Rob Ford’s recent death has prompted some great thinking and writing (e.g. here, here and here). I don’t have much to add, except for one little observation, which I don’t think has been given enough play. It is about social class.
Rob Ford was often described as a champion of the little guy, of being the “people’s mayor.” He was also inordinately popular among what we academics refer to, euphemistically, as “low-SES individuals” (SES standing for “socio-economic status”). And yet it was often pointed out that Ford himself was rich, he was born to a rich family, and had never really had to work for a living – outside the family business – before he entered politics. He was, in other words, a comfortable member of the economic elite. (Furthermore, many of Ford’s policies did not really benefit his supporters. Property taxes, in particular, are about the closest thing we have to a pure wealth tax in our society, so his insistence of keeping them as low as possible generated significant benefits for the wealthy and little more than spare change for the downtrodden.)
And yet somehow the charge, that Ford was just a rich guy, pushing through an agenda that benefited the rich, never seemed to stick. The reason it was not more persuasive is that, despite having been born to a higher social class, he was never really a member of it – indeed, he was quite visibly uncomfortable with it. Partly this is because the Ford family were nouveau-riche, and so they never adopted upper-class taste (remaining, from a class perspective, vulgar – e.g. driving Escalades). But second, and more important, is that Ford was one of those people who, being uncomfortable with the class into which he was born, clearly aspired to downward social mobility. People like this are not that common, but I’ve met a few – where every major life decision they make seems to be geared toward moving into a lower social class than that of their parents.
Remember the scene in Breaking Bad, when you first see Jesse Pinkman’s family home, and you realize suddenly what sort of a class background he comes from:
Rob Ford was like that too. There was no better illustration of it than in the infamous “Steak Queen” video:
Lots of people saw this video and imagined that it would dent Ford’s popularity. (One doesn’t often hear the mayor of a major city referring to the chief of police as a “cocksucker,” much less “bumbaclot.”) Newspapers described the episode as “damaging” and “embarrassing” to the members of Ford Nation. The effect, however, was the exact reverse, because commentators missed the larger frame. Here was Rob Ford, totally inebriated, hanging out at Steak Queen with his friends in the middle of the night. Hands up how many people had ever heard of Steak Queen, or eaten there, prior to this video? More generally: who the hell eats at Steak Queen? Here’s what it looks like:
There’s hundreds of these places around Toronto. They are, perhaps needless to say, frequented by low-SES individuals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Steak Queen is distinguished by being open 24-hours, and so is popular with the after-bar crowds.
I think this is one of the reasons that Ford is often described by his supporters as “honest” and “authentic” – despite the fact that he was an inveterate liar. Most politicians belong to a social class that is above that of the median voter. They have university degrees (often in law), they’ve had capital-C careers, and perhaps most importantly, they have bourgeois taste. As a result, most of them have to be very careful to avoid the impression of talking down to their constituents. So they often find themselves scaling back their vocabularies, pretending to have an interest in sports, acquiring a taste for Tim Horton’s coffee, etc.
Some are better than others at this. I am reminded of John Kerry, stopping for a cheese-steak sandwich while campaigning in Philadelphia, and trying to order it with Swiss cheese. Catastrophic error! There is only one correct type of cheese to eat on the cheese-steak sandwich, and that is Cheese Whiz. His opponent, George W. Bush, ordered it “wiz wit” – the correct local idiom. But this just meant that Bush was better briefed by his campaign staff. One does not get the sense that Bush, Yale graduate and scion of privilege, spent much time hanging around cheese-steak joints.
And yet there was Rob Ford, hanging out at Steak Queen. What a lot of low-SES people saw, in this video, was a guy who was not just pretending to like the sort of things that you like, but one who actually likes them. Far from looking down on you, he actually wants to be like you. Here was a man with genuine affection for the lower classes. Lots of fancy downtown Marxists profess to care about the poor, but would recoil with horror at the thought of eating at Steak Queen. (Observe what happened when, in the wake of the video, the Toronto Star sent its restaurant critic to write a review.)
Class solidarity, as well as class antagonism, usually finds its most powerful expression in aesthetic judgement. This is one of the reasons that all the criticisms people made of Ford as mayor had so little impact on his supporters. They read it in class terms, and interpreted it as just another version of “looking down” on them.