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

NDP Leader Rachel Notley and United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith are shown on the Alberta election campaign trail in this recent photo combination. Last week's Alberta election, in which the United Conservatives swept rural seats but lost heavily in the province's main cities, has raised fears of growing political polarization. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — The internet memes starting meme-ing within days of Monday's Alberta provincial election.

"If you voted 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 insulting," said another, after the provincial capital rejected the governing United Conservatives in every one of its 20 ridings.

"The senseless insults and degrading comments posted here are about as useless as Danielle Smith herself," came a response, attacking the victorious leader of the United Conservative Party.

Those comments reflect worries the province is becoming increasingly polarized.

"Citizens appear to have lost the shared sense of purpose and values necessary to debate matters of the public good respectfully, without alienating or disparaging their neighbours," concludes Common Ground, a research effort led by academics at the University of Alberta that has conducted extensive polling on the issue.

The group sponsored a poll conducted by Leger Marketing of more than 1,200 Albertans in January and February 2023. It asked questions on how respondents define their politics, how they see 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.

On the one hand, the poll suggests Albertans share more than what trolling social media might imply.

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

About a third of Albertans — rural, urban, male and female — place themselves squarely in the middle of the left-right spectrum. Fifty-three per cent identify as moderates. Nearly half — 42 per cent — want "a society that places compassion ahead of prosperity."

Nor do Albertans care about rigid ideological boundaries. Only about a quarter of respondents consider themselves party loyalists.

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

Even among those who do identify with a party, the lines aren't clear. The poll found 10 per cent of UCP identifiers say they believe in left-wing political ideologies; 13 per cent of New Democrats call themselves conservatives or libertarians.

But that's not the whole story.

"We need to move away from the idea that there's a polarization between people who are left-thinking and people who are right-thinking," Wesley said. "Most people have mixtures of belief but they're fairly firm when it comes to their identity.

"Identity means more than anything right now."

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

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

Just 13 per cent of NDP identifiers would be willing to have a UCP friend. Flipped, the corresponding figure is 16 per cent.

Although the left showed more animosity to their opponents than the right, those positions were reversed when it came to what Common Ground calls "factionalism" — the belief that rivals aren't opponents to be persuaded but enemies to be vanquished.

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

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

Polarization research has been conducted in the U.S. for decades. Wesley compared that data to Common Ground's results.

"There's not a lot of evidence for factionalism (in Alberta), thank goodness. But Alberta is kind of where the U.S. was in 2004 on the eve of the Tea Party movement."

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University, not part of the Common Ground team. He supports many of its findings and says there's a "wide gap" between the parties.

He points to Smith's pre-election statements that her party needed only the rural vote and just enough urban seats. That's what she got, making her government the first in Alberta history to rule controlling only one of the province's three traditional power bases — Edmonton, Calgary and everywhere else.

Bratt said the province's split was worsened 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 huge rural-urban divide," he said. "That did make a difference."

That split will make it tough for Smith to pull Alberta together, he said. So will the kind of winning candidates that fill some of the UCP seats, many endorsed by the hard-right Take Back Alberta movement.

"There's a sentiment, 'screw them, they don't think the way we do.' There are moderates, but a lot of them lost their seats."

Wesley said deep changes in society drive these divisions, such as the response to climate change in a province dependent on fossil fuels.

On one side: "(There are) fears that some folks have had for decades now that their way of life and their livelihoods are threatened."

On the other: "Folks from the laptop class who might like to bridge that gap but have been so maligned it's difficult for them to reach out."

The right leadership might help, said Wesley. But there's a gap there, too.

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

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

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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