Life In The Time of Ford Nation

By: Bernhard Isopp

I do not exaggerate when I say that the last four years have produced the most formative political experience of my life. I have always been mindful of politics, a fairly engaged armchair pundit and sometimes even a fully animated activist, but I have never followed the minutiae of any campaign so closely – or with such anxiety – as the spectacle of the last ten months. Nor have I been so politically unsettled than during the past four absurd years in Toronto. I assume that this is also the case for many Torontonians.

All in all, I was quite proud to tell people that I was from Toronto. While traveling internationally, people always heaped praise on our city about its safeness, cleanliness, friendliness, and cosmopolitanism. (Traveling domestically to say Vancouver or Montreal, garnered qualitatively different responses.) I, through acts of selective ignorance, only saw the best parts of the city: lots of public space for recreation, safe neighbourhoods, a diversity of people, accessible public transit, world-class events, and engaged communities.

And even now, on an individual basis, the citizens of this city are extremely friendly, kind, and courteous (unless you’re driving). There is no gruff big-city realism lingering in people’s attitudes (unless you’re taking the subway). People seem eager to help strangers. They are courteous and cordial in interpersonal interactions. My filter bubble sufficiently allowed me to think that I actually lived in a progressive city of like-minded citizens.

But the last four years have shaken this naively congratulatory view of things. Underneath that adequately pleasant exterior lies deep-seated resentments, prejudices, and occasionally, malice.

The leaders of Ford Nation: Rob and Doug.

The leaders of Ford Nation: Rob and Doug.

Now, if Rob Ford had been elected only to later reveal himself as utterly incompetent, prejudicial, and spiteful, that would be only slightly distressing. But the Fords, both Rob and Doug, have demonstrated themselves to be, at best, in open unrepentant ideological conflict with probably near half of the citizens of this city. It goes far beyond a few political disagreements. They dismiss, belittle, and generally disrespect Torontonians. The Fords don’t care about their concerns, don’t care about compromise or dialogue, and don’t care about understanding differing positions. The Fords are openly hostile. It is only slightly hyperbolic to say that they despise a large percentage of the people they are supposed to serve.

And Torontonians openly supported Rob and Doug Ford not only in spite of this, but because of it. Hence my political panic.

The question that was on the minds of so many Torontonians (let’s say about 63% of them) was how could this happen? How is it possible that this angry loudmouth buffoon – this man who uses racial slurs, this man who does not respect the gay community, this man who does illicit drugs while serving as mayor and cavorts with drug dealers, this constant embarrassment – how did this guy become the mayor of Toronto?

However, there is a more provocative question: how did we not see this coming? Part of my naive political optimism stemmed from the fact that I was too young to have cared one way or another when Toronto amalgamated, likewise for when Mel Lastman was elected the first mayor of the “megacity.” Back then Lastman was openly callous towards progressive issues like poverty and homelessness, and ran a populist tax-o-phobic campaign. The suburban vs. downtown divide was already fully developed. Mike Colle, Mel Lastman’s campaign manager used to derisively refer to people living downtown as S.O.B.s (South of Bloors). In the Miller years, I ignored those who absurdly dismissed him as a “communist” as a fringe group not to be taken seriously. There were plenty of signs of a growing body of resentful “taxpayers” waiting for a(nother) populist blowhard to loudly express their animosity¬†traditional (i.e. elitist) politics and appeal to their personal sensibilities.

Ford Nation has always been here, and Ford Nation is not going anywhere. The relevant question now, is what kind of strategies need to be employed to cope with such wholly destructive, cynical, and divisive politics in the future?

We have heard about “suburban resentment,” economic and class divides, marginalization, competing priorities in terms of transit (i.e. “the war on cars”), the effect of populism, the mesmerizing allure of Ford’s personal-touch approach to politics, the fanatical and blind commitment to “fiscal conservatism,” and so on. What we know for sure, is that Ford supporters are not a homogenous bunch. There are diverse reasons people supported and continue to support the Fords. The range of strategies also needs to be diverse – too diverse to adequately address here.

So pessimistically, consider perhaps the most intransigent facet of Ford Nation: outright ideological conflict.

Hello there.

Hello there.

The most vehement form of Ford supporter denunciation points to the fact that many Ford supporters possess low levels of formal education, and this sufficiently explains their susceptibility to populist slogans and demagoguery, and their refusal or inability to engage policy in a rigorous way. In other words, Ford supporters are incompetent and it’s their own fault if they end up with an incompetent government.

In response to this, there has been a peculiar trend among those who are anti-Ford(s) to offer apologias for Ford supporters. The most common form is that one shouldn’t condescend to them because their marginalization at the hands of an elitist political system is precisely why they are attracted to politicians like the Fords, who visit their neighbourhoods, answer their phone calls, give them $20 bills, and express solidarity with them. However, since these apologists find the Fords themselves intolerable, a requisite sociological explanation of the persistence of Ford supporters is necessary.

Thus, despite recognizing that many Ford supporters are indeed voting against their own best interests by supporting the Fords, their misplaced priorities and “political illiteracy” is a direct result of marginalization. And to judge them and outright dismiss their wrong-headed but good-hearted political plight is merely another form of marginalization, a condescending enactment of the privilege of educated elitists. According to Doug Ford, it might even be racist.

Other politicians have failed them so badly that they lack the capacity to even make well-informed political decisions. Being sympathetic to the grievances of Ford supporters, standing in solidarity with them, and engaging their political concerns, will encourage this downtrodden group to reach “class consciousness” and realize that their grievances are legitimate, but the Fords are not the right people to address them.

This ostensibly sympathetic and solidarity-based analysis fails miserably at precisely what it tries to avoid. When you dismiss Ford supporters as selfish idiots, this is no doubt condescending. It is openly scornful. But when you offer considerate sociological explanations as to why a particular group of people makes poor political choices, this is inadvertently patronizing. The elitism is inescapable. In the first case, it is the mere judgement of a group of people as stupid sowers of their own fate. They support stupid policies and stupid politicians because they’re stupid. It’s as simple as that.

Happy times.

Happy Ford Nation.

In the second case, the Ford detractors still know much more than Ford supporters; indeed, they know more about what motivates Ford supporters than the supporters know themselves. Ford supporters think they vote for the Fords because they agree with their policies, ideas, and actions. But really, it’s because they’re victims of marginalization.

Sociologically, I understand the appeal of these positions, and in some regards they are valid analyses. I tend to agree that many Ford supporters are supporting positions that will make them materially worse off, or voting against positions that would in fact make them materially better off. But when Ford supporters say they agree with the Fords, their behaviour, and their political vision for Toronto, I am inclined to believe them at face value.

So here I find myself in an ambivalent position. I suspect Ford supporters don’t want to be sociologically analyzed. They want to be taken seriously. And I find the latter very difficult.

When you actually engage the ideas and attitudes of Ford Nation head on, it becomes clear that sociological analysis breaks down very quickly. As a fairly deplorable example, Rob Ford does not respect the LGBTQ+ community. He harbours wrong-headed stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people and does not support them either politically or personally. As became abundantly clear in some very unfortunate occurrences, this was not merely an issue that Ford supporters ignored, or were perhaps slightly embarrassed by, but a motivation for at least some of his supporters. In short, I would suspect the vast majority of homophobic “taxpayers” support Rob Ford.

Something like homophobia is something we can also explain away sociologically, but it demands head on normative judgements about individual people’s behaviours and attitudes.

But it’s not only matters of explicit intolerance where these issues arise. Ford supporters too believe in the Fords’ policies and political vision, like the assumed need for subways and the myth of a city on the brink of financial ruin.

I recognize that there are those who preclusively dismiss any and all things uttered from the mouths of the Fords and their supporters. I recognize that there are those who are anti-Ford who are just as intolerant and inflammatory as Ford Nation. But I think there’s a big difference between those who support people like Ford and those who support people like Chow or Tory, both in the overall character of these demographics and in the character differences between the Fords and other politicians. As an anecdote, take the fact that when John Tory acknowledged the outgoing mayor Rob Ford, and thanked his campaign rivals Doug Ford and Olivia Chow in his victory speech, the crowd applauded. When Doug Ford mentioned Tory in his concession speech, his supporters vociferously booed. He didn’t even bother mentioning Olivia Chow.

I would be very happy to sit down and have a mutually respectful exchange of ideas on such matters. I am more than willing to be considerate of the points of view of Ford supporters. But in the few instances I’ve tried, I am responded to with an angry flurry of evasions, absurd reasoning, red-herrings, and ad hominem attacks. I’ve literally been shouted down for being a “Marxist” for merely pointing out that transit experts more or less unanimously dismissed Doug Ford’s subway plan as unfeasible. It’s hard to be sympathetic when you’re getting yelled at.

I understand that the charge of “irrationality” is often merely dismissive rhetoric for opinions that you happen to disagree with. And the unshakeable irony is that the people who you think are being irrational think the same thing about you. The woman who said that the election of John Tory as mayor was analogous to a murderous and fanatical militia of religious extremists coming to Toronto also said that Tory supporters were “nuts.”

Sad Ford Nation.

Sad Ford Nation.

Since the Fords came to political prominence, I don’t think I really had any appreciation for the notion of a “culture war.” In fact, I felt that that the notion was dubious. But the Fords are as close as you can get. They represent a series of intractable ideological battles. Reason and facts have no power to compel here. It is not a matter of incompetence. The Fords are not incompetent, they are duplicitous. The engage in egregious acts of willful ignorance and doublethink. They actively mislead or outright lie. Trying to explain your criticisms ever more calmly and rationally is rather hopeless.

Thus, I’ve realized that perhaps dealing with Ford Nation is much less about political mobilization and strategizing, and much more about individual psychology.

Ask any politician about important lessons they’ve learned in their careers, and invariably they will eventually tell you that while in politics, you can’t take anything personally. What I’ve learned is that this means more than shrugging off ad-hominems and character assassination. It means that you cannot let the political ideologies of others keep you up at night, no matter how offensive or absurd they seem. You will go insane. To be politically engaged means accepting a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Dealing with Ford Nation means learning to live with Ford Nation, whether you like it or not.

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