Research on Left/Right in Canadian Politics

LISPOP associate and professor at University of Toronto, Dr. Christopher Cochrane, is pursuing an important research agenda examining the nature of left and right in Canadian Politics.  His latest work, found here, challenges the fundamental assumptions that scholars, journalists, politicians, and citizens have about left/right ideologies in Canada, both from theoretical and empirical perspectives.  Here are some of his latest research and you can download his papers here:

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2012. “Left and Right: Empty Vessels, Essential Core, or Family Resemblance?” Working Paper.

The language of left and right is a metaphor that links the concept of political disagreement to the relative positions of points along a single straight line through space. Most scholars trace the political origins of the words left/right to the seating arrangement of the Estates General in the years leading up the French Revolution. Radical democrats and their sympathizers sat to the left of the king; supporters of the clergy and the aristocracy sat to his right. This provided a shorthand way of writing and talking about the main line of political disagreement in French society. It was purely an accident of history that the revolutionaries sat to the left and the supporters of the establishment sat to the right. If the groups sat on different sides, or the king sat at the other end, then what was left would be right, and what was right would be left. In this respect, the left/right seating arrangement was arbitrary. What was not arbitrary, however, was that the people on each side chose to sit with certain people, and against certain other people. Indeed, the seating arrangement reflected a line of political disagreement that pre-dated by many years, and perhaps by many thousands of years, the seating arrangement itself.  This paper examines the nature of that line of political disagreement.


2012. “The Asymmetrical Structure of Left/Right Disagreement: Left-Wing Coherence and Right-Wing Fragmentation in Comparative Party Policy.” Forthcoming. Party Politics.

The left/right semantic is used widely to describe the patterns of party competition in democratic countries. This paper examines the patterns of party policy in Anglo-American and Western European countries on three dimensions of left-right disagreement: wealth redistribution, social morality, and immigration. The central questions are whether, and why, parties with left-wing or right-wing positions on the economy systematically adopt left-wing or right-wing positions on immigration and social morality. The central argument is that left/right disagreement is asymmetrical: leftists and rightists derive from different sources, and thus structure in different ways, their opinions about policy. Drawing on evidence from Benoit & Laver’s (2006) survey of experts about the policy positions of political parties, the results of the empirical analysis indicate that party policy on the economic, social and immigration dimensions are bound together by parties on the left, but not by parties on the right. The paper concludes by outlining implications of left/right asymmetry for unified theories of party competition.


 Christopher Cochrane (2010). Left/Right Ideology and Canadian Politics. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 43, pp 583-605. doi:10.1017/S0008423910000624.

Abstract. This article examines the influence of ideology in Canadian politics. The core theory is that political opinions are bound together into ideological clusters by underlying influences that affect simultaneously the opinions of individuals about more than one issue. The central hypothesis is that ideological disagreement between the left and the right is asymmetrical, that is, that leftists and rightists bundle in different ways their opinions about issues. The analysis draws on evidence from Benoit and Laver’s survey of experts (2006) about the policy positions of political parties, the Comparative Manifesto Research Project (Budge et al., 2001; Klingemann et al., 2006), and Cross and Young’s survey of Canadian political party members (2002). The results of the analysis indicate, first, that Canada’s left/right ideological divide is wide by cross-national standards, and, second, that leftists and rightists organize their opinions about the world in different ways.

Résumé. Cet article examine l’influence des idéologies dans l’environnement politique canadien. La théorie centrale stipule que les opinions politiques sur diverses questions sont structurées en groupes idéologiques consolidés par des influences sous-jacentes qui affectent simultanément les opinions des individus. L’hypothèse principale découlant de cette théorie est que la structure du désaccord idéologique entre la gauche et la droite est asymétrique; plus précisément, que les individus situés à la gauche et à la droite du spectre politique canadien organisent de manière différente leurs opinions politiques. L’analyse s’appuie tout d’abord sur les données d’un sondage auprès d’experts politiques réalisé par Benoit et Laver (2006) et portant sur les positions politiques des partis. Elle utilise également les données du Comparative Manifesto Research Project (Budge et al. 2001; Klingemann et al., 2006) et celles d’un sondage d’opinion de Cross et Young (2002) effectué auprès des membres de partis politiques canadiens. Les résultats de cette étude démontrent, en premier lieu, qu’il existe un clivage important entre la droite et la gauche au Canada même lorsqu’il est observé dans une perspective comparative, et en second lieu, que les individus se situant à la gauche et à la droite du spectre politique ont tendance à organiser de manière différente leurs opinions sur le monde.

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