Here is another Axe moment: Why are some independent and conservative voters tuning out Trump?” “Having Trump as president is like living next to someone who runs a leaf blower 24/7.”
  • Personnel is policy: Gary Cohn spoke about why you need to know the people in power. “Any president gets to make 2,800 appointments — they make them all — but ‘personnel is policy,’ so if you want to know what Trump will do, see who he is appointing.” By the way, expect the USMCA trade negotiator Robert Leitheiser, the very guy who insisted on the six-year trade review, to be a senior member of the Trump team,
  • Christopher Liddell of Trump White House 1.0, admitted that Trump didn’t know what he was doing in the first six months of his first term, but that it’s different this time, and that the planning and policies are already well underway. We should expect the first six months of a Trump 2.o to be rapid, decisive, and consequential, as he only has one term. His first target will be China and … his political enemies.
  • On defense spending: Mark Carney said Canada has no more excuses and must reach 2% spending on NATO – just weeks before the NATO summit in Washington.

But there was one issue that lurked beneath the surface of cross-border politics and wasn’t raised: Should the demand by many US politicians to close down their southern border be counterbalanced by a much quieter, almost secret demand from people to … open the Canadian border, EU style?

It is not as crazy as it sounds.

GZERO commissioned an exclusive poll from our partners at Data Sciences and asked: Would you support an EU-like arrangement between the US and Canada?

The results are fascinating.

Overall, 53% said they would support such an arrangement – 50% in Canada and 55% in the US, while 33% are neutral. And, get this, only 14% are against the idea. Not surprisingly, it breaks down on party lines: 71% of Biden supporters are far more supportive the idea, while 45% of Trump supporters want it. In Canada, it’s almost an even split: 50% LPC/NDP lime it while on the right, 54% of CPC/PPC support the idea.

The point? The longest undefended border in the world is still very defended, and millions of people would like to cross more easily, work more freely, and trade more efficiently. In 2022, US trade with Mexico was $855 billion, and with China it was $758 billion. With Canada? $908 billion.

So making US-Canada trade more efficient with an EU-style arrangement seems like a no-brainer. Last week, we all celebrated D-Day and the beginning of the fight for peace. So many people died in that bloody sacrifice, yet today, the French and the Germans, who fought two world wars that left millions on both sides slaughtered, can move, trade, and work freely across each other's borders in a way Americans and Canada can only dream about. It is baffling.

If anything is a warning about why closing borders and setting up tariffs is disastrous, look at the UK and Brexit, which has essentially tanked the UK economy. The Brexit-loving Conservatives under Rishi Sunak are now facing a potential political extinction event on par with the Canadian Conservative party of 1993, when Brian Mulroney went from winning the biggest majority in Canadian history to stepping down months before an election his party lost so badly they were left with two lonely seats.

We are heading into a US election and a possible Canadian election where low growth, high inflation, and fear of an unstable world might kill prosperity. Why aren’t the two best friends in the world campaigning on an idea that has proven to be one of Europe’s great drivers of growth? An open border.

We all get it. The politics of the southern border is driving politics at the northern border, but if voters can distinguish between the two, why can’t politicians?

They likely never will. And this may be the most 2024 political moment of all: Ignore the quiet ideas people want, and focus on the noisy fights no one can stand.


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