Now that progressives are no longer in the Toronto Mayor's office (but progressives did win council and mayoralty races around Ontario), there are two things we need to do over the next four years.
First, stop fighting the battles we decisively lost in the Toronto municipal election and understand what happened. Rob Ford didn't become mayor by magic; he was democratically elected. And he was supported by a broad spectrum of Torontonians, rich and poor, young and old, immigrant and Canadian-born, in old Toronto and in the suburbs, united in their anger toward the status quo.
As a citizen of Toronto, I fear the next four years of Mayor Ford. But why Ford became Mayor is intriguing. It was more than his one-note gravy train message. There was a feeling of malaise and frustration that he tapped into and exploited. The angry voter became the engaged voter. Not always engaged on issues and policies, but on gut feelings.
And this is how many voters identify with candidates. They frequently make decisions based on prevailing values and morals (for example, next to geography, religion is the most powerful predictor of voter behaviour in Canada). Identifying with a candidate or a party's values can help explain why the majority in a province can support New Democrats in one election and then four years later head to the other end of the political spectrum and vote Conservative. It's not always a careful scrutiny of policies and positions but "throw the bums out."
This leads me to my second point. Progressives can do better winning the hearts and minds of Canadians. We do well basing policy on evidence and I don't want us to ever eschew facts in favour of "truthiness", but we need to become better story-tellers and better advocates for a broader range of the public. Our arguments must not only be relatively simple, but we should also readily point to and refute counter-arguments.
We also need to stop dismissing and denigrating opposite opinions as stupid. Yes, I am frequently guilty of doing this and I am trying to mend my ways (and maybe now that Ford is in, I'm searching for my zen place). Every time we stopped debating Ford on his policies and made references to his weight or his intelligence, we missed saying to the common voter, "I understand you."
Politics is a wasteland of mean-spiritedness and cruelty and too often public discourse devolves into Fox News shoutfests. This turns off the average voter from participating and we may be turning great candidates away from a life of public service. We must forget the schoolyard taunts and position ourselves as caring and empathetic. It doesn't matter if you're rich or lower income, all of us have moments in life where we fear for our jobs, worry about our kids and parents, wonder if the future will be better than the present.
We have a great narrative. It's about community and collaboration and equality. It's about ensuring people get the social programs they pay for. It's about treating everyone, from the corporate CEO to the oil rig worker to new the Canadian family to the rural middle class couple, with respect. But progressives need to be saying these things together, giving voters a sense of solidarity or "social proof." For example, I don't agree with much of what Conservatives advocate, but I know where they stand.
There are many on the right who are incensed and disgusted with those who lead lives of privilege. They loathe corporate welfare. They find it galling that the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff comes from Bay Street while one of Harper's Cabinet Ministers is quitting for a high-powered banking job on that same yellow brick road.
They have a different view of government's role in our lives, but they are no different in struggling to get by, wanting the best for their kids and wanting their voices to be heard. We don't appeal to them by dismissing them. We show them that we want a better society for everyone and we get there by working together.
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