I’ve avoided writing about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford until now, in part because I’m ashamed and didn’t want to acknowledge it, in part because I assumed it would all end soon (“soon” never happened, obviously), and in part because there’s a disgusting abundance of material out there about him already. Not that I haven’t wanted to write about it, mind you; writing helps me make sense of senseless things, and I’ve been baffled since the day the man became mayor.
I won’t get into the long litany of offenses and outrages committed by His Worship (the standard honorific for the mayor of Toronto) — they’re listed here in a Google Doc. Well, up to November 20th, at least. Certainly mayors and other politicians have resigned for less: Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned amid corruption rumours. Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress because he got caught tweeting a picture of his clothed junk. And so on.
The immediate push-back from those who still support Ford (more on that later) ran along the lines of, “Who cares what he does in his spare time, he does a good job and tries hard and saves me money.” Forget the national, and international reputation of Toronto being dragged through the mud, so long as he’s saving the taxpayers money, right? So commentators began discrediting his most common talking points: that he has saved the city a billion dollars, that he’s a fiscal conservative, that he’ll stop needless city spending, and that he’s a blue-collar everyman. These, the biggest planks in his political platform, are bullshit. They always have been, but Ford’s supporters no longer had these narratives to fall back on.
And yet this dismantling of his more egregious lies hasn’t changed the minds of Ford Nation: as of three weeks ago his approval rating stood at 42%. This, again, was baffling to me. His behaviour as the city’s ambassador has been embarrassing (believe me, Ford was a prominent news story on CNN International, the BBC, and Al Jazeera while we traveled around southern Africa) and on top of that his actual job performance is a fabrication. How, then, to explain his base of support? It’s undeniable that Mayor Ford (and his brother Doug) are popular in their neighbourhood. Doug handing out $20 bills at a community housing complex doesn’t hurt, but that can’t account for such a large number. And even the most tinfoil-hatted can’t believe this is all a media conspiracy, and rally behind their guy: when the Star, Globe, Post, and Sun all agree that the mayor needs to step down, there’s no media spin left.
Equally wacky, in my opinion, is the theory that suburbanites will support anyone they see as sticking it to the downtown elite latte-sipping liberals. I don’t buy that. I don’t think those 42% are diabolical or scheming, or wish particular harm on everyone south of Bloor. In fact, I don’t think they give much thought to anyone outside their own household. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.
“We have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom.”
The constant refrain from those who still support Ford is that they believe he will reduce, or has reduced, their taxes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The reduction of burdensome taxes seems to be their primary concern. I can understand this, particularly for low-income families. But low-income families don’t account for that 42% who still support Ford (besides, anyone who’s paid attention knows Rob Ford’s tendency over the years has been to cut city services used by the working poor), so it’s not just low-income families. In fact, I have plenty of personal, anecdotal evidence of affluent acquaintances who support Ford solely because they want him to cut their taxes. They acknowledge that he is a buffoon, an embarrassment to the city, and an erstwhile racist and homophobe not reflective of the city’s values, but are willing to overlook all that for the possibility of paying less tax next year. I’m not alone in hearing this either.
Again, this baffled me. These are not idiots who’ve said these things to me, but rather educated and intelligent people. While I knew the basic premise of fiscal conservatism was to reign in government spending, I underestimated the degree to which a) fiscal conservatism has been oversimplified into “taxes are bad, full stop”, and b) people will overlook bad behaviour if a tax break is involved. I couldn’t articulate it until I read a piece in the Guardian last month in which Harry Leslie Smith summed it up perfectly:
“By far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.”
Suddenly, the lights came on. I got it now. I understood. It’s simplistic, to be sure, but no less reductive than this tax-break-or-else mentality. Some people have made this leap, this assumption, that the primary function of government, trumping all other functions, is to limit itself. This manifests as people referring to themselves as taxpayers, as if that’s all they are. I still believe the primary function of a government is to care for the citizens who elect it. Fiscal responsibility, just like household responsibility, is one of the ways in which it ensures and sustains that care…but not the only way.
I’m not sure this makes it easier to convince Ford Nation, but at least I understand the issue now. I think. Thanks, Mr. Smith.