Clipped Wings: The rise of moderates as the “must-win” constituency in Canadian politics, 1990-2006

Canada is a tough place to start a political revolution.

Maybe we’re too mellow for a passionate ideologue’s liking.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that former Canadian prime ministers have to leave their security bubble after departing office. They cannot live reliably off speaking fees like former British prime ministers and American presidents do — or take for granted that they will be protected from physical harm for the rest of their lives, as illustrated by the 2007 attack on former prime minister Joe Clark while he was walking down a street in downtown Montreal without bodyguard protection.

Maybe we just don’t take politics all that seriously, as might befit a nation whose first prime minister was an alcoholic (a historical oddity we share with Australia) and whose longest-serving prime minister was a bona fide eccentric, being probably the first and only Canadian prime minister to participate in a seance.

And perhaps it’s because there are limits to how far a political party can stray from the political centre before it becomes unelectable.

The charts below are based on an analysis of data from the 1990 and 2006 waves of the World Values Survey, in which randomly chosen Canadians and Americans were asked the same two questions: which national party would be their first choice to vote for, and how they would position themselves on a 1-to-10 political scale where a “1” represents the hard left and a “10” represents the hard right.

The first chart shows how Canadians positioned themselves on the political scale in 2006. As the black line shows, the Canadian population as a whole tended to congregate in the middle of the political spectrum. Mainstream opinion more or less ended at a “3” on the left and at an “8” on the right. People rating themselves “1”, “2”, “9” or “10” were few and far between. As might be expected, Conservative sympathizers leaned a bit to the right of the population as a whole, while NDP and Bloc Quebecois sympathizers leaned a bit left — but only a bit.

Self-positioning on the political spectrum in Canada, overall and by first-choice party, 2006.

How had things changed since 1990? As the second chart shows below, there appeared to be some tightening up of public opinion around the centre of the political spectrum since 1990, when there was a more pronounced lean to the right in Canada.

Self-positioning on the political spectrum by Canadians, 1990 and 2006

Indeed, the third chart below shows that the 2006 Conservatives drew in more support from the political centre than did the 1990 PCs, though the somewhat more right-wing sevens and eights remained an important constituency within the small-c conservative movement.

Self-positioning on the political scale by those Canadians who called the Conservatives their first-choice preference in 2006 and those who called the PC Party or Reform Party their first choice preference in 1990.

What about Liberal sympathizers? There appears to have also been some tightening up around the political centre between 1990 and 2006. In 1990, the right-leaning sixes and sevens appeared to make up a larger part of the Liberal Party’s support base than they did in 2006. It wasn’t uncommon in 2006, however, to find Liberal sympathizers who leaned as far left as a three or as far right as an eight.

Self-positioning on the political scale by those Canadians who named the Liberal Party as their first choice, 1990 and 2006.

The NDP seemed to be the one party that suffered some loss of centrists as a proportion of its sympathizers between 1990 and 2006, with noticeable declines in the percentage of party sympathizers rating themselves a “5” or “6” on the 10-point political spectrum scale. There were, at the same time, signs of a more pronounced lean to the left by 2006. (And, curiously, of a pocket of support on the right.)

Self-positioning on the political scale by those Canadians who named the NDP as their first choice, 1990 and 2006.

How do we compare to the Americans, the country whose politics has more influence on our own than any other country’s? As the chart below shows, American opinion overall leaned a little further right in the U.S. than it did in Canada.

Self-positioning on the political spectrum by Canadians and Americans, 2006

There is a more striking difference, however, between Republican sympathizers in 1990 and 2006. During that 16-year interval, the percentage of Republican sympathizers referring to themselves as centrists took a tumble, while the party’s hard right — the eights, nines and tens — grew substantially.

Self-positioning on the political scale by Americans naming the Republican Party as their first choice, 1990 and 2006.

Democratic sympathizers appeared to shift slightly to the left between 1990 and 2006, with some loss of territory on the right leaving it as a party that gets most of its support from the threes, fours, fives and sixes. Contrast the limited overlap of the Republican and Democratic support bases — the two parties really only compete for the fives and sixes — to the heavy overlap in the political centre among all Canadian parties as shown in the first graph above.

Self-positioning on the political scale by Americans naming the Democratic Party as their first choice, 1990 and 2006.

Some of these changes here in Canada might reflect a growing need for all parties to practice something-for-everybody politics due to the disappearance of “loyalist” voters who could be counted on for support at election time. As recent research shows, there have been seismic shifts in Canadian politics that are producing an increasingly non-partisan and non-ideological public:

  • A 2010 Library of Parliament background paper noted that “young people in Canada demonstrate low levels of trust and interest in political institutions and representatives, and are less likely to vote and join political parties than previous cohorts of young Canadians”. This followed a 2008 paper prepared for the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University which observed that “there is little reason to join a party except to nominate a candidate or play a role in leadership conventions”, with the result that card-carrying party loyalists are a “rapidly aging” group, with an average age of 59 years in 2000.
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  • One 2009 study observed that technology has effectively erected an electronic Berlin Wall between parties and other political groups (both of which are on the wrong side of the wall) and the citizens they’re trying to get their messages through to: “The arrival of the [remote control], Video Cassettes, and the personal channel repertoires that cable and satellite providers offered subscribers resulted in a situation that allowed viewers, with minimal or no effort, to avoid political news. The result, notes Prior (2007), was a deeper political knowledge gap between those who pursue news and those who avoid it, a gap that could only grow with the arrival of a far more powerful range of avoidance devices.”
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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Clipped Wings: The rise of moderates as the “must-win” constituency in Canadian politics, 1990-2006

  1. Fat Arse says:

    I just told our politically ignorant teenage girls to turn off their “avoidance devices” (an I-pod and cell phone respectively) and ordered them to read something (anything!) from yesterday’s Globe & Mail. You should have seen the horror in their eyes!

  2. Brian says:

    “there is little reason to join a party except to nominate a candidate or play a role in leadership conventions”

    Quite true. I’m still baffled as to why some genius hasn’t come along and changed that. It wouldn’t be hard to.

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