Assistant Professor Chris Cochrane speaking at University of Toronto Scarborough (photo by Ken Jones)

The polarization of Canadian politics

Canadian politics is becoming more polarized as people with right-wing attitudes cluster in the Conservative party, and left-wingers seek out the New Democratic Party, says the University of Toronto's Chris Cochrane.

This polarization is likely to spell trouble for the Liberals, and possibly trouble for Canada as a whole, warns Cochrane, an assistant professor of political science at University of Toronto Scarborough.

“What we are witnessing today in Canadian politics … is the culmination of a long-term decline of a centrist Liberal party, and a historical reorientation of Canadian politics along left/right ideological lines,” says Cochrane. 

Speaking at the Graduate Students Association's New Frontiers Seminar Series recently, Cochrane pointed out that, historically, the Conservatives and the Liberals have operated under what political scientists call a “brokerage model.”

Rather than present clear ideological alternatives, they instead brokered compromises with various interest groups and governed more or less from the centre of the political spectrum. Most other Western democracies, such as the United States, have had parties that represented clear left and right alternatives.

Although left and right political positions are complex, there are clusters of attitudes that tend to separate left-leaning from right-leaning voters, Cochrane says. On the left, people tend to be more concerned with equity, they are pro-choice, pacifist, concerned about the environment, in favour of multiculturalism, and secular. On the right they tend to favor of economic liberty, are anti-abortion, hawkish, concerned about the economy, in favour of the dominant culture, and religious.

Studies of past platforms of the Liberals and Conservatives show that they tended to advance centrist positions. Surveys of voter attitudes showed that left-wing and right-wing voters were attracted about equally to both parties. (The NDP, on the other hand, has always been relatively left-wing in platform and voters).

But Canadian politics has been gradually polarizing, with right-leaning voters clustering in the Conservative Party, and left-leaning voters going NDP.

“We have for the first time in Canadian history a federal parliament that is divided between a clear left and a clear right. On the left is the official opposition New Democratic Party, and on the right is the Conservative Party of Canada, the government. Squeezed out in the middle is the Liberal Party,” Cochrane says.

Rather than a blip, the decline of the Liberal party is the result of long-term trends, and is likely to continue as its “mushy middle” alternative becomes less appealing to polarized voters. Cochrane thinks that eventually the Liberals may merge with the NDP to provide a single left alternative party.

Cochrane said that the polarization is not likely to result in government gridlock, as it has in the US. But it could result in wild swings in government policy as left and right parties alternate power.

Political polarization could also divide Canadian society. Historically, members of one party tended to say they respected the opposing parties. But in recent decades, surveys show that voter respect for political opponents has declined.

“Obviously in the past people had party loyalty and they disliked the other parties. But … they didn’t hate the other parties in a visceral way. I think what you see now is a strong polarization between opposing camps … I think as a society we could become more divided,” he says.

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