Toronto mayor Rob Ford is a political phenomenon deserving of close attention, but not for the reasons often cited. The mayor’s crack smoking, binge drinking and seemingly terminal foot-in-mouth disease grab headlines, but the media coverage seldom serves up anything approaching political analysis.
Instead, it relies on simplistic, divisive explanations for Ford’s success: suburbs versus downtown, ordinary people versus elites, and the like. Such broad generalizations are overblown, grain of truth notwithstanding. Taking the measure of Toronto’s political “Fordism” requires some deeper reflection.
Understanding Ford’s Appeal
Ford won 47% of the popular vote in the 2010 Toronto civic election, a race that witnessed a 29% increase in voter turnout over the two previous elections and in which 80% of his support came from suburbs amalgamated with the old City of Toronto in 1997.
According to census data, Toronto’s urban core is richer, better educated, and more likely to use public transit than the recent suburban additions— facts that undergird the conventional media spin about Ford as a catalyst for an angry, economically challenged Ford Nation that loves cars and hates downtown. But these are facile characterizations.
Toronto’s suburbs are not politically homogeneous. Ford’s suburban bailiwick is more racially diverse than downtown (52% vs. 27%) and boasts more first-generation immigrants (53% vs. 35%). The suburbs also have a complex class reality, combining high levels of home and car ownership with considerable poverty that is racially stratified.
That the rich buy Ford’s blunt anti-tax message is easy to understand. But Ford appears to have some support among the less fortunate as well. Purporting to be opposed to the “elites” and on the side of the poor, fighting for the “little guy” against higher taxes and wasteful expenditure, Ford won majorities in city wards comprising large concentrations of lower income workers, recent immigrants and people of colour.
We have to look into the current economic and political context to understand why Ford’s rhetoric and his political outsider image find favour in these ranks of Ford Nation. (The offspring of a wealthy suburban family, Ford himself is anything but an outsider. His father, once an MPP under Mike Harris, founded Deco Labels & Tags, a company with estimated annual sales exceeding $100 million.)
In Toronto as elsewhere, while public services decline, wages stagnate, precarious work expands and unemployment remains permanently high, the incomes of all but the top 10% are being squeezed.
With unions unable to protect the purchasing power of their members, let alone the broader working class, with social movements equally ineffective, and with the NDP offering no alternative to neoliberal policies, it comes as no surprise that some low-income voters might be drawn to the facile politics of right-wing populism.
Ford as Neoliberal Breakthrough
Rob Ford represents a hardening of neoliberal politics, spawning the kind of political climate engendered by the Tea Party in the U.S. This element in Canada has so far been contained in the Conservative Party, barely kept in line by Harper’s right-wing, militaristic, tough-against-crime, anti-union, free trade agenda. Ford Nation is Canada’s first outbreak of this kind of politics.
The specificities of municipal politics in Toronto aside, the city’s problems are the problems of local government everywhere in Canada. Successive cuts at provincial and federal levels have created a dumping ground of problems for cities. Like former mayor David Miller before him, Rob Ford laboured to make the ongoing neoliberal crisis appear normal.
As John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty observed, Ford is being effectively removed because he is too erratic and dysfunctional to front the operation, “but his policies will continue under new management and those who think something positive is happening at City Hall delude themselves.”
Disrupting Business as Usual
Toronto citizens wishing to build a progressive alternative must seek to disrupt such business-as-usual politics.
In the meantime, the longer Ford continues his antics, the better in one sense: by dividing and demoralizing his side, he creates the conditions for a robust challenge from the Left. At a time when a Seattle city councillor has just won an election under the banner of a “socialist alternative,” when a liberal mayor has won NYC raising issues of class inequality, and when other “world-class” cities like Paris and London have elected and re-elected mayors with leftist credentials, why shouldn’t the Left in Toronto rise to the occasion and prove Rob Ford not only an idiot, but a useful one.