Friday, November 11, 2011

Votes and Values

Canada these days seems to be an ideological mish-mash.

On the one hand, you could argue Canada is becoming a “right-wing” country and point to the recent decisive majority government victory of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.

On the other hand, however, you could also plausibly argue that Canadians actually embrace left-wing social democracy and for proof note the even more recent NDP majority victory in Manitoba and the electoral win (albeit with a minority) of Ontario’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.

So which is it? Are Canadians right wing or left wing?

Well, with all due respect to all you ideologues out there, the correct answer is neither.

The fact is the majority of Canadians don’t subscribe to any ideologically consistent set of principles. This is why, politically speaking, voters can seem to be all over the ideological map.

This is not to say Canadians don’t care about issues or that they don’t have well-thought out opinions.

They absolutely do. But they base their opinions and voting preferences not on ideology but on values.

For instance, voters who care about “pocket book” values tend to pay attention to issues like tax rates, deficits and government spending.

Meanwhile, Canadians who identify themselves with “moral values” care about things like abortion policy, same-sex marriage and other issues commonly associated with “The Family.”

And there are all kinds of other “value clusters” that make up the Canadian political landscape.

Politicians understand this state of affairs. This is why they will tailor their message so as to win over different value groups to their side.

For instance, when a politician promises to cut taxes and balance the budget, he is making a play for the “pocket book” crowd.

The political math in this case is easy: Whoever can assemble the biggest coalition of value groups, usually wins the election.

Now political strategists also have to keep in mind that the largest and most important value group in Canada is what I call the “Quality of Life Crowd.”

In a nutshell, those who make up the Quality of Life Crowd basically care about protecting and nurturing their standard of living. That means they want to keep their disposable income; that means they want access to excellent health care; that means they want good schools for their kids and a clean environment.

To win an election, you need a huge chunk of this group.

And the Quality of Life crowd is open to either right wing or left wing proposals depending on which side better frames the issues in its communications strategy.

For instance, Prime Minister Harper succeeded in winning over a lot of Quality of Lifers because he promised economic stability and competent leadership in the possibly tough days ahead.

Quality of Lifers, who are risk averse and who don’t like uncertainty, found Harper’s message reassuring.

What’s more, they also like to be kept safe, so Harper’s emphasis on law and order, likely resonated as well.

Now let’s consider the recent Ontario election.

In that contest the Ontario Liberals (with an able assist from their union allies) succeeded in defining Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak as a hospital-closing, immigrant-hating, right wing extremist.

The Liberals then focused their messaging on how they stood for a strong health care system, for better schools and for a greener environment.

For Quality of Lifers, who had become a little wary of Hudak and the Tories, McGuinty seemed a safer choice.

This is why Ontario leaned Conservative in May and Liberal in October.

It had nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with values

(The article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times)

1 comment:

Ted said...

I think your category, "Quality of Lifers" is excellent and provides a useful way of looking at voting outcomes. Thanks for the article.

Ted Forman