This morning my Facebook feed has lit up with left and liberal friends celebrating the court-ordered deposition of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Although I knew Ford would be a terrible mayor, vigorously encouraged strategic voting in order to block his election and strongly agree with the court’s decision, I lack any of the sense of triumph so many of my friends are displaying. That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for Ford or sympathize with him in any way. He was and remains an incompetent, bullying liar who has worsened the lives of Toronto’s poor, unionized workers, cyclists, transit riders, youth and seniors during his short reign as mayor.
When describing him to non-Torontonians, my usual shorthand has been to say that Ford was a character Chris Farley would inevitably have created had he lived long enough, a piece of Saturday Night Live sketch comedy come to life in Canada’s largest and most arrogant city. I pointed out that no one was more surprised than Ford, himself, that he was unable to make good on his election promise to fund $23 billion worth of new spending with $10 million worth of cuts or that simply saying “new subway lines will be built by the private sector,” did not result in private construction firms constructing free subways all over the city.
Nothing about Rob Ford the politician was an act; he was just as stupid, just as ignorant, just as confused, just as flustered as he seemed, unclear even on his last day on the job as to the most basic information about what it entailed. Ford was deposed for the simple reason that he believed that attaining the office of mayor emancipated him from all rules governing his city’s other 2.5 million residents. In my view, he sought the office of mayor so that he could finally be free of conflict of interest rules, traffic laws, the Criminal Code, and the various other laws under which he had chafed his whole adult life. And, like most of his other beliefs about how the world works, this was demonstrated to be false.
So why am I not joining my friends in celebrating his court-ordered removal from office?
Despite his abandonment by nearly every serious conservative in Toronto, including members he appointed to his own executive committee, Ford has maintained a sizeable following, according to polls, about 30% according to Angus Reid’s most recent survey. Those who support him are the kind of people to whom leftists once sought to appeal. They make less money; they have less education; they live in the least-serviced neighbourhoods; their apartments and homes cost less; and they are deeply distrustful of elites. And what I find most unsettling in my friends’ opinions is their relief at Toronto’s anticipated return to business as usual.
In 2010, Ford appealed far beyond Stephen Harper supporters and the small number of Torontonians who actually believed the previous government was corrupt or lavish in its spending. Nearly half of Toronto residents voted for him because of his populist rejection of the way Toronto had been run since its founding by conservative war refugees in the late eighteenth century. The United Empire Loyalists and Family Compact set a tone of high-handed, patronizing elitism that has defined Toronto’s governing class ever since.
During the six years I lived in the city, what struck me was that, like the Roman and American senatorial classes, this crew seemed to control every political faction, movement or party that had any real shot at power, providing an extraordinary continuity in the basic principles of governance that prevailed in the city. Not until Mike Harris’s dramatic break with this tradition at the provincial level was this hegemony threatened. By forcibly amalgamating Toronto with the four suburban municipalities that surrounded it, Harris was able to drown temporarily drown the old Anglo elites in immigrants and suburbanites to destabilize the city’s political culture and give those outside a certain class of educated Anglos real, as opposed to tokenistic, access to the city’s levers of power.
By the time I moved to Toronto, the mayoralty of Mel “what is this World Health Organization!?” Lastman had ended and Toronto had returned to its political traditions under the leadership of Harvard-educated social democrat, David Miller, traditions eloquently described by former mayor David Crombie during a dispute over the City of Toronto Act. Speaking against this new legislation expanding the powers of the mayor’s office, Crombie lectured council, “You have forgotten what your job is as city councilors. It is not your job to run this city. It is your job to listen to the people who run this city and follow their advice.” Western rube that I was at the time, I thought, initially, that he was talking about the voters but he soon made himself clear: the city was run by career civil servants who were far better-educated and better-informed than mere elected officials, whose job, I took it, was to report potholes and overflowing waste bins to them.
Toronto, in Crombie’s vision, was a mandarinate, a complex system that needed to be run by an elite group of technocrats who could guide it far better than some hypothetical uneducated immigrant councilor from North York. The debate between Miller and Crombie was over how to run a proper mandarinate; Miller believed that, as a man better-educated and more qualified than the mandarins, he should govern and manage the system directly. Crombie, with a longer view, correctly discerned that Torontonians could not be trusted always to elect men like Miller and himself and that safeguards needed to remain in place to prevent it from devolving into full-on democracy.
So my problem is this: the people who backed Ford were not ignorant fools; they were people who, for the most part, chose to vote against the mandarinate, despite the deep flaws in the candidate who emerged to challenge it. On the other hand, those who welcome his removal with the most enthusiasm seem to be expressing support for the return of elite governance. At last, they seem to say, we can get back to having the city governed by qualified condo-dwelling technocrats and make sure that we never again have to chafe under the rule of an uneducated suburbanite from a low-income ward.
The upset Ford caused the constituency David Brooks terms “bourgeois bohemians” extended far beyond his policies to what he represented culturally. Like George W. Bush, Ford adopted working class cultural mores because he simply could not master the cultural affectations of the haute bourgeois class into which he was born. While he was not, himself, a man of the people, it seems that what rendered Ford most objectionable to his critics was his sincere embrace of proletarian culture and values. It was his weight, his love of sports, his lack of emotional reserve, his lack of education and his big, noisy parties that pushed people over the edge. Leftists and liberals certainly found Ford’s policy similarities to Stephen Harper infuriating but I am left with the disquieting feeling that they found his stylistic similarities to Hugo Chavez equally upsetting.
And that is the tragic legacy of Rob Ford. As an assault on Toronto’s mandarinate, his regime has been a dismal failure. The only significant group he has managed to marginalize has been unionized city employees working in the dwindling handful of decent-paying manual labour jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the credibility of suburbanites, low-income voters and of populism, itself, have suffered enormously. And once again, people who imagine themselves to be socialists have come to identify ever more closely not just with liberal elites but with elitism, itself.
There is nothing, wrong, in itself, with electing a mayor who comes from a poor and underserviced part of town, instead of the self-consciously hip downtown core. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with electing an autodidact with no university credits under her belt. In fact, there is much right about these things, if we truly believe in the social democracy of Rosa Luxembourg. The mandarins whose grip on the city will once again tighten do not see such people as full citizens, much less potential mayors, of the city. They are people to be managed, patronized and gently guided until the forces of gentrification push them into some adjacent, less hip suburb.
Rob Ford’s election was an angry, desperate cry from Torontonians who feel marginalized and unheeded by downtown elites of all political stripes. Leftists would do well not to join these elites in crowing overmuch about their triumph over the suburban rabble and its unlikely champion. Instead, we should ask how it is that we are welcoming a return to Torontonian normalcy instead of beating the bushes for a better champion to challenge the heirs to the Family Compact.