Postmaterialism in Unresponsive Political Systems: The Canadian Case *

By Brym, Robert J.; Veugelers, John W. P. et al. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Postmaterialism in Unresponsive Political Systems: The Canadian Case *


Brym, Robert J., Veugelers, John W. P., Butovsky, Jonah, Simpson, John, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


WHEN SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET AND STEIN ROKKAN published their classic analysis of "Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments" nearly 40 years ago, they were convinced they were studying an obdurate phenomenon (Lipset and Rokkan, 1967). In their view, four social divisions structure politics in modern liberal democracies--one between subject and dominant cultures, a second between church and government, a third between landed interests and industrial entrepreneurs, and a fourth between employers and workers. Political parties, they argued, tend to align themselves with one or more of the groups polarized by these cleavages. For particular historical reasons, certain cleavages are more salient in some countries than in others. But in general, Lipset and Rokkan observed, the cleavage between workers and employers dominates nearly all democracies. Moreover, "the party systems of the 1960s reflect ... the cleavage structures of the 1920s" (50). Because the threshold for gaining entry into party politics was in general set high, new parties reflecting cleavages other than those listed above found it more or less difficult to gain popularity after the 1920s. Consequently, political alternatives remained frozen for half a century across the democratic world.

Cross-national Variation in Postmaterialism

Research inspired by Lipset and Rokkan tended to buttress the claim that in the West, with the exceptions of Italy and Germany, there was little change in party systems after 1945 (Rose and Urwin, 1970). Taking stability for granted, inquiry instead sought to disentangle the relative weights of the different cleavages (e.g., class vs. religion vs. language/ethnicity; see Lijphart, 1979). However, in the 1970s and early 1980s, some political sociologists and political scientists, led by Ronald Inglehart and Lipset himself, detected a thaw and gave it a name: postmaterialism (Inglehart, 1971; 1977; Lipset, [1960] 1981). They argued that, as more and more citizens in the postwar West came to enjoy prosperity, upward mobility, and educational opportunities, they began to redefine their values and political interests. In brief, the materialist concern with income, job security, and the state's role in the economy gave way to a postmaterialist concern with human rights, the environment, and so forth, especially among young voters who never knew material deprivation. A new political cleavage crystallized. As a result, new political parties formed. They mobilized voters around a new left, notably the Greens in Germany and several other Western European countries (Rootes, 1995). Indeed, Inglehart and others expected that, over time, the postmaterialist dimension would become more salient relative to the materialist dimension that distinguishes the old left from the old right. Postmaterialism would then dominate political life in the same way that materialism did in an earlier era (Clark and Lipset, 2001).

Inglehart assumed that postmaterialists would tend to identify ideologically with the left. However, he and other analysts noted that in France, Austria, and other Western countries, a postmaterialism of the right or "anti-postmaterialism" also emerged in the 1970s and 1980s (see Inglehart and Flanagan, 1987; Kitschelt, 1997; Savage, 1985). To varying degrees in different countries, right-wing postmaterialists are anti-immigrant, intolerant of ethnic and sexual minorities, supportive of traditional moral and religious values, and believers in law, order, and patriotism.

Inglehart has consistently detected an underlying pattern of similarity across countries. Thus, in the late 1970s he wrote:

   A given nation's history and political institutions have important
   effects on how fast change takes place and on what consequences it
   may have for political life. But in examining the causes of value
   change, the same basic process seems to be at work in each of the
   respective countries (Inglehart, 1977: 94-95; our emphasis). … 

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Postmaterialism in Unresponsive Political Systems: The Canadian Case *
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