Friday, January 07, 2011

Polls

What should we make of polls? They are the stuff of political reporting or ... well ... punditry. The polls are a bit like a sporting event. One can see how is winning and who is losing and have some sort of "gameday" assessment. Change a few words from running game to chief of staff and, in fact, the same style of commentary fits both the weekly CFL prognostications and assessments of polls.

I don't blame anyone for finding polls interesting on enjoying listening to punditry. I do. I get the polls sent right to my inbox (a convenience at least one research firm provides). I look over the regional breakdowns, look at the gender breakdowns (if they happen to have those), scruntize the margin of error on a national and regional basis. And, then see if my assessment is the same as the pundits.

I also don't blame anyone for not finding this approach to polls interesting. My wife -- try as she might -- is just not a football fan (go Mounties!). Some people just don't like politics as sporting event and I can't blame them for that. Indeed, there is likely something fundamentally wrong with treating public life as if it were a sporting event, and I'd even guess that this approach to politics contributes to the plague of political alienation.

Is there something else we could do with polls that might be more meaningful and more long-term and perhaps a bit more scholarly? It seems to me that there are two important considerations:

1. There is a great deal of division in the Canadian electorate. In earlier posts -- even some time ago -- I've wondered if Canada is not in the midst of a sea change. For a long time, liberal ideas (what Michael Ignatieff when he is being an author called "civic nationalism") defined the basic Canadian philosophy of nation. This made, I argued, Canadian liberalism different from American liberalism. Both Canadian and American liberals saw themselves as political progressives but Canadian liberals had a far more defined philosophy and programme and were able to implement their programme. This programme consisted not just of political progressivism (welfare state, etc.) but a definiing philosophy of nation that lent some level of coherence to this project. I won't rehash the details but I argued that the Charter, multiculturalism, rule of law, regional economic development, etc., were all of a piece in that they were geared to the realization of a liberal philosophy of nation (geared to liberal virtues particularly individualism).

I have wondered if this project is not near its end. Polls help us think about what this end means. Liberalism -- civic nationalism -- I would contend was never a majority view among Canadians. It was likely the largest minority; other philosophies of nation (Quebec separatism or two nations), socialism, "community of communities" Joe Clark conservativism, Red Toryism, Neo-conservatism, all competed with liberal civic nationalism. The liberal vision was based largely in the middle class  (francophone and anglophone, primarily in Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada but -- if one looks at election results -- it had some strengths in parts of western Canada (Vancouver, urban Saskatchewan, urban Manitoba, even suburban Edmonton) as well.

The demise of this vision of Canada is far from complete. Indeed, I would argue that it has been so successful that even its opponents have been either (a) convinced of some of its key elements or (b) have accepted that they have to live with some things they don't like because otherwise they cannot win elections. What I wonder, however, is whether or not this vision has  run its course. The Liberal Party is no longer needed to guard this vision because it infuses other political parties or because it is too strong for its opponents to resist. What this means, is that Liberals will have a tough job winning elections as their raison d'etre is no longer there. The great project of refashioning Canada undertaken by Liberals has worked. The Liberals retain their core supporters -- the core believers in this vision of Canada who distrust others acceptance of their ideas -- but other parties can now pick off parts of Liberal support relatively easily simply by no infringing on the core of this vision (Harper might not like the Charter but he's tried to do nothing to it, for example).

The suggests, then, the the demise of civic vision of Canada is not really a demise but something else. A debate over degrees with NDP supportes suggesting furthe changes and modificaitons and Conservative supporters trying to limit the effect of change. The debate is done: Canada is bilingual, multicultural, etc.

2. The interest in polls might also tell us something about political journalism in Canada. Since the attention devoted to polls -- including this blog -- is way out of proportion to their importance ... why devote attention to them?

I don't have an easy answer to this question but instead what I'd suggest is better interpretive journalism. Better interpretive journalism, for instance  (or, political reporting if you will) might focus on this larger issue. It might not focus on who is "winning" or "losing" but on what increases and decreases in support over time for specific parties means about the character and nature of Canada.
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