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Friday, October 29, 2010

Year of Our Ford


I wrote this post in late September, back when polls showed Rob Ford with a healthy lead in the Toronto mayoral race and certain other candidates had not yet dropped out. But I shelved it. I shelved it because I didn’t want to give my readers the wrong idea about what I was (or wasn’t) advocating in it. There was (is) a lot of hysteria in the air around the election. My personal experience during this election campaign has been that, in the circles I run in, unless you toe the “progressive” line, you might very well end up being loathed and excoriated by people you thought were your friends. To even be (mis)perceived as supporting Rob Ford is a kind of social death.

So I censored myself out of fear. Quite literally. I am now ashamed of myself for my cowardice. “Progressives” claim to advocate “diversity”. I believe that this diversity should mean more than just having a variety of national cuisines to eat or music festivals to attend. It should also consist of a diversity of opinions, including the ones we don’t like. Despite what they seem to think, “progressives” might still have a thing or two to learn about “progressivism”.

It is in that spirit that I belatedly post the essay below, while acknowledging that it resorts to some obvious overgeneralizations. My “progressive” friends will not like much of what I have to say. To them I would reply that, since I’ve patiently allowed them to shovel their half-baked “progressive” swill into my unwelcoming maw for the last several months, it’s only fair that they now open wide so that I can return the favour.

I ask that you leave the hating until after you’ve read it through and thought it over for awhile.

* * * *

The city I live in, Toronto, is going through what is proving to be a very interesting mayoral race. This week a poll came out showing that candidate Rob Ford is leading by a wide margin.

Just a little background for those not from Toronto: left-leaning mayor David Miller announced last year his intention not to seek re-election. The putative frontrunner to replace him is supposedly George Smitherman, a former provincial Minister of Parliament who quit his cabinet post to run for mayor. Smitherman has the money. He has the backing. He has the name recognition. Therefore, he is well-placed to win, at least on paper. Unfortunately, he also comes with a lot of political baggage (too much of it to inspect here). How much this baggage will weigh him down remains to be seen.

Carrying the torch for the outgoing mayor’s “progressive” legacy is Joe Pantalone, the only candidate besides Ford to have improved his standing in the polls. He seems a decent chap, if lacking in charisma. However, he will likely lose, if for no other reason than that to much of the electorate he represents a status quo they can’t jettison quickly enough.

There are some other candidates who are, frankly, also-rans at this point.

And then there is Rob Ford. He is regarded by many as a fat, wife-beating, drunk-driving, racist buffoon. There is considerable warrant for this characterization. He is running on a platform of cutting spending (and certain much-loathed taxes) at city hall, and ending such corrupt practices as sole-source contracting. His other policies are not so clear or plausible, but luckily for him, getting a grip on out-of-control city spending is the only policy that seems to matter with those who say they’ll vote for him. Judging from the poll numbers, barring some unforeseen change — and this race has been full of surprises — Ford will win, possibly by a landslide, but more likely by a fairly narrow margin, especially if other candidates back out.

When this week’s poll came out, many of my left-leaning friends seemed beside themselves, at least if their Facebook activity is any indication. I would say that a few are even panicking. They simply can’t understand how a man like Ford could possibly be the people’s choice in a supposedly “progressive” place like Toronto.

I’m going to attempt to explain Ford’s appeal. In order to do this, I feel I should first declare my personal leanings with regard to this election: I AM AMONG THE 25% OF RESPONDENTS WHO ARE UNDECIDED. In fact, I’m so undecided and so nonplussed by the candidates in general that I’m contemplating the violation of my long-cherished philosophical principle of always exercising my democratic rights. In short, I’m considering not voting at all. Thus, what follows should not be regarded as an endorsement of Rob Ford’s candidacy, a man about whom I have very grave reservations.

Rather, I’d like this to be read as a piece of advice on how my “progressive” or “left-leaning” friends might need to change a few attitudes if they wish to work to defeat Ford in the five short weeks remaining to do so. Indeed, there are lessons to be applied to “progressive” political action more generally.

Some Lessons for “Progressives”

There have been many attempts to explain Rob Ford’s appeal. For a while now, many commentators have framed it in terms of an urban-suburban divide. Ford’s following is supposedly mostly in the suburbs, or the city’s old boroughs (i.e. Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York), whereas most of the supposedly sane voters are concentrated in the city’s urban core. Others have seen in the phenomenon an expression of the angry, white (male) vote — people who, again, mostly live in the suburbs.

The latest poll has shot both of these theories down. Ford’s appeal seems to have spread to the old city of Toronto proper. And new Canadians like him too.

By far the most common — and condescending — approach taken by media pundits is that Fordites are somehow uninformed or just plain stupid. A good example of this is a recent Globe and Mail article that, while trying to “explain” Rob Ford’s popularity to the city’s elites, ironically ends up simply repeating the tired old line that Fordites are ignoramuses.

Based on this, here are some helpful observations and recommendations that I’d like to make to all those who would like to see Ford defeated.

1. Toronto consists of more than just the Five Boroughs. The “Five Boroughs” are my facetious name for Rosedale, Forest Hill, Riverdale, High Park, and the Beach(es). I suppose we could also call them the “Hills and Dales”. This is where “progressive” Toronto is most easily to be found. For the most part, the unprogressive can’t afford to live in these places. Instead, they live in those “benighted” areas that “progressives” sneeringly call “the suburbs”. This sneering should stop. My Toronto includes Scarborough, East York, Downsview, and Etobicoke. Whatever you think of amalgamation, it’s here now, and it’s not going anywhere. So suck it up, and let’s pull together.

I am personally less than impressed when I read in the Toronto Star that because I live in East York I am poorly educated, ignorant, and therefore more likely to vote for Rob Ford. I am not a poorly educated “knuckle dragger” (as one writer charmingly described East Yorkers), and I am no more ignorant than the average Torontonian in the Five Boroughs. To a great extent, the much-touted division between city and suburbs is exacerbated by the smug and ignorant attitude of the “progressive” media. If I have had any temptation at all to vote for Ford, it is precisely because of reading such insulting rubbish. I used to live in the Five Boroughs; I didn’t suddenly drop thirty or forty IQ points the moment I moved to East York.

2. New Canadians do not necessarily share the “progressive” agenda. Residents of the Five Boroughs are likely to be white, and are more likely to be old Canadians. They are also likely to be wealthier than the average. Thus, it is ironic when people claim that Rob Ford appeals mainly to angry, middle class whites, as if Ford is the poster boy for WASP privilege.

Despite what the punditocracy would have you believe, anecdotally speaking, I see no evidence on the ground that new Canadians view Ford as a privileged white candidate to whom they can’t relate. But I suppose we’ll have to wait for the election results to confirm or disconfirm this hunch of mine. What I will go out on a limb and say is that there is no obvious reason why new Canadians would share the “progressive” agenda. So perhaps “progressives” do their own cause a disservice with their “diversity”- and “multiculturalism”-mongering. They may be hitching their wagon to the wrong horse.

I suspect that a sizeable proportion of new Canadians have fairly conservative values imported from their home countries, countries where government is either corrupt, inept, or just plain vicious, and where people learn to rely on family and personal relationships rather than official agencies. They also tend to be people who struggle to make ends meet. It should therefore come as no surprise that they would find much to approve in an agenda of smaller government and respectful stewarding of their hard-earned dollars. Call it a simplistic agenda, but it resonates, and I predict that this will show in the election results. I also predict that it will continue to factor into future election results in places with large immigrant populations.

3. Torontonians do not like being called stupid. Oliver Cromwell once said to a Calvinist General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, convinced of their own righteousness, and considering themselves among God’s elect, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” In that spirit, if a Torontonian refuses to accept your “progressive” vision, I beseech you to think it possible that your views may be mistaken. I beseech you to not call the dissenter stupid. Many parts of the “progressive” agenda I find dangerous, poorly thought out, unjust, and the very opposite of progressive. Believe it or not, I have reasons for these beliefs. They are not simply a product of my stupidity. I have thought them through. If I am mistaken in some parts of these beliefs, it may be because I am human and therefore fallible. The same fallibility afflicts holders of “progressive” beliefs.

Conservatives are often rightly accused of intolerance, but that is no reason to fall into the same sin. Indeed, it is even less excusable in a “progressive”, because of his putative commitment to that very value of tolerance. If you cannot summon the humility to entertain the bare notion that you could be wrong, at least look at it from a pragmatic angle: your shrill denunciation of all who disagree with you will not make converts of them. It’s off-putting, to say the least. It only stiffens your enemy in his resolve.

4. Many Torontonians are precarious homeowners. It is no secret that real estate in Toronto is absurdly expensive. There are some for whom this is not a problem. I posit that if you can afford to own a home in the Five Boroughs, you may be one of these. For such people, an annual rise in their property tax of 3% is not a big worry. If it is felt at all, some simple economizations, some cutting back on luxuries, will offset the expense.

(For context, I should point out that property taxes in Toronto have risen every year for the last ten years. Last year’s increase, the smallest of them, was 2.9%, still well above the general inflation rate of just under 2%. That means that assuming a very conservative average property tax increase of 3% per year, a person who paid $2000 ten years ago, must now pay around $2700. And of course, let us not forget the magic of compounding: next year’s increase will be 3% of $2700, not of the original $2000. And if you think a percent or two on either side won’t make much difference, if we assume a rate of 5%, our original $2000 becomes $3260.)

There are also people in the Five Boroughs who rent. Although they too pay absurdly high rents, and are rather less well off than their home-owning counterparts, they are less likely to feel an increase of 3% in property taxes for the simple reason that they do not pay property taxes at all, at least not in the short run. There are two reasons for this. First, their landlords have a market-based incentive to keep rents from rising too much, too quickly. If rents are too high, condos start to look like a good deal. Second, there is legislation limiting how much landlords can raise rents. Of course, eventually the market will work itself pure: either rents must rise, or some quantity of rental housing will leave the market. Either way, renters suffer. But the key difference is that there is a lag effect between a rise in property taxes and the point at which it begins to pinch the renter. Ironically, when renters do finally feel the pinch, it will probably be blamed on greedy landlords rather than on inept politicians ambitious to do good works with other people’s money.

I believe these phenomena go a long way towards explaining why my “progressive” friends in the Five Boroughs see no real problems with City Hall’s current spending habits. Outside the Five Boroughs, things are a bit different. We moved to East York because it was literally the last place in Toronto we could afford to buy a house. And we did buy one, barely. Given the property tax trajectory outlined above, some point will be reached at which we’ll have to sell and either move further out from the city, or go back to renting. Unless, of course, we come into some sudden windfall or receive a pay increase far enough above the rate of inflation that it will offset some of the tax increases. And Lord help me if I become unemployed, or sick, or have to take a pay cut, which is the reality for many.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I get annoyed that Joe Pantalone’s progressive “vision” for the city will involve another 2.5% property tax hike next year. First of all, how is it “visionary” to do that which has been done every year for at least the past decade? Second, I see nothing “progressive” about bankrupting future Torontonians to pay for politicians’ visions in the sky, while core services continue to deteriorate and the rent-seeking city unions continue to mug us.

Whoever wins the election, they’ll have their work cut out for them. This city is fast becoming ungovernable. I suppose “progressives” can take heart in the near certainty that, should Rob Ford win, he’ll eventually be brought down by strikes. That is a constant in this city, no matter who happens to be mayor.

* * * *

UPDATE: I did end up voting for someone in the election. If you’re curious to know for whom, e-mail me privately and I will tell you.

7 comments:

  1. Just to skitter on the surface of a couple things here...

    1) I think you have to distinguish between a couple of different kinds of discourse here. Trash talk on facebook or the like amongst (mostly) like-minded friends isn't a failure of reasoned disagreement; it's something else entirely, more akin to "locker room talk" — propping each other up in the face of a bad situation.

    2) "They simply can’t understand how a man like Ford could possibly be the people’s choice in a supposedly “progressive” place like Toronto"

    I think the frustration here is that, just like in the U.S. amongst the far-right fringes of the Republican party, Ford's largely nonsensical policies would ultimately serve to hurt the (lower-income, less-downtown-based) people he is appealing to.

    I think I would defer to this article, which is largely more carefully thought out than I could be. It also counters the idea that progressives are en masse blind to the realities of the suburbs, including the diverse political opinions of newer Canadians.

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  2. Hi MFS,

    I recently read that Eye article. There was much in it I’m in absolute agreement with. For one thing, progressives HAVE done a lousy job of articulating what they’ve been trying to do. And most Fordites don’t bother learning (mostly because, like reasonable people, they rely on the evidence before their eyes, which mostly consists of crowded and infrequent buses, crumbling streets, and bigger tax bills in the mail).

    On the other hand, and this I think was my main point, progressives seem too lazy to try to learn the daily experience of those suburbanites. Which is why that Eye article was somewhat refreshing. Unfortunately, it still ended up sounding condescending.

    Case in point: “Why are these people voting against what appears to downtowners to be in their own best interest?” Downtowners are always so quick to impart their superior wisdom to benighted suburbanites. Is it possible that downtowners might NOT really know what’s in suburbanites’ best interests? I imagine downtowners don’t much appreciate being told by suburbanites what’s in THEIR best interests.

    To your point #1 re: discourse, the difference hasn’t been noticeable of late between the hand-wringing and trash talk on Facebook and that in The Star (or The Globe for that matter), both during and after the election. In this case, I don't think the distinction really marks a difference.

    To your point #2: Yes, many of Ford’s policies are absurd or incoherent. Ditto for the other candidates. As for his policies hurting the people he is appealing to, it’s not so clear. He’s appealing to people who pay property taxes; I’m not sure he cares about anyone else. The stats at the end of that Eye article had one very telling infographic, seldom referred to openly in this campaign: the difference in levels of home ownership between Ford and Smitherman wards. Which speaks to my earlier point: the people footing the bill for all this progressivism are feeling the pinch. And they’re seeing very little return on their investment when they look around them.

    Now you and I know that real change takes time, and that people get impatient. Maybe seven or eight years is not enough. But even when a shovel DOES finally end up in the ground on one of these progressive projects (a pretty rare occurrence indeed), they see untendered contracts, unions, developers and consultants at the trough, nothing ever coming in anywhere close to on time and on budget. They’re not stupid. They see the hold rent-seekers and other parasites have over this city. The optics are really bad, and it’s a problem not even a Ford can fix… At the end of the day, a lot of suburbanites have come to believe that while Miller et al. were very good at coming up with ideas, they were really bad at competent follow-through.

    Progressives are perplexed that Ford’s policies will hurt the very people they’re supposed to help? Let’s talk about those city unions. On second thought, let’s not. They’ve hurt the interests of the poor in this city far more than Rob Ford ever could. In any case, the mayor is never really in charge in this city anyway. Mike McCormack, Bob Kinnear, Ann Dembinski, and their treasonous ilk run the circus. I guarantee we’ll all be re-learning that lesson soon enough.

    As an aside, it's easy to overemphasize the downtown/surburban thing. I was surprised at the very softness of the Smitherman support in many of the wards he won (and the softness of the Ford vote in my ward). One thing I do have in common with my progressive friend is that we mostly feel ill-served by ALL of the main mayoral candidates. At least we can come together on that?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi MFS,

    I'll have to divide my comment.

    I recently read that Eye article. There was much in it I’m in absolute agreement with. For one thing, progressives HAVE done a lousy job of articulating what they’ve been trying to do. And most Fordites don’t bother learning (mostly because, like reasonable people, they rely on the evidence before their eyes, which mostly consists of crowded and infrequent buses, crumbling streets, and bigger tax bills in the mail).

    On the other hand, and this I think was my main point, progressives seem too lazy to try to learn the daily experience of those suburbanites. Which is why that Eye article was somewhat refreshing. Unfortunately, it still ended up sounding condescending.

    Case in point: “Why are these people voting against what appears to downtowners to be in their own best interest?” Downtowners are always so quick to impart their superior wisdom to benighted suburbanites. Is it possible that downtowners might NOT really know what’s in suburbanites’ best interests? I imagine downtowners don’t much appreciate being told by suburbanites what’s in THEIR best interests.

    ReplyDelete
  4. To your point #1 re: discourse, the difference hasn’t been noticeable of late between the hand-wringing and trash talk on Facebook and that in The Star (or The Globe for that matter). And I’m talking about the articles and columnists, not the readers’ comments. In this case, your distinction doesn’t really mark a difference.

    To your point #2: Yes, many of Ford’s policies are absurd or incoherent. Ditto for the other candidates. As for his policies hurting the people he is appealing to, it’s not so clear. He’s appealing to people who pay property taxes; I’m not sure he cares about anyone else. The stats at the end of that Eye article had one very telling infographic, seldom referred to openly in this campaign: the difference in levels of homeownership between Ford and Smitherman wards. Which speaks to my earlier point: the people footing the bill for all this progressivism are feeling the pinch. And they’re seeing very little return on their investment when they look around them.

    Now you and I know that real change takes time, and that people get impatient. Maybe seven or eight years is not enough. But even when a shovel DOES finally end up in the ground on one of these progressive projects (a pretty rare occurrence indeed), they see untendered contracts, unions, developers and consultants at the trough, nothing ever coming in anywhere close to on time and on budget. They’re not stupid. They see the hold rent-seekers and other parasites have over this city. The optics are really bad, and it’s a problem not even a Ford can fix… At the end of the day, a lot of suburbanites have come to believe that while Miller et al. were very good at coming up with ideas, they were really bad at competent follow-through.

    Progressives are perplexed that Ford’s policies will hurt the very people they’re supposed to help? Let’s talk about those city unions. On second thought, let’s not. They’ve hurt the interests of the poor in this city far more than Rob Ford ever could. In any case, the mayor is never really in charge in this city anyway. Mike McCormack, Bob Kinnear, Ann Dembinski, and their treasonous ilk run the circus. I guarantee we’ll all be re-learning that lesson soon enough.

    ReplyDelete
  5. To your point #1 re: discourse, the difference hasn’t been noticeable of late between the hand-wringing and trash talk on Facebook and that in The Star (or The Globe for that matter). And I’m talking about the articles and columnists, not the readers’ comments. In this case, your distinction doesn’t really mark a difference.

    To your point #2: Yes, many of Ford’s policies are absurd or incoherent. Ditto for the other candidates. As for his policies hurting the people he is appealing to, it’s not so clear. He’s appealing to people who pay property taxes; I’m not sure he cares about anyone else. The stats at the end of that Eye article had one very telling infographic, seldom referred to openly in this campaign: the difference in levels of homeownership between Ford and Smitherman wards. Which speaks to my earlier point: the people footing the bill for all this progressivism are feeling the pinch. And they’re seeing very little return on their investment when they look around them.

    Now you and I know that real change takes time, and that people get impatient. Maybe seven or eight years is not enough. But even when a shovel DOES finally end up in the ground on one of these progressive projects (a pretty rare occurrence indeed), they see untendered contracts, unions, developers and consultants at the trough, nothing ever coming in anywhere close to on time and on budget. They’re not stupid. They see the hold rent-seekers and other parasites have over this city. The optics are really bad, and it’s a problem not even a Ford can fix… At the end of the day, a lot of suburbanites have come to believe that while Miller et al. were very good at coming up with ideas, they were really bad at competent follow-through.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Progressives are perplexed that Ford’s policies will hurt the very people they’re supposed to help? Let’s talk about those city unions. On second thought, let’s not. They’ve hurt the interests of the poor in this city far more than Rob Ford ever could. In any case, the mayor is never really in charge in this city anyway. Mike McCormack, Bob Kinnear, Ann Dembinski, and their treasonous ilk run the circus. I guarantee we’ll all be re-learning that lesson soon enough.

    Maybe our views can converge on the point that we were all ill-served by the poor quality of the mayoral candidates all around? also, I think we mamight be over-emphasizing the downtown/suburban divide: I was surprised at the softness of the Smitherman vote in the wards he won; and my ward just barely went Ford, while at the same time voting in the progressive incumbent for councilor (I followed my ward's voting pattern in case you were wondering). I've said it before and I'll say it again: something more complicated is at work in all of this, something that polls and pundits are not managing to capture.

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  7. Don't know how my comments got all garbled and ended up repeating. Sorry about that.

    ReplyDelete