Opinion

What we mean when we talk about Alberta conservatism

Rural Albertans hold pretty moderate values and beliefs that aren’t all that different from urban Albertans, says political scientist Melanee Thomas. Yet, the politics of rural Alberta is different than what we’d see in the cities.

It's less about values, more about identity

Voters in rural Alberta and big cities like Calgary are more alike than you might think when it comes to policy preferences, says political scientist Melanee Thomas, but they differ more sharply in terms of 'party identification.' (Terry Reith/CBC, Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Growing up in rural Alberta was magical.

Seasons were defined by their smell. As soon as I catch the scent of grain dust on the air, I still immediately think of harvest season. My cousins and I still reminisce about the old community hall where we used to gather for community events and potlucks.

For each of us, these memories of our rural childhoods define important parts of ourselves.

Yet, since most of us have moved to cities, tensions between us and our relatives who stayed on the farm sometimes arise. These differences are often rooted in politics.

As a political scientist, this doesn't surprise me because, in Canada, one of the most important factors that structures how people vote is where they live. The idea that place matters for votes is pretty intuitive.

It's easy to stereotype Albertans politically based on where they live. Edmontonians are all public-sector hacks, Calgarians are all corporate stooges, and all farmers are unthinking conservatives.

But recent public opinion data, gathered earlier this year as part of CBC Calgary's The Road Ahead polling series, suggests Alberta's political reality is more complicated than geographical stereotypes would suggest.

It's interesting to dig into the numbers. They tell us something about who we are in Alberta. It helps us understand why people may vote the way they do. And it can help us understand populism on both the left and right.

Values vs. identity

Let's start with the big Alberta cliche.

Rural Albertans are, on average, only a little bit more conservative than Albertans who live in some cities. By conservative, we mean socially and fiscally — the values people support.

But, it's not so much values that influence voters. Rather, it's identity.

What does this mean? The data suggests that because people live in rural Alberta, they can come to see a political party as identifying they, themselves. People may vote not so much for a party's particular values, but rather because they see the party more as representing who they are.

Think of it as "I am a …" as opposed to a "I agree with …"

It seems as though the effect of living in a rural community is different than it is for other types of communities in Alberta.

Rural Albertans see themselves as closer to the United Conservative Party (UCP). 

That sense of seeing themselves in a particular party matters a lot more when it comes to how they vote than it does for people in Alberta's cities.

How do we figure this? Let's break down the numbers.

Social and fiscal conservatives

At first blush, the Road Ahead data suggests rural folks are more conservative than Albertans who live in cities.

About 37 per cent of rural Albertans are "consistent conservatives" — that is, they are both economically and socially conservative.

By contrast, about 25 per cent of Albertans in small cities, 22 per cent of Calgarians, and 17 per cent of Edmontonians are consistent conservatives, based on the detailed survey results.

When asked to place themselves on the political spectrum, Albertans bunched in the middle. (Janet Brown Opinion Research)

For reference, on average, 30 per cent of men are consistent conservatives, compared to 16 per cent of women.

So, rural Albertans are more conservative than, say, Calgarians. But the gap between those two groups is actually smaller than the gap between women and men.

A similar pattern holds for those with university degrees: 30 per cent of Albertans who have never been to post-secondary are consistent conservatives, compared to 17 per cent of Albertans with degrees.

This might explain some of those tense conversations at holiday dinners in across Alberta, and not just when farm kids come home from college.

But, even in rural Alberta, a large majority of Albertans are not consistently conservative across both economic and social issues. Let this sink in a moment.

In fact, most Albertans aren't conservative at all, regardless of where they live.

How do we know this?

We measure both fiscal and social conservatism on a 0-to-10 scale.

The political spectrum on a scale

Zero is as far left as someone can go, five is moderate, and 10 is as far right as someone can go. And we use what they tell us about issues to determine where they land on that 0-to-10 scale.

On both economic and social issues, our data shows the average Albertan lands a bit to the left, coming in at a 4 on the scale.

Rural folks come in at 4.8 on both economic and social issues. Albertans in smaller cities are pretty similar. People in Calgary and Edmonton are solidly on the left (3.8) on social issues, while Calgarians are a bit more economically conservative than Edmontonians (4.5 vs 3.9). 

For me, the key is that Albertans everywhere, regardless of where they live, tell us they like policies that are solidly in the middle or slightly on the left.

Trying to determine where Albertans are ideologically has value.  

As researchers we try to do that with the kind of data above. But, in this survey, we also asked people to self-identify as being on the right or the left, because knowing if a person sees themselves as conservative (even if they don't consistently favour conservative policies) tells us a lot about how they might vote.

Given that, we asked the people we surveyed to place themselves on that same 0 (left) to 10 (right) scale — to tell us how conservative (or not) they think they are.

Interestingly, there aren't any big gaps across rural and urban Alberta.

Policy preferences don't vary all that much between urban and rural Albertans, says political scientist Melanee Thomas, but how voters identify with political parties does. (Aspenash Fotons)

Everywhere, Albertans average between a 5 and 6. This means everyone sees themselves as pretty moderate.

For rural Albertans, while they are more likely to hold conservative values and beliefs than Albertans who live in cities, the differences in how they self-identify aren't nearly as large as stereotypes might suggest.

So, if rural Albertans are a little bit (but not that much) more conservative than city dwellers, why do they overwhelmingly vote for conservative parties?

This comes back to the idea of "seeing yourself" in a party.

Not values, but identity

To figure this out, we ran several statistical models. These allow us to assess how important (or not) any single factor might be for someone's anticipated vote choice when we spoke to them for the Road Ahead poll.

One of the most interesting things we found in this data is that living in a rural community is, on its own, a strong predictor of support for the United Conservative Party (UCP).

Something about living in rural Alberta drives people to say they'll vote for the UCP over and above fiscal and social conservatism, religion, or a sense of alienation. This means that being rural matters a lot for UCP votes in Alberta in ways that can't be explained by alignment with issues, values, or beliefs.

For folks living on farms and in small towns, something other than conservative values and beliefs brings them closer to the UCP than what their counterparts in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, or Red Deer might experience.

There's something extra.

It's called party identification.

Close to you

Party identification can be understood as feeling a "closeness" or attachment to a political party.

Voters use it to interpret issues, candidates, and leaders that they encounter in politics. Plenty of Albertans have a party identification, but two things make rural Albertans different on that front.

First, more of them identify themselves with the UCP. About 45 per cent of rural Albertans identify with the party.

This, compared to 36 per cent of Calgarians, 32 per cent of Albertans in small cities and 23 per cent of Edmontonians. In this sense, rural folks are more conservative than their urban counterparts.

Second, the strength of that party identification matters far more to the rural vote than it does for Albertans who live elsewhere. For example, when a rural voter says, "I like the UCP; I identify with them," it makes them about 80 percentage points more likely to vote UCP.

By contrast, voters in Calgary and Edmonton who identify with the UCP are about 27 percentage points more likely to vote for them.

Even though rural folks are moderate in their values and beliefs, they feel more attached to the UCP than urban UCP supporters.

Now, let's move to a loaded word — and a concept that has political scientists around the world working overtime.

Populism.

We must apply this to all parties. Not one. Populism affects all streams of political behaviour.

The effect of populism is flipped in rural Alberta, compared to other parts of the province.

The politics of populism

Alberta is a populist place.

Unlike populism in Europe, though, our populism is focused on who the "corrupt elites" are, rather than on defining the "pure people." In that sense, Alberta's populism is (or, at least, has historically been) more benign than populism in other places.

We expect our politicians to look out for the "the people" and to oppose "powerful elites." Anytime someone refers to the "grassroots," they're using populism to frame how politics works.

Often, voters see themselves as "the people." Where most of the disagreement in Alberta comes through is in how the left and the right disagree about who's a "powerful elite."

In the past, populists on the left saw "powerful elites" as large corporate interests. Populists on the right saw them as bankers, bureaucrats, interventionist politicians, or "special interests."

In the Road Ahead data, we identify populists with two questions.

First, those who agree it is better to trust the "down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people than experts" and second those who agree that politicians "lose touch with the people after they are elected."

With this measure, about half of Albertans could be described as populists — though Albertans living in rural Alberta or small cities are significantly more likely to be populists (between 56 and 59 per cent) compared to Albertans living in Edmonton and Calgary (between 40 and 43 per cent).

Women and men are about equally likely to be populists. 

Albertans over the age of 45 are far more likely to be populists than younger Albertans. And UCP supporters are the most populist of all (at 61 per cent), driven primarily by a distrust of experts.

What's really interesting is that the effects of being populist are very different depending on where someone lives. Rural populists are significantly more likely to support the UCP.

But in Edmonton (and to a lesser extent, Calgary), populism is more likely to boost NDP support.

The future

Certainly, these findings are preliminary and the 2019 election is a ways off.

Yet, I think these data show that what might explain politics in one place can't always explain what's going on somewhere else. Albertans intuitively know this. What works in Ontario or Quebec often won't fly politically over here. The same holds for provincial politics.

Rural Albertans hold pretty moderate values and beliefs that aren't that different from urban Albertans. Yet, the politics of rural Alberta is different than what we'd see in the cities.

Party identification matters more — and populism matters differently.


CBC News' random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018 by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


More from the series:

About the Author

Melanee Thomas

Associate professor of political science

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. Her research examines gender-based political inequality, with a particular focus on political attitudes, behaviour and engagement. Thomas, along with political scientist Duane Bratt, consulted with pollster Janet Brown in the design of the CBC's 2018 Road Ahead poll and the interpretation of resulting data.

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