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John Tory and the dangerous logic of strategic voting

Heading into the final two weeks of Toronto's municipal election we are faced with the sad reality that it seems that two right wing candidates are the front-runners for Mayor.

Olivia Chow's campaign, which started with such great promise and was well ahead in the polls initially, has fizzled out terribly and its own logic of presenting itself as the only "winnable" alternative to Ford, as it did for many months, has come back to haunt it.

It planted the seed of "strategic voting" against Rob (and now Doug) Ford as an idea, but the tree has borne bitter fruit. Now that right wing and staunch conservative John Tory is ahead, he has become the "strategic" alternative to Ford.

Chow has taken a definite turn back to her left roots, but the damage, likely in part brought on by Conservative and Liberal advisers to her campaign, has been done.

Now the talk of strategic voting has shifted to voting for a reactionary-like Tory to prevent Doug Ford.

The logic of strategic voting is anathema to me and I have never supported it. It is antithetical to my politics and profoundly destructive to the project of building a new and truly left political movement.

A new Socialist or left movement cannot and will not arise as long as we accept the idea that getting the "lesser of evils" within the context of capitalism and austerity is the goal. All of the parties (and sadly Chow at first) play this card when they perceive it to be to their advantage and then, equally wrongly, often use the line that their opponents are all the same when it is not.

For many years, despite the decreasing reality of the claim, for example, we have had to endure NDP partisans bleating the line that the Liberals and Tories are identical and that the NDP are somehow radically different despite the fact that, given that all three are openly capitalist parties, this is simply absurd. Increasingly, the differences between the two "progressive" capitalist parties -- the Liberals and the NDP -- require a magnifying glass to find, and the NDP does not always benefit from the inspection.

As Judy Rebick put it in an excellent piece about why people with a feminist perspective should not support John Tory (without claiming Tory was analogous to Ford): "Don’t vote cynically, vote passionately."

As a leftist running a leftist campaign for City Council in Etobicoke, I fully agree with this. Voting "strategically" always either benefits liberals or those who argue that marginal "differences" should be seen as significant.

But we must not, as leftists,  present this at the expense of the truth or reality. We must never lose our insight and perspective that allows us to see that not all of our opponents represent the same class or ideological formations.  

In many online forums, presumably to boost the campaign of Chow or others, I have seen left or progressive activists and partisans claim that Tory and Ford are "the same" -- usually, though not always, with the proviso that Tory does not share Ford's buffoonery, criminality or history of pandering to racist, misogynist and homophobic politics.

Sometimes it is even suggested that this makes Tory more "dangerous" as he will be more effective in implementing a corporate agenda than would Ford.

And this is likely true, but a corporate agenda is not the only agenda that is dangerous to our civil discourse and society and this line of reasoning inherently implies that the populist, racist, homophobic and misogynist politics -- with its pronounced far right strands -- that surrounds the Fords is somehow less or as threatening or destructive than Tory's more "traditional" neo-conservatism.

It is not.

Rob and Doug Ford, it must be said, no longer (if they ever really did) represent the "mainstream" austerity agenda of Bay St. and Toronto's business class in so far as such an agenda coherently existed in 2010 given that Ford's main opponent at the time, George Smitherman, bears a striking ideological resemblance to John Tory.

The Fords, however, represent something far worse. Instinctively and intellectually many people in Toronto are well aware of this and claiming otherwise hurts our cause.

Campaigning for many months now as I have been in what was and is still perceived to be Ford Nation, Etobicoke, I regularly encounter people from all backgrounds and walks of life who are very receptive to many left wing ideas but who are passionate defenders of the Fords. Many see the Fords as the actual alternative to John Tory's Bay St. background and not the left or Olivia Chow at all.

This conjunction of populist anger and the actual and demonstrable history of the Ford's politics is an extremely dangerous one that harkens back to the far right movements of past eras of mass social dislocation and discontent and to the sometimes seemingly delusional unwillingness of the supporters of these movements to acknowledge the reality of them.

The Fords empower many by giving false voice to the notion that they will stand up to "elites" and, in their case in an entirely nihilistic way, "government," (whatever that means to those receptive to it) and it does not mean the same thing to all of their supporters. People, rather justly, hate their governments for many different and not at all mutually exclusive reasons, and to a degree among some the Fords have managed to unite very disparate discontents.

But the reality of their wealth and pandering to prejudice remains.

The reelection of any Ford to the office of Mayor would send a clear and enabling message to bigots, homophobic voters, misogynists and racists that the populist bandwagon that they have supported and that has nurtured them represents the "people" of Toronto. It would do this even though many of those they disparage are on board with the campaign.

It would also perpetuate the destructive and very sad place the Fords have taken as "champions" for entire groups of people that they have shown with their politics they really seem to actually despise.

Preventing the election of John Tory is very important. Defeating his agenda across the city has to be a primary goal of the left. To do this we have to stand against this agenda for what it is and not make the terrible mistake of helping to reelect a Ford by portraying it as something it is not.

Having said that, voting for John Tory to "stop" Doug Ford means voting for John Tory.

John Tory is a proven reactionary likely to be the most right mayor in Toronto's recent history if elected. His agenda will be anti-union, pro-privatization, and totally Bay St. While it does seem he is the most likely person to "defeat" Ford, his election would represent a terrible defeat for Toronto's working class and for Toronto's left.

Voting for John Tory means enabling the very worst logic of "strategic voting". The liberal "left" has brought this on itself by its embrace of the logic of getting "better" people elected "strategically", and the sheer anti-democratic stupidity of the idea is now being proven.

The false, dangerous and profoundly self-defeating idea that voters should be "realistic" and embrace the "best" alternative to the worst option is coming back to haunt the many among the Liberals and New Democrats who have so often and so misguidedly advocated for it in different circumstances when it seemed to their benefit.

It is an idea that has empowered the right and facilitated the left's defeat.

Now that "strategic voting" is being used to advocate John Tory's election, one hopes that the cynical notion itself will be abandoned.

Realism in the electoral arena is a game the left simply cannot win, as Chow's campaign has again shown. There will always be a more "realistic" option.

Perhaps it is time to once and for all abandon the right wing farce of "realism" and start to actually advocate openly and avowedly for the principles we allegedly believe in.

Right now it would seem the left has little to lose. The election of a reactionary "realist" candidate is, after all, only two weeks away.

And then, due entirely to the sad logic of electoralism and "winning" we may end up with John Tory.

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