Alberta has elected an NDP majority to its legislature. Historic is definitely the right word, but will political science profs across the country really be re-writing their first-year lectures? Yes and no.
I’m neither an expert on Alberta politics nor an expert on political culture, but I do teach Intro to Poli Sci and thought I’d share my thoughts on last night’s election from that perspective. I might be missing some things, and may even be wrong here, so if you’re a poli sci colleague whose bailiwick I’m treading on, feel free to tweet at me and share your own thoughts.
Yes, no doubt, profs putting together their week’s lecture slides on party politics and elections might need to do some updating. There’s no denying the historic breakthrough in Alberta for the NDP, or “progressives” in Alberta. You might also want to make a note of the significant gender representation in the new NDP caucus.
The week of class when profs get to talking about regional political cultures is where things get tricky. Did our common perception of conservative Alberta have it all wrong? Has Alberta’s political culture suddenly shifted? Probably not. The academic literature on provincial political culture tends to take two tracks: a focus on public opinion/surveys that does comparative assessment of key value indicators across Canada’s provinces and regions, and in depth historical/sociological analyses a la Hartz/Horowitz (if you’ve heard of “fragment theory” or “Red Tory,” that’s where this comes from).
Alberta has always been (rightly) regarded as somewhat distinct on both these fronts, but in-country comparisons always risk exaggerating differences over similarities. That’s why there probably haven’t been a lot of poli sci profs across the country mindlessly comparing Alberta to Arkansas when talking regional political cultures.
The media has always seemed to homogenize Alberta, despite the fact that the provincial NDP and Liberal parties together regularly exceeded 30% of the popular vote. This is where some lecture slides won’t need to be changed: the first past the post system turned the NDP’s 41% popular vote share into 61% of the legislature’s seats. Meanwhile, 52% voted for either the PCs or Wildrose.
Another element I think is often overlooked – though not by most poli sci profs, I suspect – is the prairie populism that also infuses Albertan political culture. In that respect, Alberta is a lot more like Saskatchewan than it sometimes appears when we’re only talking elections. That’s another key lecture slide that won’t be needing changed.
So while I don’t intend to minimize the historic nature of last night’s election – Paul Fairie rightly noted you could teach a whole class on this election, and it would be fascinating – I suspect poli sci profs will be taking a scalpel, not a butcher’s knife, to their Intro class lecture slides.