Federal Voting Choice In Quebec_Part 1

Federal Vote Choice in Quebec 

It’s Sovereignty Stupid!

by M.Arnot, M.Campbell, E.Hjertaas, D.Moore & B.Nolan


What determines vote choice in federal elections in Quebec?  What structural factors define the nature of this choice, and what agential factors influence how it is made in the election itself?  Any answer to such questions depends on an understanding of the attitudinal prism that shapes voter perceptions: the divisive issue of sovereignty.

Quebec’s nationalist movement is one of the strongest in the developed world, dominating the province’s politics (Meadwell, 1993: 203).  Within it there is a dichotomy between the sovereignist bloc favouring independence from Canada, and the federalist block which combines those who support the development of a decentralized federalism, and those who support the status quo (Blais & Nadeau, 1992: 91).  The emergence of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) since 1993 “virtually guarantees that Quebecers’ positions on the sovereignty question will strongly affect both their political perceptions and their federal vote” (Blais, et al., 2002: 104).  In federal politics, the BQ is the party of the sovereignists, while the federal Liberal Party has traditionally been associated with the federalists (though it has competed for this position with the Conservative Party).  Support for sovereignty made a Quebecer 34% more likely to vote for the BQ, and 23% less likely to vote for the Liberals, in the 2000 election (Blais, et al., 2002: 224). For voters in the province, “the Bloc Quebecois is the logical shelter of those Quebecers who support Quebec sovereignty,” and the party’s success “hinges on the flux in the sovereignist movement” (201-202).  The Liberal gains in 2000 in Quebec were a partial result of falling support for sovereignty (201).  The prism of support for sovereignty – which plays a mediating role comparable to a degree to the phenomenon of party identification as it is described by the Michigan school (Campbell, et al., 1985: 30) – is thus critical in defining election outcomes in Quebec.

We will examine the different ways in which this attitudinal prism applies to different segments of voters in the province, arguing that support for sovereignty is determined by national identity, feelings of unequal respect and treatment, and perceptions of the economic consequences of separation.  As evidence for these determinants, we will apply them to explain the socio-demographic cleavages existing in preferences regarding the sovereignty question in Quebec.  We will then consider how the most significant political actors – party leaders, parties themselves, and the media – interact with sovereignty preference, employing their political capital to shape it into popular vote choice according with their distinct interests.  We conclude that federal election outcomes are a function of these agents’ success at manipulating the perceptions of the three determinants of that critical voting block whose vote choice is variable.

Structural Determinants

There are two predominant theoretical models that have been developed to explain voter support for Quebec independence.  First, the rational choice approach uses multivariate analysis to examine the rational decision-making calculus of individuals (Mendelsohn 2003: 512).  Building on earlier findings that the perceived impact of sovereignty on future quality of life was a major factor in individual decision-making (Blais & Nadeau 1992: 96), this model has posited that “Quebecers base their choice in large part on an evaluation of the likely costs and benefits of sovereignty in two major areas: the economy and the situation of the French language in Quebec” (Nadeau, Martin, & Blais 1999:526).  Personal dispositions, created by one’s level of Quebec national identity, influence this process (533).[1] According to this theory, French speakers perform cost-benefit calculations based on their perceptions of both the current level of threat to the French language, and prospective changes to this threat level in the event of sovereignty (Mendelsohn 2003:515).

Second, the socio-psychological approach seeks to explain the motivation behind social movements through opinion polls that track Quebecers’ “resentment, feelings of status denial, ethnic grievances and self-confidence, along with [perceptions of the] costs and benefits of sovereignty and federalism” (Mendelsohn 2003:512)).  It focuses on grievances, collective incentives, and expectancies of success as the principal motivators of the sovereignty movement (Pinard & Hamilton 1986: 229): a rise in the levels of felt deprivations, and/or an increased belief in the positive consequences of sovereignty, will lead to a higher level of support for the separatist cause (Mendelsohn 2003: 512).

The two models are related.  Both portray rational decisions based on the prospective consequences of sovereignty to language and the economy as crucial variables in determining choice.  The socio-psychological approach places great emphasis on ethnic grievances as the major internal motivation, while the rational choice model focuses on national attachment.  These two concepts are related in that felt deprivations are probably a major factor in determining one’s attachment to Canada.  The greatest distinction has been in methodology.  Pinard’s multi-decade study of opinion polls with varying formats has created an explanation of motivation that is “dense, contextual, and highly political” (Mendelsohn, 2003:514).  The rational choice approach, through its strict use of statistical techniques to isolate variables, has given a much narrower but probably more accurate picture of the extent to which the factors identified influence decision making.

Matthew Mendelsohn in 2003 sought to test, correct, and combine previous findings.  The study subjects the rational choice approach’s accepted variables to falsification tests, the necessity of which is methodically explained (516-518).  He criticizes the socio-psychological approach for its use of inconsistent methods and definitions of variables, and for the large number of variables mentioned, which causes difficulties when attempting to measure their relative effect.

Mendelsohn’s comparative study uses a larger sample size than previous efforts, allowing for more reliable data.  He finds that a rational calculation based on medium-term economic consequences is indeed the major factor in decision-making, with an impact more than two times that of the nearest variable, which was the perception that Quebecers are not recognized as equals.  This grievance had been discussed within the socio-psychological approach.  These two variables were the decisive elements in individual decision-making (525).  Mendelsohn finally concluded that national identity was another important, independent variable in sovereignty support (528).[2] Describing national identity as a concept similar to party identification, Richard Nadeau and André Blais wrote in 1992 that it “involves … feelings toward a group (in this case a territorially-based collectivity), which tend to be stable and imply a general propensity to react in certain ways on issues of Quebec/Canada relations” (95).

Adding nuance, Paul Howe has made an interesting finding that for Francophones, the influence of cost-benefit calculations was dependent on national identity.  In individuals with a strong sense of Quebec nationalism, these calculations barely matter, while they are more important to choice in those with weaker Quebec identities (Howe 1998: 32).[3] What must be noted from this is that the other two variables will only be relevant for those who do not belong to this strongly nationalist block.

Turning now to the three significant factors: national identity (defined at least in this instance by the varying level of attachment to Canada), the perceptions of unequal respect and recognition, and rationally calculated economic considerations.  In this paper they will be referred to as the structural determinants of voter preference on the issue of sovereignty.  They are the broader phenomena that provide the foundation for a personally relevant choice for individuals in Quebec, in this case on the issue of sovereignty.  For the sake of analytical depth the following paragraphs will explore their relation to one another and the underlying reasons for their salience.

National identity and perceptions of unequal respect and recognition are closely related as social-psychological factors, and together motivate sovereignist support within Quebec’s French speaking majority.  Grievances or aspirations perceived to be shared across a collectivity can motivate people to participate in social movements (Pinard & Hamilton, 1986: 227) by prompting the formation of group identity.  Identity evolves in stages: it first combines with political empowerment stemming from some expectancy of success (231), fostering moral obligations rooted in norms, values, and ideologies; and in turn motivates selfless contribution to the collectivity’s defining interests (230).  These societal forces must be very powerful because, in changing people’s values and creating new political allegiances they are combating the stabilizing socializing influence that parents have on their children (Stacey, 1966: 138).

In Quebec, collective identity emerged from the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s coinciding with the socialization of the baby boom generation (Martin & Nadeau, 2002: 146).  This revolution was a rapid post-war modernization of state and society which corresponded with a mass rejection of traditional “French-Canadian” values (147).  Enforced by the Roman Catholic Church (Meadwell, 1993: 205), these values were conservative, rural, religious, and wary of government (Martin & Nadeau, 2002:147).  Huge economic disparities existed between the French population and the English, prompting powerful linguistically rooted grievances.  The post-war economic boom facilitated the mobilization of one of the earliest engines in the emerging sovereignist collective identity: the young, French urban labour force (148).  This group was activated by recognition of common grievance and a feeling of political strength in numbers.  As the identity coalesced, post-materialist reasons for the movement emerged (148), along with feelings of moral responsibility to the group, which came to be labeled “Québécois” as opposed to “French-Canadian” (Ibid.).  This new group adopted progressive, urban, secular, and interventionist values (147) diametrically opposed to their forebears.

The new collective identity was a powerful force in the socialization of the emerging generation, widely overcoming the countervailing force of previous generations’ more nebulous “French-Canadian” label.  The evidence for this is that in 1970, when the pre-boom generation was the majority of the electorate, only 21% of that electorate identified itself as primarily “Québécois.”   By 1997 that number had grown to 63% (146), a change that statistical analysis reveals to be almost entirely attributable to the eclipsing of the pre-boomers by the younger generations that had been socialized into this identity (Ibid.).  A central grievance shared by members of this group is that of unequal recognition by the rest of Canada, which includes perceptions of unfair treatment by the federal government and a feeling that “Anglophones do not care about French-speaking Quebeckers” (Mendelsohn 2003: 527).

The third determinant cited, based in rational choice models, is a counterweight to the social-psychological based determinants in that it has traditionally served as a significant detractor from sovereignist support.  It is drawn from rational calculations of the medium-term consequences of sovereignty on which there is considerable disagreement even among experts.  In 1999 a survey showed that 49% of Quebecers predicted a worsened economic situation in a sovereign Quebec, compared to only 29% who predicted improvement (Nadeau & Blais: 1999; 529). Prospective voting, based on what voters suspect the economic situation will be five years from the present, applies in this case. If Quebecers can be convinced that sovereignty will improve future economic expectancies, they will be more likely to support the Bloc Quebecois (Mendelsohn 2003: 512). If their perceptions are negative, then they are more likely to support one of the federalist parties.

There are two different ways in which individuals can be affected by economic considerations. Egocentric considerations refer to those factors which affect the economic prospect of the individual him or herself.  Relevant egocentric indicators include how the incumbent party’s perceived influence on personal disposable income or individual employment rate affects an individual’s voting behavior. Sociotropic considerations refer to those factors which affect the economic health of an individual’s broader societal context.  Relevant sociotropic indicators describe the incumbent party’s perceived influence on the conditions in the country as a whole affects voting behaviour: perceptions of changes in the real disposable income per capita, or the national unemployment rate (Nadeau & Blais 2000:79).  In Quebec, egocentric factors in particular have a significant effect on sovereignty support (Howe, 1998: 39).

The economic uncertainty of sovereignty lends a degree of risk acceptance to voting for the Bloc Quebecois (Martin & Nadeau, 2002: 151).  Risk-averse voters tend to be less supportive of the sovereignist option “because they put more weight on the worst-outcome components of the decision” (Mendelsohn 2003: 535).  When outcomes are uncertain, prospect theory states that people will do more to avoid loss than they will to seek gain (Martin, 1994: 347).  Considering the relative stability of the Quebec economy over the past thirty years, and the belief that such stability will continue indefinitely, this suggests that many voters would find the risks of sovereignty too great and favour the status quo.