Identity, not ideology, key political divide in Alberta, survey suggests

EDMONTON — Internet memes began creating memes within days of Alberta’s provincial election on Monday. “If you voted for Rachel Notley, you don’t support Alberta,” said one, referring to the leader of the province’s defeated New Democrats.

EDMONTON — Internet memes began creating memes within days of Alberta’s provincial election on Monday.

“If you voted for Rachel Notley, you don’t support Alberta,” said one, referring to the leader of the province’s defeated New Democrats.

“Having the city of Edmonton in Alberta is an insult,” said another, after the provincial capital rejected the ruling United Conservatives in each of its 20 constituencies.

“The pointless insults and demeaning comments posted here are as useless as Danielle Smith herself,” was one reply, attacking the victorious United Conservative Party leader.

Those comments reflect concerns that the province is becoming increasingly polarized.

“Citizens seem to have lost the shared sense of purpose and values ​​necessary to discuss issues of public interest respectfully, without alienating or belittling their neighbors,” concludes Common Ground, a research effort led by University of Alberta academics who has conducted an extensive survey on the subject.

The group sponsored a survey conducted by Leger Marketing among more than 1,200 Albertans in January and February 2023. It asked questions about how respondents define their policies, how they view those who disagree with them, what governments should do, and how they should use their power. .

The results are available on the group’s website.

For one thing, the survey suggests that Albertans share more than trolling on social media might imply.

“When we use measures of actual political positions and political values, Albertans are as progressive as anyone else in Canada,” said political science professor Jared Wesley, who runs Common Ground.

About a third of Albertans (rural, urban, male and female) fall squarely in the middle of the spectrum from left to right. Fifty-three percent identify as moderate. Nearly half, 42 percent, want “a society that puts compassion before prosperity.”

Albertans don’t mind rigid ideological boundaries either. Only around a quarter of those surveyed consider themselves loyal to the party.

About one in five United Conservatives preferred Notley to their own party leader. There are even New Democrats who prefer Smith to Notley, though far fewer.

Even among those who identify with a party, the lines are not clear. The survey found that 10 percent of UCP identifiers say they believe in left-wing political ideologies; 13 percent of New Democrats call themselves conservative or libertarian.

But that’s not the whole story.

“We need to get away from the idea that there is a polarization between people who think to the left and people who think to the right,” Wesley said. “Most people have a mix of beliefs, but they are pretty adamant when it comes to their identity.

“Identity means more than anything right now.”

Common Ground found that while Albertans of different political persuasions may agree on many things, they may not like each other very much.

It found that only seven percent of New Democrats would welcome a UCP member into their family through marriage. Fourteen percent of UCPers feel the same way about their opponents.

Only 13 percent of NDP identifiers would be willing to have a UCP friend. Reversed, the corresponding figure is 16 percent.

Although the left displayed more animosity towards its opponents than the right, those positions were reversed when it came to what Common Ground calls “factionalism”: the belief that rivals are not opponents to be persuaded but enemies to be defeated.

Thirty-eight percent of UCP supporters see the elections “like a war”; 41 percent feel that “my party should win every election”; 26 percent agree that “my party should control all government decisions.”

A third of all Albertans disagreed with statements that politicians should concede if they lose and that electoral rules must be agreed by all parties.

Polarization research has been conducted in the US for decades. Wesley compared that data with the results from Common Ground.

“There’s not a lot of evidence of factionalism (in Alberta), thank goodness. But Alberta is more or less where the United States was in 2004, on the eve of the Tea Party movement.”

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University and is not part of the Common Ground team. He supports many of his findings and says there is a “wide gap” between the parties.

He points to Smith’s pre-election statements that his party only needed the rural vote and enough urban seats. That’s what he got, making his government the first in Alberta’s history to rule by controlling only one of the province’s three traditional power bases: Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere.

Bratt said the province’s division was made worse by the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was experienced very differently in rural areas than in cities.

“On COVID politics, there is a big rural-urban divide,” he said. “That made a difference.”

That split will make it difficult for Smith to reunite Alberta, he said. So will the kind of winning candidates who hold some of the UCP seats, many backed by the far-right Take Back Alberta movement.

“There’s a feeling, ‘fuck them, they don’t think like us.’ There are moderates, but many of them lost their seats.”

Wesley said deep changes in society are driving these divisions, such as the response to climate change in a province that depends on fossil fuels.

On the one hand: “(There are) fears that some people have had for decades that their way of life and livelihoods are threatened.”

On the other hand: “Laptop class people who would like to bridge that gap but have been so maligned that they find it hard to communicate.”

The right leadership could help, Wesley said. But there is also a gap there.

“What we lack in Canada is a group of leaders who are willing to not play to those basic instincts that will win them the minimum number of seats to win.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 4, 2023.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press