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Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

Rob Ford as metaphor: The real culture of entitlement

| November 20, 2012

What to make, just past its second anniversary, of the circus act that is Rob Ford's administration in Toronto? A perpetual sideshow and distraction where the primary attraction, the mayor himself, seems anxious to outdo himself in terms of buffoonery and apparent stupidity.

Many Torontonians, including some, I suspect, who voted for him, wring their hands in angst at each new development in the train wreck that his administration has become. Facing two court challenges and having to take the stand in both while in office, seeing no hypocrisy in talking about "gravy trains" while skipping out on the job that he was elected and is paid to do to coach high school football (including failing to attend the Big City Mayor's Conference in Ottawa to do so), using his influence to get actually working citizens kicked off of public buses during rush hour in bad weather so that his football team could get picked up (and it is obvious this happened, despite absurd claims by the police to the contrary, given that the police had not made such a request of the TTC since a factory explosion four years prior in 2008), having city road crews rush a job in front of his family's business just in time for an anniversary project, etc.

It is hard for many to believe that Ford is mayor of the largest, most diverse and what is perceived as the most liberal city in the country, if not in North America.

Ford won, as we all know, despite many seeming missteps prior to his election. His comments and actions before becoming mayor made it abundantly clear that he was homophobic, had a stereotyped view of many of the city's ethnic communities, had almost no understanding of how city governance worked, and so on. He was embraced by many, especially suburban whites and males, as a populist hero who was "one of them" in spite of the well established reality that he was a rich kid, who had never had to work a real job, had treated his job as city councillor accordingly and had made it a part-time one, had collected a second six figure salary from his family's business while being paid by the public, and had clearly lead a silver spoon life.

He won despite it being revealed that he had somehow got out of DUI and pot charges in Florida that would have sent many of the state's African-American citizens to jail for a very long time. It was also known that he had been charged with assault twice, including as recently in 2008 against his wife.

In the end he won by a larger margin as a first time mayor than either Mel Lastman or David Miller had when they were first elected.

Two years later it is worth reexamining this. It is worth also reexamining whether or not Ford won "despite" these things at all.

It is easy to believe that many of the wealthy pseudo-populist standard bearers of the right in North America, or their sycophantic followers in segments of the media and the political class are morons. They often make pronouncements or comments that defy reality.

While humorous, what can one make of a candidate for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world bemoaning the lack of opening windows in jet planes! (He later claimed it was a "joke" but...)Mitt Romney is actually not stupid, so why would he make such an idiotic comment? Far more significantly, how could he actually think, among other things, as he clearly does that 47 per cent of the American population are government dependents who pay no income tax?

And how, despite his eastern seaboard capitalist pedigree, and the clear reality that he had gold plated diapers that made sure he never faced any kind of  financial adversity in his life, did he still manage to carry a large majority of the votes of whites and males in the USA as a whole and in some of the poorest parts of the USA in particular?

The first point, I think, is that wealthy politicians like Ford or Romney, or the delusional ranter Donald Trump, are not stupid, they simply have no clue. They are utterly detached from reality as a result of extreme privilege. Ford is not being disingenuous; this is his reality. Romney wonders why he cannot open jet plane windows because his wealth has opened everything else. If he had the wherewithal he probably could be made to believe he was Bruce Wayne. Why not? Shouldn't all rich white guys be able to kick ass with privileges paid for by their corporations?

The more interesting question, is why does anyone follow them and vote for them? While Romney lost the election, he won the white vote and he only lost by 2.8 per cent. Ford won a landslide by any estimation among a supposedly more enlightened electorate. 

It would be comforting to say, as so many do, that it was the result of "monied interests" or the "right-wing" media (the same media that the right says is a "left-wing" media), but that simply does not withstand a critical look. And these were clearly free and fair elections in a way that would matter to the outcome. As to notions that money "buys" elections, that is historically false, and in the Canadian context is rendered absurd by a variety of restrictions. Ford did not win because of money, he won because of anger. Not the anger of the 1 per cent, but the anger of a generation of white males who feel that women, non-whites and the poor are robbing them of their other historic and empowering privilege: the privilege of being a white male.

The reality is that much of the white, male working and middle-class voted for Ford because they liked what he said and did. They liked his views of gays and women, and they liked his total unwillingness to try to understand the points-of-view of those outside of his narrow reality. They liked that his narrative was simple, claimed to be on the "outside", and was old-fashioned and angry, as that is how they perceive themselves. They liked that he presented himself as a bulwark against modernity and inclusion because these voters do not like modernity and inclusion.

Modernity and inclusion, regardless of class, does not really work out for the group who has historically benefited, no matter what their class, educational or income background, from knowing that they had a predominance socially due to the simple fact that they were born white or male. And this predominance is not ancient history; it still exists.

Historically in the Canadian context there is no question this is true. We like, as Canadians, to pat ourselves on the back  and feel good about how much "better" we are than Americans, though often this difference seems to come down to some pride in health care reforms that happened a generation ago or the fact that we apparently play hockey well. 

We chose to forget, and are not reminded, that our history, with a few small exceptions, is every bit as racist and assimilationist as the history of the United States. Canada also has a long history of appalling exclusionist immigration policies (including policies that helped to lead Jews into Nazi gas chambers), systemic racism against Asians and people of colour and a basically genocidal attitude toward the Aboriginal and First Nations peoples. On the issues of the rights of women, our policies and histories are different from the US in only incidental ways. And, given our federal government, these become more incidental as you read this article.

Whites generally, and white men more specifically, benefited from this way of doing things, and are largely in denial of the fact that they did. For the entirety of our history, and until very recently, the overwhelming bulk of our business, political, media and even union leaders were male and white, as were those in every industrial or other profession that made a real income. This is a demonstrable and historic fact.

And this was not true due to any effort on their part. It was due to the simple fact that they were white and male. They had to do nothing else to have a greater social status than those who were not. Equality of opportunity, in so far as it existed, existed only within this context. It existed only for white men.

This has, of course, finally begun to change. And nowhere, nominally, more than in Toronto. But these very changes have led whites and men to vote as a block, even when these votes run counter to their own apparent class interests. While it is true that many non-whites and women also voted for Ford, or for Romney or Harper, they did not do so as a block.

White males, of all classes, in both Canada and the United States do increasingly vote as a block. And they vote for reaction. They are the ultimate special interest group. They have a special interest in preserving the centuries of power that they have been granted.

This, if you are wondering, is why the comment pages of the Sun and National Post, as well as the internet at large, are so full of seething white male anger and hate. They see the possibility of eclipse on the horizon, of actually having to fend for themselves on equal footing for the first time in Canadian history, and they are terrified.

That is fundamentally why Rob Ford won, and may yet win again, despite his obvious failure as a mayor.

 

 

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Comments

I am torn about this.  I think the angry white male vote explains Romney but doesn't entirely explain Ford.  Michael's post is thoughtful and his points well made.  I think the belief in stopping the gravy train and desire to stop it was also a factor.  And let us not forget Mel Lastman's success because he didn't raise taxes - people don't want to pay more municipal taxes and they will vote for the candidate who promises this - even if he is an idiotic buffoon.  I think no new taxes was the appeal for many of the women and non-white support. 

I wonder when we're all going to wake up & stop hating unionized public sector workers and start realizing that better wages and benefits are not impossible.  My sister worked for Safeway in the 1970s and 80's when they were still in Ontario.  She made great money and had great benefits (no university education required) and you know what?  My dad, earning a modest middle class income, could afford to buy groceries there. What's changed?  Corporate profits that's what.  I have to believe that the wake up is coming, I am very grateful that Hudak did not win the last election and I'd like to think we have Ford's idiocy to thank for that in part.  I wonder if we'll be so lucky next time??

I thought Eye Weekly(now The Grid) nailed it when they warned Smitherman that Torontonians vote for the happiest person.

(Cuz we are a city of deeply sad people. The rest of the country hates us! SECESSION NOW!! P11!)

I really don't see how anybody's anti-bullying strategy is going to mix well with our city's new insta-imposed football culture. Homophobia, on the other hand ....

 

Nice piece Michael. Lots of people are writing about this topic, but there is something I haven't seen anyone explore yet - the transition from David Miller to Rob Ford.

David Miller won handily, and won twice, before Rob Ford became mayor. Miller was not angry. He promoted inclusion and a more modern, sustainable city. Even if the percentage who voted for both of these men is relatively small (5-10%), it's still a big factor in an election. Why did people who voted for Miller also vote for Ford? This is the unanswered question. 

White male anger has been around longer than either of these men, so I feel it isn't enough to explain the transition. Tim Hudak is one of the angriest politicians I've ever seen, but he lost his election last year. In fact, Hudak was shut out of Toronto less than a year after "Ford Nation" had swept to power. Some even suggested that Ford had mucked up Hudak's chances with half-baked, regressive, angry policies.

Maybe Rob Ford won because he never had to run against David Miller, or any candidate with an equally clear set of values. Perhaps, in the absence of a clear progressive vision, a clear regressive vision won out. Campaigns matter, and two years ago Rob Ford ran the most effective one. His opponents gave his ideas more air time than their own.

Yes, it matters that one of his main opponents was openly gay, and that another spoke with a thick accent. But I think the biggest factor in 2010 was that Rob Ford had a vision, and his opponents had nightmares about his vision, and that was all anyone talked about. No matter how angry some voters are, they may once again cast their votes for a more progressive vision, so long as a strong candidate steps forward and articulates one.

Interesting theory. However, you fail to point out – let alone make sense of the fact – that Ford was very succesful in non-white immigrant communities, especially in the suburbs (places that are also Conservative strongholds federally). In fact, in the days before the election, he was considered even more popular with immigrants than with the general population. See this poll, taken just before the vote:

http://theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/poll-shows-rob-ford-ahead-gainin...

Doubtless, the points that you raise were indeed factors in the election of Rob Ford. But just as clearly, in view of this fairly obtrusive fact, they cannot be the most significant ones. I think it more plausible that people really believed there was a so-called "gravy train" at City Hall, and that Ford would stop it as promised, and thereby make things fairer for ordinary people – white male or otherwise. It's completely understandable that many new Canadians would be attracted to this promise, especially when you consider how difficult it can be to gain and keep a foothold in this country as an outsider.

On the other hand, this (false) promise also taps into the misplaced resentment of working class folks in general, who have seen their incomes and opportunities stagnate over the past several decades. Since many of these people are either unable or unwilling to place responsibility where it really belongs, that is, with the neo-liberal corporatist establishment (of which Rob Ford is a reckless but faithful servant), many of them blame public sector workers, unions, feminists, and/or immigrants instead.

Until that situation changes, you can expect to see more misplaced anger and hate, but not just – or even, primarily – from white men.

Wow that is a very insightful piece.  Thank you.  I am a white male but I am gay.  I have never voted for Harper or Hudak or the right wing Mayoral candidate in my city but then I am gay so I am not a part of the white male - heterosexual though it is surprising how many white male - homosexuals are Conservatives.  I find this scary in that this could mean more far right wing boorish leaders until the angry white male voting block is outnumbered by a diversity of voters.  This cannot happen fast enough. 

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