Rahim Mohamed: What McConnell means to Kentucky, and why Canada needs a few like him (no, really)

For a small, poor, and out-of-the-way flyover state like Kentucky, a powerful S.O.B. in Washington is nothing to sneeze at.

By: Rahim Mohamed

He has been called Darth Vader, the grim reaper, a swamp turtle, “Moscow Mitch,” and, in one truly bizarre 2018 attack ad, “Cocaine Mitch.” As one of America’s most reviled political figures, Senator Mitch McConnell, who until yesterday was the Senate majority leader and remains the most powerful figure on the right side of the aisle in Congress, has been called nearly every name in the book by his myriad detractors. But one thing he can’t be called?

Loser.

McConnell captured his seventh consecutive statewide electoral victory this past November, trouncing opponent Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot and Democratic National Committee darling, by a 20-point margin — despite the McGrath campaign amassing a formidable $90 million war chest (out-fundraising the McConnell camp by a 3-2 margin).  

Now well into my second year as a resident of Kentucky, I still struggle to wrap my head around the appeal of McConnell to my fellow (voting) Kentuckians. To me, he is singularly devoid of the presence one would expect from a political figure of his standing. His shoulders are stooped; his voice a low, mumbly croak; his chinless, tortoise-like visage a gift to political cartoonists everywhere.   

I’ve come closest to understanding why McConnell keeps on winning in my discussions with colleagues and students who grew up here in Kentucky, especially those who were raised outside of the commonwealth’s two major cities of Louisville and Lexington. As one student, who hails from the small central Kentucky town of Stanford (Pop.: 3,686) told me: “McConnell might be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.”

And for a small, poor, and out-of-the-way flyover state like Kentucky, a powerful S.O.B. in Washington is nothing to sneeze at. Despite falling solidly into the Democratic fold myself, I must admit that I felt mixed emotions following the Senate runoff elections in Georgia earlier this month. With McConnell’s demotion to Senate minority leader, I can expect to see Kentucky receive much less attention in the national media. 

In many ways, McConnell’s story is the story of the United States Senate, a highly effective and often underappreciated federal institution. Devised as part of the Great Compromise struck between the stronger and weaker of the 13 original colonies, the Senate has, through much of its history, played the role of equalizer for states that fall in the latter category. 

Several of the Senate’s most powerful figures have represented what we could politely term peripheral states: names like Robert Byrd (West Virginia), Tom Daschle (South Dakota), and Ted Stevens (Alaska). These titans not only elevated the national profiles of their respective states but, through the chamber’s long-established culture of favour-trading, delivered billions of federal dollars to their constituents in the form of pork-barrel projects. 

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While the United States remains a deeply divided society (just look at the assault on the Capitol), the country’s 50 states have settled into a comfortable, if sometimes lively, coexistence with no serious threats of secession on the horizon. In fact, the country looks set to welcome two new states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, into the union now that the Democratic Party has taken unified control of the federal government, with the former’s status as a predominantly Spanish-speaking territory seeming to pose no obstacle in its path to statehood.

Compare this to the dysfunctional state of the Canadian federation. With Quebec separatism never more than one scandal away from being reignited, la belle province now finds itself with some company in the secessionist camp. Over the Trudeau (II) years, #Wexit has grown from a fringe social media hobbyhorse to tangible (if nascent) political movement. In this past October’s Saskatchewan election, the secessionist Buffalo Party (formerly Wexit Saskatchewan) finished in a respectable third place, winning just over 2.5 per cent of the total vote. Looking to head off the Buffalo Party’s momentum, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has adopted a decidedly more combative tone toward Ottawa in recent months.  

It is easy to see how Canada’s federal institutions inflame such tensions. Saskatchewan, which elected a full slate of Conservative candidates in the last federal election, has since been shut out completely from the informal Liberal-NDP coalition that now runs the House of Commons — driving Canada’s response to COVID and, through massive deficit spending, shaping the country’s fiscal policy landscape for decades to come. 

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Alienation will continue to be the norm until the provinces are meaningfully engaged, on an equal basis, in the federal policymaking process. Here’s where Canada’s much-maligned senate can play a role.

The idea of a Triple-E (equal, elected, and effective) Senate, once a dream of Canada’s Reform movement, should be revisited in light of the weakening state of the federation. The obvious hitch here is that senate reform can only be accomplished by reopening Canada’s constitution — a prospect that is still politically untenable given the long shadow cast by the failed constitutional accords of the 1990s. However, the upside of a Triple-E Senate, in terms of the role it would play in fostering a more harmonious and cohesive national climate, is too great to ignore. 

Strong bicameralism, which would give provinces outside of Ontario and Quebec an opportunity to send their own Mitch McConnells to Ottawa, might be what is needed to make Canada a more perfect union. 

Rahim Mohamed is a visiting assistant professor of international studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.


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