One widespread conception about Alberta is that it has a more conservative political culture than the rest of Canada. Such a view can be easily supported by looking at the province’s voting record since the 1930s – at both the federal and provincial levels – Albertans have voted overwhelmingly for right-leaning parties.
The accidental NDP government (2015-2019) was elected with less than 41 per cent of the vote while the two right-of-centre parties totalled 52 per cent. This was only possible because of the knife driven through the back of the Wildrose during the mass floor-crossing of 2014, and the taint of corruption that it left on the PCs.
In the 2012 election just three years earlier, the combined Wildrose-PC vote totally nearly 79 per cent. With only a few glitches of history, Alberta’s modern political culture is decidedly conservative.
Besides Alberta’s voting record, there are also other evidences of a conservative political culture. In 2011, Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, wrote a book entitled Code Politics: Campaigns and Cultures on the Canadian Prairies, which provides historical confirmation of the conventional view of Alberta as a conservative-oriented province.
In this book, Wesley examines what he calls “political codes.” Generally speaking, political “codes” can be understood as the expressions of a broadly accepted belief system, or a set of prevailing political values that dominate the thinking of political leaders in a community. They can also be seen as patterns of political thought and behaviour. To quote Wesley’s definition, written in academic jargon, “a code is a unique discursive paradigm that persists among dominant elites in a given community over time.”
When Wesley compared the political cultures of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, he found that each of these provinces has a unique “political code.” After an analysis of the historical trajectories of the three provinces, he reduces the political code of each province down to one word. For Alberta, that word is “freedom” – for Saskatchewan it’s “security” – and for Manitoba it’s “moderation.”
How can a community’s political code be determined? There may be various ways of doing so, but Wesley chose to examine the election campaign literature and political platforms of Alberta’s principal provincial parties since the 1930s; that is, the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties. As he notes, “political cultures are actively promoted, transmuted, and transmitted by dominant political parties.”
In his analysis, Wesley identified three core elements of Alberta’s freedom-based political code. The first component is populism, which emphasizes freedom from government overreach, whether that government be in Edmonton or Ottawa.
The second core element of Alberta’s political code is individualism. Wesley writes, “Throughout much of the past seven decades, Social Credit and Conservative Party rhetoric has stressed the primacy of the individual as the core unit of society. In their platforms, we find constant reference to individual initiative, free enterprise, hard work, and a general go-it-alone philosophy – all of which correspond to the conservatism embedded in the province’s political culture.”
The third core element of Alberta’s political code is the feeling of alienation from the centre of decision-making in Eastern Canada. As a result of this, both the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties have promoted the autonomy of the provincial state at certain points during their tenures in power.
To summarize, then, Wesley writes that, “Together, these three pillars – populism, individualism, and provincial autonomy – have helped structure Alberta politics around a freedom-based narrative that, itself, draws on the major aspects of the province’s political culture.”
Besides describing Alberta’s political code, Wesley provides an explanation for how it developed historically. Interestingly, he focuses on early American immigration into Alberta as the most important factor. That is, the large number of American settlers arriving in Alberta during the early twentieth century brought with them three key political values, each of which became a core element of Alberta’s political code.
Wesley writes that the first key value was “a laissez-faire brand of frontier liberalism that, over time, has become the foundation of Albertan conservatism.” The second was “a penchant for radicalism – a distinct lack of deference – that has manifested itself in a persistent populist impulse.” And the third was “a synthetic form of anticolonialism vis-à-vis Central Canada, through which a strong sense of western alienation has been expressed for several generations.”
In short, American homesteaders can be credited (or blamed) for setting Alberta on the pathway of political conservatism from its early days.
Once the path was set, however, Alberta’s major political parties have continued to carry and transmit the same basic values through their efforts. Wesley puts it this way: “Alberta’s two most successful parties have spoken to the public with a common accent. Emphasizing three core elements of freedom – individualism, populism, and provincial autonomy – Social Credit and the Progressive Conservatives have cultivated a dominant narrative that has helped sustain their province’s conservative political culture. Indeed, their campaign appeals have often involved explicit references to American values, sources, and texts imported by the province’s founding fragment.”
The major point of all this, of course, is to provide historical evidence for the popular view that Alberta is more politically conservative than the other provinces. The stereotype is based on fact. It’s not a mistake or misconception. As Wesley suggests, “Measured by their popularity at the polls, the Socreds’ and Tories’ common vision of Alberta as a conservative society has dominated political discourse as much as the parties have dominated the legislature.” In short, Alberta has a distinct conservative political culture.
Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’