Thoughts on Rob Ford (vol. 3)

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s decision to take a time out from his campaign (and his job) to go into rehab obviously came as a great relief to many residents of the city. The thought that we might be able to have a debate about real issues is almost an exciting prospect. (I am also finding the experience of not feeling obliged to vote for Olivia Chow to be somewhat liberating.)

But before we get to that, a few parting thoughts about Ford, because, like everyone else, I can’t resist. (Also, not really parting, because I fully expect him to be back in 30 days. Perhaps “hopefully parting” would be more accurate.)

Many people in Toronto have been shaking their heads this past year and saying to themselves “What have we done to deserve this?” And looking at Ford’s stubbornly high popular approval ratings, many have also been wondering – as my wife put it – “What the fuck is wrong with people in this city?”

So by way of comfort, I want to point out that there is nothing special about Ford, or the Toronto electorate. Ford is nothing but the most recent instance of an archetype that has been with us literally since antiquity. Readers of Plato and Aristotle are familiar with the character – Ford is a textbook illustration of a demagogue. He is an almost cookie-cutter version of a type that has appeared and reappeared in democratic political systems since as long as they have existed.

In this respect, residents of Toronto can take comfort in knowing that they are not being singled out for special punishment. What they have been struggling with is one of the inherent weaknesses of democratic political systems – one that Plato and Aristotle predicted would eventually be its downfall.

Luckily, we have found ways to control this defect, which is why modern democracies are so much more stable than their ancient counterparts. More on that later.

Just to establish that there is nothing special or unprecedented about Ford, consider this 1838 profile of “the demagogue,” taken from James Fenimore Cooper’s essay on the subject. Cooper described demagogues as possessing four qualities:

(1) They fashion themselves as a man or woman of the common people, as opposed to the elites;

(2) their politics depends on a powerful, visceral connection with the people that dramatically transcends ordinary political popularity;

(3) they manipulate this connection, and the raging popularity it affords, for their own benefit and ambition; and

(4) they threaten or outright break established rules of conduct, institutions and even the law.

Michael Singer in a recent book (Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from its Worst Enemies, from which this summary of Cooper is taken [p. 35]) suggests that the last point is the most important, and is what distinguishes the mere populist from the demagogue: populists play by the rules, whereas demagogues “bully the rule of law.”

I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that this reads like a description of Rob Ford, not a list that was put together almost two centuries ago. This is what I mean when I say that Ford is merely the reappearance of a very persistent archetype.

And yet, one might wonder why, if demagogues are such a persistent nuisance, why are there not more Rob Fords around? Why do we not see them popping up all over the place?

The answer is that we have, in this as in many other areas, created institutions that limit popular democracy, in such a way as to constrain some of its most obvious flaws. For example, we limit the ability of majorities to oppress minorities through institutions such as federalism (creating an order of government in which minorities are a majority), or through the combination of constitutional rights and judicial review of legislation.

While it is impossible to eliminate demagogues completely, the institution that controls them most effectively is one that is somewhat undertheorized in the literature on democracy – the political party. It is important to recognize that the candidates put forward by political parties for election are not a random cross-section of the population. They have been pre-screened, both explicitly and implicitly. This is particularly true of party leaders. The mere fact that you have to organize a campaign for leadership, convincing other politicians to support you, is extremely demanding.

So the people who wind up getting put forward to the electorate, by political parties, do not have all that much in common with ordinary citizens. They are more like contestants on Jeopardy – the product of a huge pre-screening process, which goes on behind the scenes. We tend to take it for granted though. As a result, much of the electorate has become accustomed to exercising the vote irresponsibly. They look at the ballot and assume that all the major candidates are more-or-less capable of doing the job, and that the differences between them are minor ones of political ideology.

The thought that one of the major candidates might be a total fuck-up just doesn’t cross most people’s minds. And why should it? After all, whatever one might think about the various leaders of federal and provincial parties, they are all in one way or another very capable people, with a variety of skills, who would no doubt be capable of succeeding in other areas of life had they not chosen to go into politics.

So here is my thesis (to the extent that a blog post can be said to have a thesis): Rob Ford’s mayoralty was made possible by the absence of political parties in municipal politics. That is because Ford could never have won the leadership of a political party. It was highly significant, for instance, that while Conservatives from far away (like Stephen Harper) supported his bid for mayor, none of the conservatives on city council – who actually had to work with him – supported his bid. That’s because Ford was, from day one, completely incapable of working with other people. Apart from his habit of making racially disparaging remarks toward everyone, including his fellow right-wing councillors, Ford also had obvious anger management issues. Lots of people have seen this scene, from back when he was a councillor:



What many people who aren’t deep into Toronto city politics don’t realize is that Case Ootes, the person initially speaking, who is obviously supremely irritated with Ford, is one of the right-wing councillors (who ultimately went on to chair Ford’s transition team). If there were political parties at the municipal level, and conservative councillors had to choose between Ford and Ootes, after scenes like this it’s not difficult to imagine which one they would have chosen. (And to Ford’s right is councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who Ford famously referred to as a “Gino boy.” In other words, Ford is here surrounded by members of his own coalition, i.e. the conservative members of council.)

Many people also had serious concerns about Ford’s extremely low level of intellectual functioning (an issue that I have already discussed). For instance, there was a story going around how, when he was a councillor, Ford tried to get one of the runways at Pearson International Airport closed for several hours in the afternoon, while his football team was practicing. Apparently the noise from the airplanes was distracting his players. This could be just a story, but the fact that stories like this were circulating within city hall says something about the regard that people had for his intellect.

Thus the only people who thought that Ford could function as mayor were people who weren’t paying attention – which of course, in municipal politics, is practically the entire population. Even the right-wing newspaper columnists (with the exception of the lowest hacks at the Toronto Sun), were like “whoa, hey, no, you can’t possibly elect this guy!” The problem was that there was no way of distinguishing signal from noise. The fact that major candidates for elected office are usually vetted by parties means that when a columnist says “don’t vote for so-and-so” it usually just reflects a judgement of political ideology. So when you get a candidate who is completely and thoroughly unfit for office, absolutely beyond the pale, it’s difficult to communicate that. When a journalist says, “no seriously, you can’t possibly consider voting for this guy, it’s totally out of the question” people just assume it’s more political ideology (e.g. the Toronto Star is out to get him!), as opposed to say, the truth.

One other important point about political parties is that they have a brand that they need to protect. Bad leaders don’t just damage themselves, they damage the brand. This hurts everyone else in the party, including a lot of people who themselves want to get re-elected. So within political parties, politicians have an incentive to get rid of leaders who are dragging everyone else down. (Sometimes they wait too long, and have to live with the consequences – consider what Bill Vander Zalm did to the Social Credit party in B.C. Consider, on the other hand, the lengths that the federal Conservative Party has gone, in order to avoid any association with Grant Devine – who essentially presided over the destruction of the provincial Progressive Conservative party in Saskatchewan.)

Needless to say, if Rob Ford were the leader of a political party, his own people would have gotten rid of him by now. In federal and provincial parties, we rely almost exclusively upon political parties to do the dirty work of getting rid of scandal-ridden or incompetent leaders. (For example, there are many cases of serious alcoholism that have been silently and effectively dealt with by political parties, without the public needing to get involved.) So with Ford, a lot of people were surprised to discover that there wasn’t really an effective mechanism for getting rid of a sitting mayor. Actually, there isn’t an effective mechanism for getting rid of a sitting premier or prime minister either — but at higher levels of government, we have political parties, which is why it’s not such a problem.

Does this mean that we should have political parties at a municipal level? I wouldn’t go that far, although I think that slates are not such a bad arrangement. My major point – yes! I do have a point – actually has nothing to do with municipal politics. My major point is that we should not be so quick to talk down political parties at the provincial and federal level. It is easy to overlook the many valuable services they provide. (As conservatives like to say “never tear down a fence, unless you know why it was built.”)

For example, there is a very standard view, which I hear all the time from my left-wing students, but that Elizabeth May also repeats again and again, that political parties are somehow an obstacle to genuine democratic deliberation, and without political parties (and with more free votes), parliament would be less of a partisan affair, legislators would get together to hash out reasonable compromises, etc.

She says this sort of thing a lot, here is a typical version (intimating that there is something unconstitutional about party power):

It certainly isn’t in the constitution that members of parliament serve political party leaders… In fact, political parties aren’t mentioned in the constitution. What’s said in the constitution is that we are representatives of an electoral district and that the voters of that riding are the boss. I think if we were freer as MPs, democracy would work better.

I don’t think this last claim is true. Practically the only worthwhile deliberation that goes on in the “legislative branch” of government, at the provincial and federal level, is the deliberation that goes on within the internal policy-making apparatus of the political parties. And the only reason that parties bother to engage in this sort of deliberation is that, through party discipline, they are actually able to make their members vote for policies that the parties have decided upon.

It is also important to remember that parties perform a valuable service of keeping certain kinds of people – like Rob Ford – out of politics, or at least out of positions of political leadership. If you look around the House of Commons, and take the existing MPs as they are, I suppose it is possible, through some enormous feat of idealization, to imagine that “democracy would work better” if there were less party discipline. But it is also important to recognize that, if there were no party discipline, you wouldn’t necessarily get the same batch of MPs. You would get a lot more people who, under the current system, do not have what it takes to win a party nomination. Now in certain respects this would be a good thing. But as the Rob Ford saga shows, it could also be a very bad thing. Whether the good would outweigh the bad is a very difficult judgement to make. Much of the anti-party sentiment one encounters, however, seems to assume that it is an easy judgement.

Consider, for example, Singer’s distinction between the “populist” and the “demagogue.” There are certainly a lot of populists in the House of Commons right now, and one does see people occasionally crossing the line. Stephen Harper’s signature political style, after all, with respect to the rule of law, is to push things as close as possible to crossing the line without actually crossing it. Thus he has actively cultivated a culture of “gamesmanship” within the Conservative Party, which has naturally resulted in a lot of lines being crossed. At the same time, there is still some attempt made to play by the rules (the plan typically is to cleverly subvert the rules, without technically violating them). Thus the party does not have anyone like Ford’s ally, seen above, Giorgio Mammoliti. Several weeks ago there was an extraordinary scene, where Mammoliti forced city council to adjourn, because he simply refused to respect any rulings of the Speaker, and then threatened violence when security was called to remove him from the chamber.

In the House of Commons, we simply take it for granted — and I’m sure May is taking it for granted — that MPs will at least obey the Speaker, so that if the Speaker gives an MP a direct order to sit down and to stop talking, the MPs will comply. But as we saw in Toronto, this is not an inherent feature of democracy. People in Toronto are perfectly happy to elect a man like Mammoliti, who literally makes it impossible for democratic debate to occur, because he will not respect the most basic rules of order (such as obeying the Speaker). Not only that, there is no democratic mechanism to punish him for this — he will certainly be re-elected, the residents of his ward simply don’t care. Mammoliti is, in this respect, a genuine demoagogue, and much as we (myself included) tend to use that term loosely, there are no genuine demagogues in the federal House of Commons. We have political parties to thank for that.

In any case, it is worth observing that political parties are poised to become much more powerful as time goes by. As campaigning becomes more data-driven, the fact that political parties own and control the databases is making it even more difficult for anyone without a party affiliation to get elected. This is, in my view, not such a bad thing, although it will be interesting to see what sorts of rules the parties develop over the use of these databases, right now the situation is a bit of a mess — one of the most interesting issues that arose in the internal Conservative Party dust-up over Eve Adams’s attempt to secure the party nomination in Oakville North-Burlington was the allegation that she had made unfair use of CIMS, the party’s internal membership database. It seems clear that she broke no rules, but that’s largely because there are no rules. How this evolves, it seems to me, is a very important question for the health of our democracy.



Thoughts on Rob Ford (vol. 3) — 1 Comment

  1. “(As conservatives like to say “never tear down a fence, unless you know why it was built.”)”
    Well, as conservatives used to like to say, once upon a time. Nowadays, conservatives mostly like to say “Always tear down a fence. Especially if you don’t know why it was built–that means it wasn’t built by one of our people, which means it was built by an enemy.”
    On a related note “Stephen Harper’s signature political style, after all, with respect to the rule of law, is to push things as close as possible to crossing the line without actually [getting caught] crossing it.” There, fixed that for you. I don’t actually believe Harper cares about breaking the law, it’s just that unlike a Ford he doesn’t want to be seen doing it. That’s one reason why paranoia and information control have been such hallmarks of his administration–he has plenty to hide.