Ford like me: Deconstructing the support of Ford Nation

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford still has many supporters who say they would vote for him again. Even though it might appear, to even a casual observer living in Toronto, that there is more than an abundance of evidence, both circumstantial and otherwise, against the Mayor. So how could any rational person still be supporting him?

The answer to that could be rooted more in neural wiring than in what reporters continue to unearth about Toronto's beleaguered mayor.

George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute, in a 2003 article, began to examine a similar question about George W Bush. Lakoff began to investigate why it was that George W Bush continued to have strong support from his base, in spite of clearly having been shown to have lied. And lied on a grand scale. Lies that sent U.S. soldiers to their deaths, cost billions of tax dollars and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. 

The answer, Lakoff  concluded, was in how the brain is wired. Once a framework is established in our brains, we will prefer to simply reject the incoming information that contradicts our beliefs, rather than alter this established framework. This also holds true with the way we view ourselves. This system appears to be more rigid in some than in others. 

One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors -- conceptual structures like those we have been describing. The frames are in the synapses of our brains -- physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don't fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.

It is a common folk theory of progressives that "The facts will set you free!" If only you can get all the facts out there in the public eye, then every rational person will reach the right conclusion. It is a vain hope. Human brains just don't work that way. Framing matters. Frames once entrenched are hard to dispel.

With regards to how this plays itself out politically Lakoff noted, "I think it is crucially important to understand the cognitive dimensions of politics -- especially when most of our conceptual framing is unconscious and we may not be aware of our own metaphorical thought. "

I've drawn parallels between W. Bush and Ford before. Both are wealthy privileged politically connected white men, who were less than exceptional in business and academics, despite their privilege. Both use a populist folksy Joe-average persona, and both appear to have somewhat similar pathologies -- including addiction issues.

Support for Ford may have neural wiring at its foundation, but there are other reinforcing elements at play as well. Keeping with the Bush analogy, in a 2004 article by Michael I. Niman, entitled 'The Bush Strategy: Ignorance & Disenfranchisement - Rigging The 2004 Vote', Niman wrote:

"What does it take for a voter to support George W. Bush for president? According to polls such as one recently conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), the answer is ignorance. They exhibit a profound lack of knowledge about world events and about Bush's political positions."

Shocking ignorance

While I am not aware of any poll asking staunch Ford supporters specifically about their knowledge of City politics and Ford's own political beliefs, there is still a parallel with the inexplicable loyalty and seeming disregard for the facts. 

As "the media" begin to hold Ford's feet to the fire in increasing measure, Ford can always use his weekly propaganda radio show that he shares with brother Doug, to encourage willful blindness in Ford Nation -- encourage them to ignore and have contempt for publications and members of the media who speak against him -- and indeed Ford frames any evidence against him as a "media vendetta." The media are "a bunch of maggots," according to Ford, except of course for the few journalists left who defend him. This radio show does the double duty of reinforcing the neural framework of his base, while simultaneously providing them with new talking points to better deflect any new evidence presented to them.

It may be understandable to some anti-Ford groups, that there are people who support Ford because they have something to personally gain by doing so, what is far more baffling are the Ford supporters who are most harmed by Ford's policies -- the city's poor and working poor.

What is fascinating about the success of the blue-collar-lunch-pail-millionaire phenomenon -- where politicians of wealth and privilege manage to portray themselves as regular Johnny Lunchpail -- are the many areas of our psychology it taps into. By playing up this folksy populist persona, many of us do see ourselves in Ford.  His bumbling is mistaken for just regular guy-ness rather than being seen as simply an extreme sense of entitlement that cannot tolerate normal scrutiny. Ironically, we are sympathetic to him where he lacks sympathy for us.

Once Ford Nation saw themselves in Ford, Team Ford then had a powerful psychological tool at their disposal. And to Ford, this newly minted 'Ford Nation' simply reinforced his own narcissistic mental frame work of how he views himself.

Ford seems to like nothing more than the aspects of his job that allow him to make a phone call to get someone to fix a pot hole, so that he will then get an instant ego massage when the grateful citizen tells him what a fantastic job he's doing. Not only that, he now gets a loyal voter into the bargain. Win win for Ford. (On the other hand, Ford seems to have considerable difficulty with the aspects of the job that do not lend itself to this type of adulation.)

As that loyal voter, if I am Ford and Ford is me, then I will want to believe things that keep both my self image intact and my worldview. Therefore I will have a vested interest in continuing to support Ford, completely apart from any new facts.

Further, if I see myself in Ford, I may allow Ford to get away with repeatedly making himself out to be a victim because I may wish the accountability for my own behaviour to lie somewhere external to myself. It's not Ford's fault, it's the media's fault. I may be uneasy watching Ford getting challenged on things that I myself don't wish to be challenged on.

Or maybe I'm in denial about an addiction that I don't wish to be prevented from indulging in ... or being found out. Or perhaps I'm not someone who is especially bright or well educated and I resent those "elites" for making me feel small and stupid.

No one wants to feel small and stupid. So when the press shines a light on the reality of Ford, Ford Nation doesn't care about the facts in the matter. They care about what they see as an attack on THEM. So until they have exhausted their last remotely plausible rationalization, they will cling to the mythology and the Ford PR generated talking points to deflect that light from being shined upon them as much as on Ford. The vested interest in defending Ford remains completely intact, regardless of how increasingly difficult it is to rationalize.

Ford has used the blue-collar-lunch-pail-millionaire myth to great effect. But even if most of his support eventually evaporates -- when it is clearly safe to be allowed off the hook psychologically by saying "hey, he LIED to us! He's lost my support!" -- and even if Ford is left wandering the streets babbling to himself about how great he is, he will surely still stumble across someone somewhere who will come up to him and flash their Ford Nation membership card.

And Ford's neural framework will once again be reinforced.

Heather Morgan is a freelance writer and musician living in Toronto.

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