by David McGrane
Jared Wesley’s Code Politics: Campaigns and Cultures on the Canadian Prairies is a fresh look at the study of political culture by an up-and-coming scholar. The book comes out of Wesley’s doctoral thesis completed at the University of Calgary and is animated by the question: Why did Canada’s three prairie provinces develop such distinct political cultures over the course of the 20th century? After all, Wesley points out, they began their existence as randomly drawn lines on a map in Ottawa and share a number of socioeconomic and institutional features.
To examine what he terms the “prairie paradox,” Wesley turns to qualitative studies of political culture by writers such as Louis Hartz, Gad Horowitz and Nelson Wiseman. In particular, Wesley is inspired by Wiseman’s concept of “probing history” to measure a province’s political culture through examining the ideas of its political parties and major social movements, particularly during the formative periods of their histories (see, for example, Wiseman’s In Search of Canadian Political Culture). Wesley rightly critiques Wiseman for focusing too heavily on the formation of Canadian provincial political culture and neglecting how provincial political cultures are transmitted. Wiseman seems to take it for granted that political cultures, once established, will continue onward in perpetuity.
Whereas Wiseman probed history in a haphazard manner, selectively picking examples to prove his points, Wesley’s method is much more structured. He read through all of the election platforms of the dominant parties in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from 1932 to 2008 and qualitatively coded these documents according to their themes. His core theoretical approach is that “dominant political parties act as carriers of political culture, transmitting it to both new generations and new arrivals during election campaigns.”
By repeating certain themes during provincial campaign rituals held every four years, the leaders and their party machines on the prairies continually reinforced the touchstones of their provinces’ respective political cultures. Once the political cultures of these provinces were formed, leaders of dominant political parties and their followers sought success through espousing “the values that correspond most closely with the prevailing norms of society.” In doing so, they established and perpetuated powerful codes that continue to shape the nature of each province’s politics.
Wesley devotes one chapter to each province to explore the dominant codes in that province’s political culture. He examines only the “dominant” parties of an era in that province (for example, the Liberals in Saskatchewan from 1905 to 1944) and not their opponents who occasionally formed government but never achieved sustained success (e.g. the Progressive Conservatives in Saskatchewan from 1982 to 1991).