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BEYOND THE HORSERACE

HOW CANADIANS SEE SOCIETY EVOLVING

[Ottawa – February 21, 2013] – We have recently updated our research on broad social trends in values and ideology. The approach we used was to track the same measures asked of random samples of the Canadian public using exactly the same questions and to then test the direction and significance of any shifts that are occurring. It seemed interesting to compare the results of these repeated measures tests with current public perceptions of the trajectory of those trends. The actual trend lines are more accurately revealed using the tracking methods, but it is more than anecdotally curious to compare the perceptions of those trends.

First, to summarise the results of a number of tracking tests over the last few years (based on tracking going back a decade and sometimes two decades), we find scant evidence to support the fairly popular thesis that Canada is shifting to the right. On several different tests, we find that within a pattern of overall values stability, what changes are occurring are a withdrawal from socially conservative values such as respect for authority, traditional family values, security, and minimal government . In the case of attitudes to issues such as decriminalisation of marijuana, same sex marriage, abortion rights, and capital punishment, we find either no movement (from a largely progressive orientation) or a further drift to the progressive side of the issue. In tracking whether people identify themselves as small-l liberals or small-c conservatives, we see a collapse of the most popular neither category nor a more polarized ideological fragmentation with a lean more to the left than the right. So all of the evidence lines up with the conclusion that we may or may not be moving to the progressive or left, but we are clearly moving away from the socially conservative ideology and values. These broad and fairly gentle value shifts are by no means unique to or even originate in Canada. They are particularly pronounced in younger Canada, metropolitan Canada, and university educated Canada. The gaps are so large between older and younger Canada on these values that they are basically irrelevant values in younger Canada, yet continue to exert profound influence over older Canada, particularly older conservative Canada.

It is therefore curious in the least to contrast the tracking of self-identified ideology with the perception of where the changes are going.

In stark contrast to the myriad tests that show no movement right, more than twice as many Canadians think we are moving right than think we are moving left. In a further bit of irony, the spurious perception of a rightward tilt is most pronounced where it is least welcome. Those who lean left are most likely to see a rightward tilt and the corollary is true for those on the right who see a leftward movement. The dominance of the apocryphal right shift perception (although notably equal numbers see no movement) is curious given its apparent disconnection from the ‘real’ movements. One could speculate this might be a product of the relative success of right wing governments, particularly at the federal level. Another thesis is that this perception is closer to the received wisdom in the national media and reinforced by research claiming that this blueing is in fact occurring.

A final question might be what is the significance of such a broad delusion in public opinion? Is this belief a precursor to a genuine rightward shift and will it become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or, is this merely an example of the public opinion being out of synch with reality. The forces producing values shifts are far deeper than the media or politics and many of these movements emanate from broad global shifts in what some have called post-materialism. Without knowing the answer I would tend to favour the thesis of a relatively benign error in public perception which will eventually be dispelled by the deeper reality. It is, however, the role of the student of society to be iconoclastic when such deceptions are evident.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (February 21, 2013)

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