The Ford Nation, Perils of Populism and Public Choice

Watching Rob Ford in the recent weeks reminds me of what John Ralston Saul once wrote of Benito Mussolini and his contemporary reincarnation in Silvio Berlusconi: “He was the nascent modern Heroic leader. Mussolini combined the interests of corporatism with public relations and sport, while replacing public debate and citizen participation with false populism and the illusion of direct democracy.”

Unlike Berlusconi, who was able to harness his media empire to pump his message (Forza Italia!), Ford has been enabled by private media interests, being served up public soap boxes like talk radio shows to the one-show stint on Sun TV.

As Ford hunkers down in his comeback campaign, he has trotted out his 2010 campaign slogan of “stopping the gravy train”, which he alleges is revving up since him being stripped of power last week. A key plank for the mayor who’s fighting for the “little guy” is that his administration saved Toronto ratepayers a billion dollars, although Rob Ford, with brother Doug, need to equate tax cuts with expenditure cuts to get close to that amount (See Marcus Gee in the Globe:

Saul further writes that populists like Rob Ford “capitaliz(e) on the anger and confusion in the citizenry. The interests they represent are in large part responsible for the problems they denounce, but their appearance deny the relationship.” The confusion and angers largely stems from the shotgun amalgamation of old Toronto, Etobicoke, York, North York, East York and Scarborough in 1998, imposed by the Mike Harris Tory government as a cost-saving measure. Incidentally, Ford’s father was an MPP in the Harris caucus. The amalgamation took place despite the overwhelming rejection of the proposal by Toronto residents in a 1997 municipal referendum. Here enters a lesson from my public choice class in grad school. Despite what I see as the weaknesses of its methodological individualism, public choice theory gives a good explanation of what happens when you lump together very hetereogenous voters with very different policy values: the electoral process will churn out polarizing figures like Rob Ford, and in his case, pitting the suburbs against downtown.

Public choice theorists would advocate devolution or de-amalgamation in the Toronto case. However, this is a costly reversal not likely to happen in the immediate term. With the 2014 Toronto municipal election months away, progressive mayoral candidates, who tend to be downtown dwellers (potential candidates include former city councilor / current MP Olivia Chow and current councilor Mike Layton) need to REALLY engage suburban voters and get out there to Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. To forge a credible platform that appeals to a sufficient number of both suburban and downtown voters, this may mean the painful reconsideration of some downtown policy priorities like bike lane construction.

One comment

  • So ask left-liberal/right soc-dems to shift further to the right to try and appease the rich bastards out in the TO suburbs who wanted Ford in in the first place.

    I beg your pardon: I seem to have accidentally landed on the op-ed page for the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star.

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