Political Culture

Political culture refers to the collective opinions, attitudes and values of individuals about POLITICS. There are 2 traditional approaches to the study of political culture. The "individualistic" approach examines the values and attitudes of individuals, frequently through the use of surveys. Because political culture cannot be directly measured, respondents are asked questions designed to illuminate their views about political culture. Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that the questions asked do not adequately represent the feelings of the population and may not properly measure the concepts being tested.

The "institutional" approach involves the analysis of documents to discern the collective behaviour of political institutions. This approach has been applied in 3 different ways. First, academics attempt to describe a political culture by observing and analysing political behaviour as reflected by a constitution and by legislation and the structure of government. Second, the geographic, demographic and socioeconomic features of a society are analysed; and third, the historical underpinnings which have determined a political system are sometimes examined. The systems approach has resulted in 2 popular theories of political culture. According to the first, Canada's political culture is based on tensions between its 2 founding cultural groups, French and English. According to the second, the members of the 2 founding cultures and the later immigrants from other cultures have combined to produce a new and distinct political culture.

Canada's political culture can usefully be described as "layered," although the layers are not easily demarcated. The first layer of political values encompasses Canadians' belief in the parliamentary and democratic system of government. This includes a belief that the majority rules in the political decision-making process. (That this belief is not unconditional is reflected in federalist structures, BILINGUALISM and the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. ) The recognized legitimate role for competing interests in Canadian society is qualified by the view that the majority will prevail when a compromise solution cannot be found. Also, according to the principle of majority rule, any political decision can be changed once the majority has altered its own position. A belief in parliamentary democracy also suggests support for political equality, eg, support for the notion of "one person, one vote." The last feature of parliamentary democracies, popular sovereignty, is expressed in regular elections and the involvement of citizens in the political process.

Under the first layer lies a uniquely Canadian political culture which transcends provincial boundaries. For example, Canadians are committed voters, but at the same time they do not participate widely in the political process (seePOLITICAL PARTICIPATION). It has been suggested that this "spectator-participant" characteristic reveals a unique feature of the Canadian political culture. As well, research indicates that Canadians strongly support political authority and widely accept the role of elites in leadership. Unlike Americans, Canadians often prefer to rely on government intervention (eg, through public ownership) rather than the private sector to solve economic problems (see PUBLIC OWNERSHIP; CROWN CORPORATION).

Another feature of Canadian political culture is Canada's "approach and avoidance" relationship with the US (seeCANADIAN-AMERICAN RELATIONS). Despite the fact that the US is Canada's greatest trading partner, and a country with which Canadians share a large number of common interests, many Canadians have been frustrated by the way in which their culture (especially in English Canada) and their businesses have been dominated by American interests. As a consequence, Canadians have attempted to regulate this relationship by creating a number of government institutions designed to promote Canadian culture (seeCULTURAL POLICY) or to restrict the flow of FOREIGN INVESTMENT into Canada. These contradictory sentiments toward the US have occasionally helped to unite Canadians and at the same time have helped the development of their political and popular culture.

The third layer of political culture contains attitudes which are uniquely Canadian but which, at the same time, distinguish one Canadian from another. There may be several different belief systems in this category, including one involving French-English differences and another, more difficult to define, based on notions of economic development and geographical diversity. This latter belief system is known as REGIONALISM.

The political cultures of English- and French-speaking Canada are different because the 2 communities have experienced different patterns of development and different educational systems, religion and language. For example, it has been observed that French-speaking Québeckers tend to look toward Québec City for direction whereas English-speaking Canadians within Québec are more likely to expect Ottawa to solve their problems. Moreover, it is apparent that symbols such as the Canadian flag and the monarchy are much less popular among French-speaking Québeckers than among English speakers.

Finally, Canadians living in different regions vary markedly in the degree to which they trust politicians and government and perceive government as being responsive to their needs. What is clear, however, is that in certain parts of Canada, eg, western Canada and Québec, a sense of alienation from the federal government is long-standing and deeply rooted.