Rob Ford’s Populism Compared

Bob Ford’s Populism Compared


Howard Adelman



I have previously written on Bob Ford by asking whether he was a maggot and examining the question of stupidity. (See attached.) I now want to probe his populism. My informant on Bob Ford has been David Ryder. David was the bureau chief for the Toronto Star covering TorontoCity Hall and, more specifically, was the point man leading the paper’s coverage of the Mayor Rob Ford administration. He is the St. Clair Balfour Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year. What I learned from David was that Bob Ford is a very hard working municipal politician dedicated to hearing the complaints of the city’s residents and getting something done about it. He has a solid base constituency of supporters comprising anywhere from 20-30% of the voters.

Bob Ford’s Approval

His supporters applaud him for stopping the gravy train and have determined that the press picks on him to degrade his image when his major accomplishment is being the cost cowboy at City Hall. The “stop the waste” mantra has been accepted even if the demonstration of waste has been marginal. He is also seen as personable, approachable, a regular down to earth guy, charming in his own way with the passions and shortcomings of the average man. He is definitely not viewed as a wealthy plutocrat.

He is clearly not a strategic thinker and operates by the seat of his pants, clinging to his short list of slogans. Unfriendly to bikers, walkers and even public transit in spite of his cheerleading for subways, he lives in the twentieth century suburban worship of the freedom of cars and their priority rather than in the twenty-first century move towards much greater investment in infrastructure, particularly mass transit. He is not a fan of mandarins or of expertise and sees civil servants as simply implementers to satisfy people’s every day needs – hence his tromping around with city officials in tow in response to taxpayers’ complaints to get potholes and sidewalks fixed. He is unable to present a long term strategic vision for the city or articulate core values whether it be a caring metropolis or an innovative one, or to understand how arts and culture as well as sports make a city liveable. One can be certain that he has never read the late Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of American Great Cities that had such an impact on thinkers and planners from this former American who settled in Toronto in the late sixties. Instead, he is tied to immediate gratification – excellence in service, cost savings, cleanliness – all very positive values but not helpful to the stuff that visions and strategic plans and tough choices and cost allocations require.

Bob Ford is a gut-driven populist where his knowledge and political street sense comes from his very large gut. He is courageous and bold – indeed so courageous and bold that he becomes rash and pushes ahead on schemes without thinking them through. In that sense he connects with the everyday ordinary citizen who has to get by with whatever wit and wisdom he or she picks up without long spells spent on deliberation, winnowing down choices in a process of deliberative reasoning based on gathering the best available evidence to inform judgment. He may be a conservative but he is certainly no Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, or even a calculating cerebral populist like Stephen Harper.

Bob Ford Compared to Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper

What cerebral populists like Harper, sentimental populists like Pauline Marois and gut populists like Bob Ford have in common was very cleverly demarcated when Chantel Hébert in yesterday’s Toronto Star (21 September, A8, “PQ takes leaf out of Stephen Harper book”) opined that the PQ on the Québec Charter of Values was borrowing from Stephen Harper’s political recipe book. The common elements include:

1. Addressing very concrete problems in terms of abstractions and slogans:

·         Getting the government off the backs of the taxpayer

·         The obligation of government to be neutral

·         Getting rid of waste

2. Smudging the thin red line between politics and governance so that virtually all governance becomes politics:

  • The template of take no-prisoner governance becomes the mantra of governance
  • You are either a supporter of the Quebecois nation or a treasonous dissident
  • You either go along with me or you are my enemy

3. Political warfare against mandarins, even ones they appoint or even in their own office, who disagree with the party line while running the line that they are encouraging debate

  • Insisting that top civil servants are simply instruments of the governing party and punishing those, even if Conservative appointees, who dare to criticize – such as Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, and letting Nigel Wright carry the ball for the Duffy Senate scandal
  • Appointment of four new pro-Charter women to Quebec’s Council on the Status of Women to ensure that Council came out in support of the Charter
  • Appointment of a clearly incompetent and intemperate Dave Price and firing Mark Towney, his Chief of Staff, in May, not for anything he did but allegedly for offering advice Bob Ford did not like

4. Policies that smack of wedge politics to win a broader base of support rather than advance the interests of the city, province or country

  • The increase in lengths of incarceration for convicted criminals in blatant disregard to both costs, the lack of evidence for the need or the negative effects on both society and the incarcerated individuals
  • The Quebec Charter of Values sent to every household at public expense
  • Subways, Subways, Subways but no effort to even figure out how to pay for them

5. The war on evidence-based policy making

  • The muzzling of scientists
  • The absence of any evidence of how many civil servants wear ostentatious religious symbols, whether a single citizen was offended or treated in biased way  or even whether the citizen’s belief in the neutrality of the civil servant diminished
  • The wild improvised plan for Cherry Beach

6.  Indifference to the Rule of Law Combined with a Law and Order Agenda

  • The Senate scandal
  • The legal advice from provincial government constitutional experts that key sections of the Charter of Values would run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • Too many incidents to list, including Bob Ford’s refusal to abide by the legal advice that he should not vote on a matter concerning his solicitation and use of funds to support his football team

7. The Extensive Use of Government Monies to Promote Political Agendas

  • The Federal campaign of up to $16.5 million for advertising to promote oil, gas and pipeline companies as well as other Canadian natural resources
  • The Provincial Government costs for promoting the Charter of Values
  • Bob Ford’s launch of his election campaign before the official January start date through sponsoring a number of events, including doubling his annual backyard barbecue now held in two city parks

8. The downgrading of the use of legislatures and councils for passing policies

  • If the federal legislation appears obstructionist to any agenda, Harper prorogues Parliament
  • The PQ went directly to the people with their Charter before it was even introduced into the House and put forth for debate
  • Bob Ford lost control of Council long ago and does whatever political mischief he can do outside the boundaries of Council

9. The Paradox of Secrecy for Such Ostensible Accountable Politicians

  • Harper is a very private and secret person while having been on record since his start in politics his belief in responding to the will of the people through referenda and recall procedures
  • Pauline Marois is totally opaque about the rationale for the Charter, so one cannot help thinking that behind it there are purely political motives
  • Bob Ford seems to be spread out before the people and is totally accessible to them while clearly having some type of underground life related to his probable addictions that leads him also to flee journalists

10. Extreme and deep-seated political partisanship

  • This is very well known of Stephen Harper and extends to members of his own party who cross him even when it is clearly an expression of the integrity of the Other, such as Tom Flanagan, his top political adviser, when Tom as an academic wrote a book about Harper and the Conservatives, and Brent Rathgeber who was forced to resign from the Conservative caucus when he insisted that his private member’s bill be given real consideration and debated
  • While saying they encourage debate, the Bloc fired Maria Mourani from its caucus when she offered a stinging criticism of the Charter of Values 
  • Bob Ford lets his city hall staffers go if they dare to cross him or question him

11. Control Freaks unable to Keep Control of the Political Agenda

  • Stephen Harper has been the exemplary control freak, insisting that MPs stay on message while ostensibly supporting open discussion and debate but he has lost control
  • Pauline Marois thought she was controlling the political agenda by introducing the Charter of Values but only two weeks into the debate it is clear that she has lost control
  • Bob Ford quickly revealed his desire to control the political agenda without discussion but quickly proved himself incapable

12. The Paradox of Personal Integrity

  • While in many countries populism is simply a cover for private corruption and unaccountability, in the case of all three levels of the government in Canada, the various expressions of different type of populism exhibit great personal integrity when it comes to personal expenditures but little integrity when it comes to a political agenda

Populism and Democracy

In the three jurisdictions where populism rather than representative democracy has become the defining benchmark, they are found in three different versions:

1) the cerebral populism of the Stephen Harper government;

2) the sentimental heartfelt populism of the Marois government;

3) the gut-led populism of Mayor Bob Ford mayor in Toronto.

But first a bit of theory. The French philosopher, Pierre Manent, a mentor of Brain Bidard, is my guide in this regard, although my interpretations of the three dimensions of populism in Canada are strictly my own. Manent made the point that democracy in Europe has become post-democratic, a jurisdiction of abstract rights divorced from its roots in history and the social contract upon which a state was founded, its national passions and sentiments. Modern liberalism does begin with the concept of the individual and rights, but it also begins with the separation of politics from religion – in secularism or what the French call their anti-theological secular religion, laicité.  For Manent, that separation is also at the root of the inability of the modern, morally neutral state to successfully dedicate itself to serving a higher moral purpose, whether that be the abstract “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine or the concrete challenge to end the mass killings of ordinary Syrians by the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas.

In Democracy without nations: The fate of self-government in Europe, Manent pointed to religion as the central element in the development of liberalism. That casting aside of one’s Christian heritage has become very widespread except, to some degree, in America. Let me give one very mundane trivial example from my own experience. When I began to teach at York University almost half a century ago, we had a meeting about developing a course on the history of modern political thought. There were five of us on the curriculum planning of this general education humanities course. I wanted to include six hours of the 78 hours of lectures on the history of Christianity, three on the role of Christianity in the roots of the development of modern political thought and three on its shifting role in the pattern that emerged. One faculty member on the committee was distinctly neutral about the idea. The other three were ardently opposed. As it happens, those three were all trained in the Christian ministry and one was a former bishop in the Anglican church. They remained committed Christians. All three were highly moral individuals. In a deep belief in the separation of church and state, they insisted that Christianity could not be taught as part of the course because it risked providing an opportunity for proselytizing. Modern history was an intellectual history in which religion had been confined to the private sphere; they argued against the futile counter-arguments of the one Jew on the committee.

Unfortunately or fortunately, it is just not true that religion has been successfully put under house arrest, though that effort has been part of the trajectory of modernism. The concept of individual responsibility and rights begins in Christianity. The concept of a community to which one is responsible and for which one is responsible and accountable remains part of modern discourse. Only it has been emptied of its meaning. Instead, we have replaced it with the idolatry of the people, an amorphous polity to which unscrupulous politicians can appeal when they want to escape responsibility for their own actions and cite a higher source without any connection to God. It is called populism.

In Manent’s analysis, democracy is only possible when it is rooted in the nation. Liberals who forget this create a vacuum that leaves a wide gap for an appeal to populist manipulation, sentiment and gut responses. Liberalism forgot its roots in nationalism and set out on a pursuit as mad as the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. The worship of cosmopolitanism abstracted from the state became its mission. (See Howard Adelman, “The Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect: A Failed Expression of Cosmopolitanism,” in W. Kymlicka (2013) Rooted Cosmopolitanism: Canada and the World, UBC Press)

Democracy requires liberty. Democracy requires equality, not just an equality of rights but a quest for greater equality of outcomes, particularly in areas where the management of risk is crucial to preventing individuals suffering in ways unrelated to their talents and efforts. And democracy needs roots. It must be based in the history of a nation, not because those national roots are found to have been rooted in values beyond question, but precisely because, mixed up with individualism and equality, were other values that sabotaged individualism and equality. Each nation must know and understand the roots of its own national calculations, sentiments and driving forces both for evil and for good and celebrate the process of national overcoming and transformation rather than presuming that new inputs pose a danger or that subsequent developments – such as the vision of the state as the neutral adjudicator and administrator divorced from those roots – can offer a standard divorced from those roots. The whole of modern history and the efforts to effect such divorces yields, not democracy, but anti-democratic propensities and, in the extreme, authoritarianism.

The reality is that equality and liberty and fairness and justice in the management of risk require roots and require a sovereign state connected to those roots to defend and uphold those values. Neither the neo-liberal or neo-conservative tendencies, which are neither liberal nor conservative, to deprecate the state and minimize its role, nor the neo-Marxist and neo socialist efforts to exalt the bureaucracy of the state and turn that bureaucracy into arbiters of core values, recognizes the character of responsible government and the fundamental successful core values of a liberal democratic state rooted in its sense of the nation without idolizing either the nation or the state. These trends have forgotten the religious injunctions against idolatry 

We need institutions that protect liberty, equality, justice and the management of risk. We need a mandarin class employed by the state dedicated to those principles. We need to have that state supported by a respect for, indeed love of, common values which unite us as a nation. But these common values are not threatened by modes of dress or adornment whether associated with religion or with the Hells Angels. They are threatened when those values, because of the particular history of a nation, are viewed as antithetical to the religious roots of liberty, equality and social justice and the principle of fairness in managing risk. All religions are made to suffer in failing to recognize that the anti-movements – whether against the sovereign state (the neo-cons), against the nation (the cosmopolitan liberals) or against the very religious roots from which these values emerged – separatist opportunistic nationalists.

Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit in the section on Reason exposed reason as an irrational force when divorced from its spiritual roots and when reason became obsessed with appearances as the explanation for underlying tensions and problems instead of noting the way common sense deals with those problems. The focus on appearances and symbolic politics blinds us to those problems. Small “l” liberals who engage in this battle form the high ground of cosmopolitanism lose their foothold in dealing with the wave of passions and zealotry released by these idolotrous appeals and are in no position to combat them for they refuse to root their beliefs in the real trajectory of that nation, to understand and appreciate that trajectory and to recognize that without those roots and that pattern, the values which we esteem would and could not have been sustained.

Pierre Manent was correct in stressing the nation as the only viable form of a political community and its critical importance in remaining married to the institution of the modern sovereign state.  Pierre Manent has been correct to warn us that the efforts of Krojeve to build a post-Maastrcht Europe based on a neo-Marxist cosmopolitan mis-reading of Hegel and the efforts of the neo-cons to create a new Rome based in America that can be the imperial leader of the new world. These are mad delusions and a betrayal of the democratic roots of both regions. Canada with its head in France and the worship of laicité as well as possessing a contradictory love for a Kojeviam cosmopolitanism on an international scale and a belief that mandarins can be the state instead of servants of the nation through the state, has a propensity to forget where its feet are – in the ground and territory of Canada with a unique history and its own complex set of demands. When efforts are made to displace and replace – note the stress on displace and replace – democratic governments rooted in the nation and the sovereign state with governing structures abstracted from those roots in regional bodies – most successfully in Europe – or international bodies as with the efforts of Canadian pre-Harper Liberal and Tory governments – then we get rhetorical gestures and empty abstractions without political calculation, emotional attachments or the guts to put one’s body on the line to sacrifice for those values.

To accept religion as the roots of the modern nation-state does not mean jettisoning the state and the nation in service to a mediaeval religious vision as in Iran or in the vision of Al Qaeda. Rather, it means remembering and keeping in touch with those religious roots even as the nation and the state become the main outlets and expression of those religious origins. Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish – or its mirror opposite, secularism turned into a religious quest without roots – are the twin notorious dangers to the nation and the state and their marriage as the foundation stones for the democratic values of liberty, equality and fairness as social justice dealing with the management of risk. We require a passionate attachment to our histories. We require political structures to ensure that liberty, equality and social justice are pursued with vigour and with enterprise. And we require a recognition that populism is not democratic but is a multi-faceted threat to what democracy is and can truly be.

Democracies must recognize that power comes from the people. Democracies must recognize that that power has been vested in governmental institutions and representatives who have the responsibility to interpret what the nation needs and how the state can serve those aspirations. But democracy does not mean appealing to that power as if the state is not there and as if those institutions as forged over time do not matter. They are there to protect us from the very power that is the source of our strength but also the source of destructive behaviour. Democracy is both the demos, the people, and kratos, the strength and power that comes from the people. But modern democracy is built on the notion that the sovereign nation through the representatives of the people acting through a constituted legislative assembly enacts the laws on behalf of and for the people. Modern democracy is representative not populist.

Harper’s Cerebral Populism

One form of populism is cerebral. Stephen Harper was a Reformer dedicated to bringing a “purer” sense of democracy to Parliament Hill. Beware of politicians who stand on the mount of purity. The mantra was referenda and plebiscites, recall rather than responsible representation, a Tripe-E Senate – elected, equal and effective – that became more than ever a receptacle for patronage appointments to strengthen the neo-con ideology, limited government. But most of all, government was about the exercise of power, not to enhance liberty, equality and social justice as was the goals of the Red Tories, but to enhance discipline and control. The Conservatives alienated the separatists because of the underling contradiction between the neo-con ideology and that of the sovereigntists. The Harper government is in the process of alienating the 905 Tories because the belief in traditional values have proven to be a shill game sacrificed to preserve control as the state became more and more dedicated to preserving Harper in power rather than serving the nation. That government is even on the brink of alienating the Alberta nation rooted in the wealth produced by the Tar Sands because their champion is unable to engineer the pipelines needed to ship that bitumen to ports in BC for destination in Asia, or across the border to the United States still eager to consume fossil fuels. The government may be successful in getting that dirty oil to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick.

The worst part is not the failures but the betrayal as the government spends millions flouting its successful championing of free enterprise as it fails to deliver a major free trade pact or an oil pipeline dedicated to international trade and as it was forced to retreat to the battlefield of cowards as it began to defend ordinary people with their own money against the predations of communication companies, airlines and banks. Even the defence of neo-con free enterprise core values would be sacrificed to championing populism if that was the calculation that staying in power required. In this case, the power vested in the state by the nation was not being used to distribute risk and enshrine fairness and foster equality, but for a misguided ideological definition of entrepreneurial enterprise.

Marois’ Sentimental Populism

Then there is the sentimental populism of Pauline Marois with its war on “ostentatious’ religious symbols that emerges as an assault on religious rights and freedoms. Its selective application to include “small” crosses hung around the neck or the big cross hanging in the national assembly since the time of Maurice Duplessis is revealing.  The exceptions betray the bias of that secularism. Secularism as a truly visionary enterprise allows everyone to practice their own faith while defending liberty and equality of opportunity. The Bouchard-Taylor Report concluded that this was indeed the overwhelming practice of Quebecers and the so-called clash of cultures that occurred were mostly stirred up by the media and political agitators.

Secularism is simply an ideological construct built on the lie that it is dedicated to preserving core values when it is, in fact, a betrayal of those core values which built democracy on the back of religion even as it rejected religion’s authoritarian propensities. Democracy is the respect for differences not the abolition of differences as the face of the state.

The key question of modernity is how to preserve the classical republican respect for public speech and mutual regard—what Hegel called “recognition” – in contemporary institutional forms that are also sensitive to the communal roots of a particular society.  In the Scottish liberal tradition, Adam Ferguson envisioned the adjudication of conflicts through political state institutions that set a primary value on social and political pluralism. (Cf. Andreas Kalynos and Ira Katznelson (2008) Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns, Cambridge University Press where they tried to show how civic republicans set the stage for the development of representative democracy that put a positive value of pluralism.) In the modern period, republic traditions espousing a common good required state institutional mechanisms, an educated and informed civil service that could defend liberalism and the emphasis on liberty, equality and fairness in dealing with differences while remaining sensitive to a particular history and social context. Representative and responsible government, not populist and ideological appeals, are the answer. The liberal idea of rights and the conservative idea of the importance of the rule of law, respect for the mandarin tradition but suspicious of the unboundaried growth of bureaucracy, genuinely suspicious of interest politics but also recognizing that the bashing of the state undermined the whole enterprise, aspiring towards service of the public good but also rooted in context and history – these are the benchmarks of representative and responsible government.