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Political Generations and Electoral Change in Canada

  • Richard Johnston

This article lays out the elementary logic of age structures in party preference data and proposes a simple estimation model with demographic and historical elements. As voters age their preferences intensify. But they do not intensify much and generational differences in the direction of party preferences are correspondingly weak. The Canadian electorate does not seem all that strongly anchored by the accumulated experience of the individuals that make it up. The major source of long-term electoral change, therefore, is conversion in the existing electorate. Consideration is given to how distinctive the Canadian pattern is.

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1 Sniderman, P. M., Forbes, H. D. and Melzer, I., ‘Party Loyalty and Electoral Volatility: A Study of the Canadian Party System’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 7 (1974), 268–88. Sniderman et al. reject the textbook theory themselves. Their review referred to a literature which largely predated the survey-based study of elections. But much of the more recent survey-based work reaffirms the older, ‘textbook’ view; some of this work appears to have been in response to the goad represented by Sniderman et al. Key contributions to the renewed emphasis on the weakness of Canadians' party attachments include Jenson, J., ‘Party Loyalty in Canada: The Question of Party Identification’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 8 (1975), 543–53; Jenson, J., ‘Party Strategy and Party Identification: Some Patterns of Partisan Allegiance’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 9 (1976), 27–48; Clarke, H. D., Jenson, J., LeDuc, L. and Pammett, J. H., Political Choice in Canada (Toronto: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1979) and Absent Mandate: The Politics of Discontent in Canada (Toronto: Gage, 1984); LeDuc, L., ‘The Dynamic Properties of Party Identification: A Four-Nation Comparison’, European Journal of Political Research, 9 (1981), 257–68; and LeDuc, L., ‘Canada: The Politics of Stable Dealignment’ in Dalton, R. J., Flanagan, S. C. and Beck, P. A., eds, Electoral Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies: Realignment or Dealignment? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

2 The number of articles emphasizing the similarity between Canadian and American partisanship is small. The central contributions are Sniderman et al., ‘Party Loyalty’ and Elkins, D. J., ‘Party Identification: A Conceptual Analysis’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 11 (1978), 419–35.

3 Converse, P. E., ‘Information Flow and the Stability of Partisan Attitudes’, in Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. and Stokes, D. E., Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley, 1966).

4 Berelsen, B. R., Lazarsfeld, P. F. and McPhee, W. N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

5 The image is taken from McPhee, W. N. and Ferguson, J., ‘Political Immunization’ in McPhee, W. N. and Glaser, J., eds, Public Opinion and Congressional Elections (New York: Free Press, 1962).

6 Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. and Stokes, D. E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), pp. 161ff; Butler, David and Stokes, Donald, Political Change in Britain (London: MacMillan, 1974), pp. 58ff; Converse, P. E., ‘Of Time and Partisan Stability’, Comparative Political Studies, 2 (1969), 138–71.

7 Achen, C. H., ‘Prospective Voting and the Theory of Party Identification’ (paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, Georgia, 1989). Indeed, Achen was able to derive most of the standard propositions in the inventory of stylized voting results. His paper was addressed to two-party systems, however, and so some question remains about its applicability, both for predictions and for estimation, to Canada's more heterogeneous choice situations.

8 Converse, , ‘Of Time’, and The Dynamics of Party Support: Cohort Analysing Parly Identification (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976). In the latter, Converse's emphasis was not so much on the speed of early gains as on the slowness of later ones.

9 Butler, and Stokes, , Political Change in Britain, chaps. 10 and 11; Andersen, K., The Creation of a Democratic Majority (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

10 The continued existence of Social Credit in the third system merits only a footnote. Although the party disappeared as a force in national elections in its original base, Alberta, Social Credit surged in Quebec in 1962. The Conservative leader, John Diefenbaker, had proved even more hostile to French Canada than his predecessors had been. The Liberals, meanwhile, seemed to take the province for granted. Into the gap stepped a Social Credit party with virtually no links to the pre-existing Alberta party. In later years, as Liberal party identification with language and national-unity questions deepened, its share in Quebec grew at Social Credit's expense.

11 The narrative is based on analyses in Blake, D. E., ‘1896 and All That: Critical Elections in Canada’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 12 (1979), 259–79; Johnston, R., ‘Federal and Provincial Voting: Contemporary Patterns and Historical Evolution’, in Elkins, D. J. and Simeon, R., Small Worlds: Provinces and Parties in Canadian Political Life (Toronto: Methuen, 1980).

12 Glenn, N. D. and Hefner, T., ‘Further Evidence on Aging and Party Identification’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 36 (1972), 3147; Glenn, N. D., ‘Sources of Shift to Political Independence: Some Evidence from a Cohort Analysis’, Social Science Quarterly, 53 (1972), 494519; Abramson, P. R., ‘Generational Change and the Decline of Party Identification in America, 1952–1974’, American Political Science Review, 70 (1976), 469–78. See also Knoke, David, Change and Continuity in American Politics: The Social Bases of Political Parties (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 133–6.

13 English, J., The Decline of Party: The Conservatives and the Party System, 1901–1920 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977); and Morton, W. L., The Progressive Party in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950).

14 Lipset, S. M., Agrarian Socialism (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1968); Macpherson, C. B., Democracy in Alberta: Social Credit and the Party System (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953).

15 Crewe, I., ‘Electoral Participation’, in Butler, D. E., Penniman, H. E. and Ranney, A., eds, Democracy at the Polls: A Comparative Study of Competitive National Elections (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1981).

16 The image is from LeDuc, , ‘Canada: Politics of Stable Dealignment’.

17 An interpretation like this has been placed on American data by Crittenden, J., ‘Aging and Party Affiliation’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 26 (1962), 648–57; and by Knoke, D. and Hout, M., ‘Social and Demographic Factors in American Party Affiliation’, American Sociological Review, 39 (1974), 700–13. It is also conceivable that Liberal identification is subject to a life-cycle effect. Clarke, H. D., Jenson, J., LeDuc, L., and Pammett, J. H., in Political Choice in Canada (Toronto: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1979) and again in Absent Mandate: The Politics of Discontent in Canada (Toronto: Gage, 1984) found that newly-minted voters were typically more Liberal than the pre-existing electorate. Sometimes this pattern contributed to whole-electorate shifts; sometimes, it dampened those shifts. But the fact that the Liberal share in the whole electorate was not displaced over the period Clarke et al. examined suggests that many of these young Liberals – if they were reporting their behaviour truthfully to begin with – eventually moved on to other parties.

18 Särlvik, B. and Crewe, I., Decade of Dealignment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 91–3, 110. The Särlvik–Crewe verdict is mixed: abiding age differences are weak, so much so that the variable was dropped from their tree analysis, but younger voters exhibited more swing between 1974 and 1979 than older voters.

19 Heath, Anthony, Jowell, Roger and Curtice, John, How Britain Votes (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1985), pp. 123, 130.

20 Notably Franklin, C. H. and Jackson, J. E., ‘The Dynamics of Party Identification’, American Political Science Review, 77 (1983), 957–73.

21 Abramson, , ‘Generational Change’, p. 476. But see Abramson, P., ‘Developing Party Identification: A Further Examination of Life-Cycle, Generational, and Period Effects’, American Journal of Political Science, 23 (1979), 7896.

22 Most pointedly by Erikson, R. S. and Tedin, K. L., ‘The 1928–1936 Partisan Realignment: The Case for the Conversion Hypothesis’, American Political Science Review, 75 (1981), 951–62.

23 ‘Political Immunization’, p. 159. Emphasis in original.

24 This strategy is associated with Mason, K. O., Mason, W. M., Winsborough, H. H. and Poole, W. K., ‘Some Methodological Issues in Cohort Analysis of Archival Data’, American Sociological Review, 37 (1973), 242–58.

25 See, in particular, Rodgers, W. L., ‘Estimable Functions of Age, Period, and Cohort Effects’, American Sociological Review, 47 (1982), 774–87.

26 The categories are, in increasing partisan intensity: no identification with a party in response to the basic item; ‘not very strong’ identification; ‘fairly strong’ identification; and ‘very strong’ identification. These are slightly different categories from the American ones. ‘Leaners’ in the American sense are few and seemed best left in the no-identification category.

27 For the natural-age estimation, β3 itself represents the slope. For the logarithmic transformation the estimated slope is β3/Age; as age increases, the slope must decrease. In the logarithmic estimation gives the age at which partisan intensity is zero.

28 The 1988 survey is not included here. The 1988 study employed a different sampling frame: where earlier samples were clustered 1988 approximated to a simple random sample. In addition, the wording of the 1988 identification item differed from the earlier studies. Until the impact of the changes is better known it is unwise to merge 1988 with its predecessors. For more detail on the 1965–84 studies, see the Appendix.

29 Multicollinearity remains a problem for demographic variables, even with the restrictions we have placed on coefficients. Of the ten demographic variables (age plus nine dummies), the cohort dummies are the most collinear with the rest of the bloc and the period variables are the least collinear. This may help to explain the relatively large standard errors on cohort coefficients and relatively small standard errors on the period ones. But the collinearity cannot explain differences in coefficients themselves. The power of period effects may reflect peculiarities in each study as much as anything intrinsic to the elections. For instance the large coefficient on E1980 probably reflects the fact that that sample is a proper subset of the 1979 sample, purged of many apolitical respondents by panel mortality (see Appendix). Note, however, that the statistical robustness of age coefficients survives in the face of high collinearity. In a re-estimation (not reported in a table) with all other demographic variables dropped, the age coefficients remained exactly as presented in Table 1, although with much smaller standard errors.

30 Evidence from official returns indicate that only in British Columbia was the Liberal party worse off than it had been before the advent of Mr Trudeau.

31 Converse, , Dynamics, pp. 51, 57; Abramson, , ‘Developing Party Identification’, pp. 8990n.

* Department of Political Science, The University of British Columbia. This is a greatly revised version of a paper presented at the Conference on Political Generations and Political Change, Université Laval, Quebec City, Quebec, 19–20 June 1986, and published as ‘Générations politiques et changement électoral au Canada’ in Jean Crête and Pierre Favre, eds, Générations et Politique (Paris: Economica; and Quebec: Les Presses de L'Université Laval, 1989). The data were furnished by the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research and by the University of British Columbia Data Library. Computer assistance was provided by the University of British Columbia and the California Institute of Technology computing centres. The author wishes to thank André Blais, Henry Brady, Jean Crête and Daniel Latouche for comments and advice. None of these individuals or institutions is responsible for any errors of analysis or interpretation in this article.

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