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Through a Lens Darkly

SHIFTING PUBLIC OUTLOOK ON THE ECONOMY AND SOCIAL CLASS

Please click here for the full report and data tables.

[Ottawa – October 10, 2017] Increasingly, the old ideological battles of left versus right are being supplanted by a new contest for the future. As Daniel Bell argued over 50 years ago, the new axis of dispute is more open versus ordered. This harkens back to classic works such as Aural Kolnai’s 1938 The War Against the West and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Once again, we are seeing a rise in populism, nativism, and a new search for more authoritarian or ordered solutions to what has been a protracted period of economic stagnation and decline for many.

The problems associated with the ‘end of progress’, the decline of the middle class, and a rising identification with working class have coalesced to produce a rise of populism and greater skepticism about the virtues of an open society. Only about ten per cent of Americans and Canadians think the next generation will do better than them and this has weighed heavily on public outlook and is transforming the political landscape in unexpected ways such as the Brexit and Donald Trump victories (and the recent success of the far right in the recent German elections). Neo-Nazi parades, an incendiary debate about race and protest in sports, and a clear rise in hate crimes all combine to produce a very different outlook than we could have imagined as the century began. As if the challenges of restoring middle class progress and shared prosperity were not daunting enough, we now see a sharp disruption of a long period of decline in hard racial intolerance, growing skepticism of globalization and trade, heightened allergy to immigration and a desire to restore the privilege of those who are angry and despondent about having fallen out of the middle class.

What we want to examine here is the longer term patterns underpinning this new outlook and what the implications are for the politics of the future. Is racial intolerance on the rise and is it the new causal force underpinning populism? Or has racism and nativism been triggered by economic stagnation and changes in class formation?

A bleak long-term outlook on the economy as the middle class continues to shrink and fall into the working class

Whatever the merits of different concatenations of official economic data, the public remain overwhelmingly underwhelmed with the economy. This becomes very clear when looking at the evolution of economic outlook, looking both backward and forward, and where people locate themselves in the new class order. The celebratory Bay Street outlook on the economy contrasts sharply with the unremittingly gloomy Main Street view. No matter which tracking indicator we select, this profound disjuncture with a positive view of the economy is dominant. Let’s consider how people think they are doing compared to one and five years ago, and how they think their economic outlook will be one and five years from now.

Most Canadians think they have either stagnated or fallen back over the past year (only 14 per cent have advanced). Using a five-year rear-view mirror, things aren’t much better with 75 per cent noting either stagnation or decline.

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Looking into the future, the patterns are no more encouraging. Our future outlook data have a deeper time series which allows us to see how things compare to the beginning of the century, and it is a far different economic world than it was then.

A minority of Canadians think the coming year or five years will see them in better shape. This is dramatically different than at the beginning of the century when optimism outweighed pessimism by a three-to-one margin. There has been a huge decline in optimism about the future over the past 15 years and it is a statistically clear pattern of decline.

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The correlates of pessimism are consistent and clear. Those in the working class and poor are much more pessimistic and now are more evident in the Conservative constituency. This link between economic pessimism and partisanship is new. There is also a yawning gap across those with university educations and those without.

How about class identification? At the outset of the century, almost 70 per cent of Canadians located themselves in the middle class. That number has dropped steadily (in both Canada and the United States) and our most recent sounding of 43 per cent is the lowest ever recorded. Just as importantly, the incidence of those in the working class has nearly doubled and is now approaching a tie in terms of size with the middle class.

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If the middle class were the evergreen, most fertile political target of the past fifty years, this may be drawing to a close. The shrinking middle class are doing fine and are happy with the direction of the current government. The challenge is increasingly a swollen working class populated with those fallen out of the middle class. These voters are angry and upset with the current directions of the country and the government. They are the prime (but not exclusive) demographic fuel driving populism, nativism, and a search for a more ordered, less open society. These forces were critical in the most recent United States presidential election and Brexit.

The essence of the middle class bargain was that hard work, innovation, and skill would yield a better future than one’s parents and that your kids, in turn, would do better. Get a secure job with benefits, buy a home, retire in security were the touchstones of the middle class bargain. That bargain is now a smouldering wreck. Home ownership is increasingly elusive, as is a secure retirement. Consider the rather shocking statistics that only 13 per cent of Canadians think the next generation will do better than this one. That used to be the whole idea.

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There may be some glimmers of rising optimism in our most recent tracking. For example, the incidence of those who think their children will do better has risen from 10 per cent to 13 per cent. Five-year outlook is up four points over last year. We know that perceptions of the economy tend to lag shifts in the ‘official’ economy so this will bear close watching. But the more striking conclusion is that the overwhelming majority of Canadians do not see a better future. The economics of despair and stagnation are producing a very different outlook and set of political choices. In the next section, we will try and document some of the cascading effects on cultural outlook, racial intolerance, and the search for an open society.

Methodology:

This survey was conducted using High Definition Interactive Voice Response (HD-IVR™) technology, which allows respondents to enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone, rather than telling them to an operator. In an effort to reduce the coverage bias of landline only RDD, we created a dual landline/cell phone RDD sampling frame for this research. As a result, we are able to reach those with a landline and cell phone, as well as cell phone only households and landline only households.

The field dates for this survey are September 15 – October 1, 2017. In total, a random sample of 4,839 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 1.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.

Please click here for the full report and data tables.

English Questionnaire (September 2016)
French Questionnaire (September 2016)

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