Toronto is a divided city . This fact has never been starker than in the aftermath of October’s polarizing municipal election. We see disunity along income lines, a persistent city-versus-suburbs mentality. We see it also in the vilifying way many residents view one another — as left- or right-wing caricatures.
During the election campaign there was much talk about the importance of healing these divides for the sake of our city’s future. But to do that we must first better understand the complex cleavages that separate us.
A new tool on thestar.com seeks to help us do just that. The Political Sentimeter is a 15-minute questionnaire that collects data on Torontonians’ ideological outlook and places each respondent into one of eight political categories: Post-materialist Left, Anti-establishment Left, Social Democratic Left, Laissez-faire Left, Faith and Family Right, Heritage Right, Libertarian Right or Steadfast Right.
The tool is based on a new scientific study of more than 3,400 Torontonians, which provides a data-driven picture of the city’s ideological landscape, including the political divides that have come to characterize us.
Commissioned by the Star and conducted by Vox Pop Labs, the survey asks a number of political and values-based questions before revealing which ideological group the respondent belongs to. The more readers respond, the clearer the picture of the city’s political attitudes will become.
The result, says Ali Rahnema, the Star’s chief operating officer of digital media, is a science-based tool for Torontonians to learn more about their political, social and economic leanings, and see how their views fit within the ideological mosaic of the city. Ultimately, he hopes, the resulting nuanced portrait of Toronto might foster a more productive conversation about its future.
“Think about the terms that have been bandied about somewhat irresponsibly and destructively, around left and right labels,” says Rahnema. “The tool provides an empirically refined version of left and right, which will only become more detailed as more people take the survey ...”
The initial study, which was conducted over a week in late August, used a statistical method called cluster analysis to identify the eight kinds of Torontonians. The results surprised the political scientists at Vox Pop Labs.
“We set out to challenge the idea of a left-right binary, which we suspected was not only artificial but harmful to meaningful dialogue,” said Clifton van der Linden, founder and director of the company. “What we discovered is that, yes, conventional understandings of left and right are meaningful in the context of Toronto. But what’s important is that Torontonians are not ideologically situated at either end of this continuum. We all occupy the shared space in between the caricatures of left and right.”
The survey touches on a range of issues including radicalism, religion, feminism, multiculturalism, poverty and taxes. In the first section of the test, users are presented with a series of values statements and asked to choose among a range of reactions from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
Among the statements presented:
Users are then asked to rank by importance a series of competing priorities, including civil liberties, traditional values, the economy and the environment, among others, and to choose where they feel the greatest sense of belonging: family, neighbourhood, city, country or world.
Respondents provide their area code so that, once the data is rich enough, it will be possible to see how the city’s ideological divides break down by neighbourhood.
The goal is to develop the first-ever detailed scientifically devised picture of how Torontonians think about the world. “There is no political agenda here,” says Rahnema. “This tool is using software and data science to power storytelling … and encourage debate on these issues.”
Understanding the divides is the first step in healing them, says van der Linden.
“I think we have constructed these echo-chambers in which we tend to only engage with people who we agree with. And we have become increasingly vitriolic with the people we don’t agree with.
“By understanding how people come from different ideological perspectives we can come up with a way to build a better city,” says van der Linden.
“We don’t have to agree all the time and hold hands but we should try to appreciate where others come from.”