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In Search of Canadian Political Culture

By Nelson Wiseman

Review By Dennis Pilon

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 159 Autumn 2008  | p. 152-5

In Search of Canadian Political Culture positions itself at the centre of debates over the nature of political culture in Canada, taking on disputes within what Alan Cairns would call the “sociological school” (behavioural versus historical), on the one hand, and between sociological and neo-institutional approaches, on the other. In doing so, the volume arguably represents the culmination of many strands of Wiseman’s work since the early 1970s. The book is organized into ten chapters (excluding the introduction and conclusion), five of which explore larger paradigmatic debates about how to study political culture, and five of which explore Wiseman’s own claims about Canada’s regional political cultures. While claiming to provide just one perspective among many – and the book is so hemmed in by qualifications that its strong claims may be obscured – Wiseman ultimately argues that the search for Canadian political culture should take place at the regional level because there is no national political culture to be found. Furthermore, Wiseman argues that the lack of any unifying national culture in Canada should not be seen as a problem because, in his view, the country has produced fairly impressive political results just by muddling through. If anything, efforts to create some kind of unified national vision (e.g., Meech Lake or Charlottetown) or to reform institutions to lay the groundwork for a new nationhood (either through mega-constitutional deal making or the reform of democratic institutions like the voting system) are either dangerous or useless. According to Wiseman, there is no problem that requires a national solution: the genius of Canadian politics is in its gradualist, pragmatic, and regional accommodation of difference.

Wiseman’s book is rooted in 1960s-era debates over the nature of English-Canadian political culture. These were fuelled by the emergence of a distinctive Québécois identity in French Canada and American-inspired academic work that assumed few differences existed either within English Canada or between the political culture of the United States and that of English Canada. Arguably, the most important challenge to such views came from Gad Horowitz’s interpretation of the Hartzian “fragment” thesis in the Canadian context. Horowitz argued that English Canada was predominantly a liberal fragment society, like the United States, but one that retained a “Tory touch.” The loyalist Tory influences that remained in Canada, but not in the United States, explained for Horowitz the distinctive aspects of Canadian political culture, like the existence of a politically viable socialist party. Yet, as elegant and intuitively compelling as Horowitz’s views seemed to be, particularly to the emerging English Canadian nationalist movement, too much of the discussion seemed abstract and lacking in evidence. This is where Wiseman came in – and his instincts were right – to ask what exploring the actual history of English-Canadian political culture might produce rather than just theorizing about it. Over the next decades, Wiseman would contribute to the debate in a host of ways, offering critical commentary on rival approaches and breaking new ground with his own distinctive hybrid of Horowitz’s take on the fragment thesis in Canada. This book brings these various contributions together under one cover for the first time.

Wiseman’s contribution to the debate has two key prongs. First, he critically engages the behavioural school that dominates the study of political culture, demonstrating with a host of lucid examples just how problematic survey evidence can be. For instance, in 1997 the key Canadian academic election survey had 82 percent of respondents reporting that they had voted in the federal election, even though the actual voter turnout was only 67 percent. This gap – and there has been one like it for every election since such surveys began in 1965 – is clear evidence that surveys cannot be accepted as transparent reflections of public opinion. Indeed, this chapter of the book can – and should – be read as a stand-alone critique of the conceptual and explanatory over-reach of much of the behavioural literature. For anyone concerned about the use and abuse of polls in contemporary politics, Wiseman offers a great deal of valuable insight. His second contribution involves his own unique take on assessing the social factors animating Canadian political culture. Combining theoretical insights from Horowitz’s take on the fragment thesis, S.M. Lipset’s formative events thesis, and Harold Innis’s staples thesis, Wiseman examines how successive waves of immigration established, maintained, or changed different regional political cultures. For instance, he argues that Alberta’s political culture stands apart from that of the other Prairie provinces due to the higher number of Americans that immigrated to that province.

The attempt to cast the discussion of Canadian political culture as a historical development was a refreshing alternative to the ahistorical presentism of the behavioural school in the 1970s. But Wiseman did not – and still does not – go far enough in taking history seriously. Too often he appears to take the stereotypical differences between Americans and Canadians or Alberta and the rest of the west at face value, despite a considerable body of labour and social history from the 1970s on that challenges such views. What might be great insights from which to start (e.g., the higher levels of American immigration to Alberta) become reductionist labels that seem to prevent further inquiry (e.g., American = individualist, British = collectivist). Yet the work of Alvin Finkel, Peter Sinclair, and Edward Bell, among others, challenges these rather narrow and non-developmental readings of the long-serving Social Credit government in the province and Alberta’s political culture. Indeed, in the 1944 election 25 percent of Alberta voters supported the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), while 5 percent cast their lot with the Communists – hardly the mark of a one-dimensional politics. While few would doubt the one-party-dominant tendencies in Alberta politics, Wiseman’s post hoc reading of Alberta’s one-sided election results loses an important dimension of the political conXict and contestation occurring there at different times. 

Wiseman is also less than convincing in his treatment of institutions. Though early on he allows that institutions might influence political culture, his examples appear to suggest otherwise. Parliamentary government, federalism, the Charter–Wiseman sees them all as “embodiments” of Canadian political culture. The “cultural” aspect is defended by implying that Canadians have somehow consented to these arrangements. Indeed, Wiseman explicitly argues this at one point: “The Constitution Canadians got was not imposed: it was what they negotiated among themselves and asked of Britain” (61). But who are the “Canadians” who sanctioned such arrangements in 1867? Given the highly restricted franchise, they were a very small group of wealthy white men, which means that our key institutional arrangements reflect, at best, an elite political culture, not one terribly well connected to Canadians more generally. Ironically, this theme is an area of strength for the behaviouralists, who have convincingly demonstrated that the public is largely ignorant of the working and origins of most Canadian governing institutions. 

These criticisms point to a larger problem with the book – a less than systematic method. Indeed, the key example chosen to support his “regionalism as Canadian political culture” – provincial reaction to the Charlottetown Accord – seems a convenient one for Wiseman’s purposes. One could draw on countless other examples to make a different case. For instance, José Igartua’s recent book The Other Quiet Revolution, which focuses on various postwar struggles to establish a national English-Canadian identity, showcases a host of examples in which debates over Canadian political culture involving citizenship, the flag, and a Canadian national anthem did not break down regionally. How are we to assess such rival claims? Wiseman gives us little direction as his case appears to be built only on examples that support his view. 

Specialists may also find various details in the book frustrating, given its broadly synthetic nature. As a voting system specialist, it was frustrating for me to see chestnuts like “Canada’s inherited British institutional legacy provided for first-past-the-post, single member plurality” (78) when, in fact, the United Kingdom itself did not move decisively to single-member ridings until 1885, thirteen years after Confederation; or to see specious arguments defending our single member plurality system because “emerging democracies have looked to Canadian expertise in the conduct and rules of election” (79) when the author must know that not one of those emerging democracies has chosen to use our voting system. Provincial analysts may find some of his groupings curious, particularly his separation of British Columbia and Alberta from the rest of the west. The comparison of British Columbia’s party system with Australia’s seems particularly glib in a book on political culture, given that Catholicism was a key influence on the political culture of Australia’s Labour party whereas religion was not influential in the culture of the BC’s CCF. 

In the end, In Search of Canadian Political Culture should be seen as a deeply conservative book in two important ways. One, it is seemingly locked into debates from the 1970s, despite a plethora of recent citations, as it does little to forward or expand on Wiseman’s initial contributions or include more recent debates (e.g., social capital, Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” etc.). Two, and arguably more important, the book bears the marks of a kind of social democratic conservatism that Ralph Miliband once criticized the British Labour Party for. In Parliamentary Socialism, Miliband argues that Labour had come to fetishize parliamentary activity over all other kinds of political mobilization and, in the process, had become the most conservative defender of institutional tradition in the United Kingdom. In a similar way, Wiseman’s complacent defence of the Canadian status quo, both its political culture and institutions, makes the same mistake, confusing form for substance. If Canadians have produced good political results – and Wiseman’s rosy view of our politics is hardly the consensus – it owes less to the factors he highlights and more to the specific nature of the historic political struggles themselves, something that can’t be read of political culture or institutions.