Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Bones of Conservatism

Before picking over the bones of the Alberta PC Party, we might pause to think about what this election means from a broader perspective. The easy issue is the demise of the PC dynasty ... but that is the easy issue and it was going to happen, one way or the other, sometime because the PCs have been on shakier popular ground than a lot of people realize ... for a long time. Looking at the electoral map (or, party standings) and stating that this is an "historic" vote because does not, then, tell us anything that we do not already know.  The more important question that follows from this -- how? -- might also be self-evident. What it implies, however, is worth reflecting on.

The character and nature of Alberta politics have long been a matter of scholarly interest. As everyone knows, the province has been subject to long terms of one-party rule (Liberal, United Farmers, Social Credit, PC) in which the party in power dominates the legislature and is eventually replaced by another party. Because the Social Credit ended its days as  vibrantly right-wing party and because conservatives in Canada have been drifting further to the left over the years, this is often viewed as a right wing province. This is reflected federally, as well, where the Conservatives (and before them Canadian Alliance, Reform, and PCs) dominated the province: the Liberals and NDP getting little traction outside of urban Edmonton, and even here ... not a lot (most of the time).

This political dominance gives rise to a mythology: let's call it Alberta the right. The idea here is that Alberta is somehow culturally right wing in a way that other provinces are not. On the surface, this holds up (particularly when Klein was premier and because Harper and Co are based, more or less, in the province). But, the myth disguises considerable political diversity. In other words, there is no singular Alberta political culture or ideological drift. There are a range. The myth of Alberta the right gained hold because (a) it seemed self-evident looking at the political map (and so could be easily repeated without the trouble of actually having to investigate Alberta politics), (b) it was in the interests of conservatives in the province (whether PC, or Reform, or Cons., etc.) to state that because it helped to solidify their popular base and allowed them to lay claim, as it were, the heart and soul of the province (separatists in Quebec try a similar strategy), and (c) it was in the interest of opposition parties (Liberals, NDP, etc.) because they could console themselves on their losses and explain them away. It allowed them to avoid the tough work of thinking about what Alberta politics were all about and building alternatives to conservatism in the province.

These ideological underpinnings of this myth were reinforced, at different points in history, by material and social patterns. Harry Hiller's fabulous book Second Promised Land, for example, indicates that Alberta attracted a broad range of migrants from other provinces, over time, but the myth of a right wing Alberta became a bit of a self-perpetuating myth because it could attract people who were ideologically disposed to right wing values; those who rejected unions and/or disliked diversity, for example. Further in the past, the character of Alberta's social structure -- while by no means monolithic -- served to create a broad social class linked to primary commodity production and dependent on it. This dependency was first evident in the triumph of the United Farmers, then Social Credit, and then, in modified form, the PCs. Said differently, there is nothing odd or metaphysical about Alberta political culture.  It has been subject particularly strong mythologizing discourses that build on some socio-economic foundations. But, we should not allow that to distract from a deeper consideration of Alberta politics that can clear away some of this myth.

The first thing that is important to note is that Alberta governments have been moving into the centre of the political spectrum in a halting way for some time. Lougheed -- the first Alberta PC Premier in the early 1970s -- was right wing but he represented a centre-right mirror of the federal Liberals centre-left technocracy. There were significant divisions between Lougheed PCs and Trudeau Liberals, but each drew support from the same broad pool of middle class, university educated voters. Lougheed relied on rural (former Social Credit) voters for support, too, because he had to, but he was no redneck. Lougheed's successor (Getty) was a centrist, the trajectory, however, was interrupted by Klein who was representative of North American neo-conservatism at its most vehement.  Stelmach and Redford, though, were centre right and Redford (for all her problems) was moderate on a range of issues (including  -- more or less -- making peace with unions).

Likewise, at the federal level, right-wingers have long dominated Alberta politics but there is a mate of diversity among them. Diefenbaker was a Red Tory who would hardly fit with the right wing agenda of today; Clark was a moderate centre-right Tory who supported progressive causes at different points in his career.  The Reformers were right wing, to be sure, as was the Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party.

What this means, however, is this: one party (or, more exactly, one label) dominance does not mean that there everyone who fell under that label thought and acted the exactly the same way.

The second thing that is important to note is that Alberta has, traditionally, had a very low voter turnout rate. What does this mean? Likely, it means a range of things but I suspect it meant that those who were opposed to the government were not voting. In other words, what we were getting was not support for conservatism in Alberta but ... support for conservatism mixed with diversity and alienation. The voter turnout in this last election was the highest it has been (correct me if I am wrong) since 1993. I'll get back to this in a minute, but here are the voter turnout rates for the last several elections in Alberta:

 YEAR        %

 2012 54.4
 2008 40.6
 2004 44.7
 2001 52.8
 1997 52.8

What we have here is something less that a popular embrace of conservatism. What we have here, in fact, is a situation where the popular view is alienation (whatever that precisely means). The largest vote getter, in other words, in all provincial elections in Alberta since 1993 was "none of the above." It is amazingly difficult to know what "none of the above" means in practical voting terms but what we can say with some certainty is that it is something less than core conservative vote. It might be indifference; it might be apathy; it might be frustration; it might be all matter of things, but core vote ... votes.

It is interesting that in 1993, there was a (by current standards) relatively high voting turnout and the Alberta political spectrum looked ... more normal. The Liberals won almost 40% of the popular vote (of those who voted) and over 30 seats; the NDP got no seats but about 11% of the vote. The higher the voter turnout, it seems, the more diverse the political spectrum. This election, with about 60% turnout, has created the broadest political spectrum (in terms of presentation) in the Alberta legislature in a very long time, with five different parties (it appears) having won seats and three with reasonable to solid to good numbers.

What changed? My argument is that there was no sudden change in Alberta but rather a series of processes going on at the same time. These include, the fracturing of conservatism (evident in the old Reform/PC federal split after 1993) . In office, it is easy to cover over these the divisions in political parties. Once they run into problems, however, those divisions start to pop up. This is because all Canadian political parties are coalitions of one sort or another (some stronger; some weaker) that, to be successful, must appeal to diverse constituencies. (There is nothing wrong or horrible or corrupt about this.) Coalitions or voting blocks or diverse supporters (or, whatever you want to call them) will try to find common ground on which to meet for a variety of reasons and one of those reasons is to maintain power. Out of power -- or, if a party is failing or if the interests of one part of the coalition is coming to dominate versus others -- in these circumstances, maintaining solidarity in diversity is more difficult to do.

This is what happened to the PCs. The moderating centre and the rural populist right pulled away from each other.

This happened because of social changes. If, in the past, back in the days of the United Farmers and Social Credit, the social structure of Alberta created conditions favourable to one-party dominance, this is no longer the case. Edmonton and Calgary are modern large cities populated by working and middle class citizens. These are centres of research and development, HQP places, with vibrant cultural scenes. In other words, the social structure has diversified. A diversified social structure does not ipso facto make a more diversified political spectrum but it does broaden the collective range of options for which people are prepared to seriously consider voting. In other words, it does not make an NDP government but, in Alberta, it made an NDP government a possibility.

What happens next? Who knows? Those reading this blog will notice I have not talked about political leadership and that is a consideration that really does merit attention. Personally, I think it gets a bit too much press in the popular media because it is an easy thing to talk about that does not require too much careful research (although there is good work on this via Nanos). But, leadership will be a consideration for the Alberta NDP and how far and long they can go in government. They might ask their colleagues in the NS NDP about this. But,  I doubt the province is in for one-party NDP government. I suspect that the changing dynamics of its social structure, the character of urban and rural life, the issues that a resource economy needs to address in the 21st century, and other matters will ensure diversity in representation in the legislature. In other words, Alberta politics will more closely approximate those of other provinces.
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