Rob Ford in Toronto: Why the Ascendancy of Hard-Right Populism in the 2010 Mayoral Election?

Although Ford won the mayor’s race hands down, the composition of Toronto City Council did not change dramatically. While a handful of wards moved towards the right, an equivalent number of wards elected councilors to the left of the incumbent. With a net increase of five women Councilors and one person of colour Councilor, the new Council is slightly more (but still not very) representative than in the past.

With only one vote on Council and a minority of hard-right allies on Council, Ford will thus not have an automatic majority on City Council to implement his agenda to privatize public agencies, cut services, and restructure City Hall. However, his victory will certainly lead to a right-ward shift on Council, not least because of the new powers of the mayor’s office in determining the composition of Council committees and Boards.

The “People’s voice”? Ford’s victory in context

Ford’s victory was widely seen as a resounding defeat of Mayor Miller and his two terms in office. What explains the unexpected victory of this smallish capitalist who less than a year ago symbolized more than anyone the degree to which the hard, neoconservative right was isolated in Toronto City Politics?

Most generally, Rob Ford rode on the coattails of a broader right-ward shift. Only two years ago, at the height of the world economic crisis, neoliberalism and neoconservatism were in a legitimacy crisis in North America and Europe. Two years later, ruling classes have managed to use centralized state intervention to their benefit, strengthening the political power of finance capital and making workers and citizens bear the cost of the crisis in the form of indefinite austerity. The only political forces rivaling resurgent neoliberalism have been populist, racist and white supremacist campaigns against undocumented workers, migrants and foreigners.

The legitimacy crisis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism never went very deep in Canada. After conceding a stimulus strategy and beating back the attempt to form a coalition government, Harper’s minority government continued to quietly institutionalize its priorities in Ottawa, facing little interference from “the opposition.” In Ontario, austerity politics has found its way back to the centre of provincial policy with the 2010 provincial budget. In addition, the security build-up to criminalize collective opposition to the G20 Summit in Toronto legitimized the deployment of state violence at a disturbing, new scale. In this context, the people organizing the mayoral campaigns of Rob Ford, Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, and Sarah Thomson needed little imagination to invoke voter “anger” in their collective attempt to discredit Mayor Miller’s “soft” neoliberal regime.

Not for the first time, the Toronto Board of Trade, the main force organizing the ruling class voice in local politics, played an active role in organizing an anti-Miller consensus. Miller had established a cordial relationship with the Board by continuing to offload commercial and industrial property taxes onto residents, enthusiastically promoting market-led property development, expanding the police budget, beginning to sell off city properties (through Build Toronto), and strengthening the decision-making powers of the mayor’s office. But for the Board, in whose eyes Miller’s Third Way neoliberalism was not quite principled enough, the crisis presented an opportunity to paint Miller as a spent, wasteful force.

The Board and its allied “civic” organizations (the United Way, Toronto City Summit Alliance, Toronto Community Foundation) successfully framed the tenor of the mayoral debate from the beginning. As part of the Vote Toronto 2010 campaign, a series of policy papers, opinion polls, and structured public meetings were organized, and a set of “mandatory” recommendations was distributed to candidates and the public. In its “urgent” call to restrain spending to deal with a supposed fiscal crisis, the Board got major help from the ‘respectable’ bourgeois press – the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. As a result, the only candidate who identified himself explicitly with the Miller years, Joe Pantalone, found himself isolated on the “left-wing” of the spectrum. What is more, none of the five main candidates (not even Pantalone) challenged the neoliberal assumptions that have become hegemonic in Toronto since the 1990s.

Ford’s populism

Very much ‘at home’ in the hardening neoliberal atmosphere fostered by the media and Toronto’s ruling circles, the populism of candidate Ford pushed the mayoral campaign into hard-right, neoconservative terrain. It consolidated the misleading media impression that the fiscal conservatism of the mayoral campaign represented a clean break from an unequivocally progressive, even “left-wing” Miller regime. More closely connected to Harrisite operatives than Toronto’s traditional power brokers, Ford’s populism forced ruling circles to rethink their options: make Ford more predictable or promote Smitherman as a “progressive” alternative.

In ways quite similar to Mike Harris in 1995, Ford’s populism laid claim to “the people” in two ways. First, he appealed to voters as generic “taxpayers” and “hard-working families” who need be protected from the fangs of “perks”-hungry City politicians, “wasteful” bureaucrats and “inefficient” public sector unions. Second, Ford differentiated his appeal to an elusive “taxpayer” by painting himself as the “family man” who represents all those different from (1) new immigrants (think newly arriving Tamil refugees), (2) lesbians and gays (like Smitherman), (3) the homeless, (4) cyclists and environmentalists, and (5) downtown “elites” (including those attracted to and involved with waterfront projects, cultural events and festivals like Pride and Nuit Blanche). The Ford campaign thus laced an anti-establishment rhetoric rooted in the mentality of small property and business owners with explicitly vengeful homophobic, racist, and anti-labour elements.

For months, progressives underestimated the Ford phenomenon by focusing on his personality instead of the hard right forces coming together in his campaign. While full of absurdities and half-truths, Ford’s populism successfully tapped into some of the contradictions of the Miller regime. The-Board-of-Trade-supported policy by Mayors Lastman and Miller to shift the tax burden onto residential property taxes and individual user fees provided Ford (who is not opposed to this shift himself, of course) with a convenient opportunity to push citizens’ and workers’ concerns about tax levels in hard, precarious times closer towards a tax revolt.

Ford’s populist rants about City Hall’s elitism resonated with all those across the city (downtown and suburbs) who have experienced how city planners help push through large-scale real estate development projects with little modification. Never mind that Ford himself was not a principled opponent of such development schemes, as his attempt to claim credit for the Woodbine Racetrack project in Northern Etobicoke indicates.

Ford’s suggestion to contract out garbage and turn the TTC into an essential service capitalized on Miller’s repeated inability to strike a fair deal with transit and city workers. This inability, and the workplace pressures imposed on city workers by ongoing marketization measures, led to two strikes during the Miller years. This made it easier for Ford to turn citizens’ concerns about particular public services against city workers, and the idea of the public sector as a whole.

Finally, Ford’s angry outbursts against refugees, prospective immigrants, and gays and lesbians point to the limits of Canadian multiculturalism and the official celebrations of Toronto’s ethnic and sexual diversity which became a staple of municipal politics in the 2000s. These commodified rituals did not translate into serious efforts to diversify representation at City Hall. Expressed in the liberal terms of tolerance or reduced to a mere “input” for tourism, celebrating diversity did also not address the gendered, racialized, and sexualized realities of class polarization, economic precariousness and spatial segregation in the city at large. “Diversity” thus remained vulnerable to Ford’s vengeful counter-campaigns.

City versus Suburb? Looking beyond territorial blinds

Already before the vote, journalists and some politicians (including Ford) were busy turning the municipal campaign into a territorial competition between “suburbs” and “downtown”. While Ford identified “elites” with “downtown” (including City Hall), various pundits painted Ford as a personal embodiment of “suburban” conservatism. Immediately after the election, the dominant image of Ford’s victory reinforced the same logic. Newspapers kept publishing maps projecting Toronto as a city divided into two camps: a Smitherman-voting central city (roughly similar to the old city of Toronto) surrounded by a vast swath of Ford-voting territories (based on the former Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York).

Toronto’s electoral geography is more complex than the black and white picture painted by the media would lead one to believe. In terms of statistical averages, it is clear that voters living in Toronto’s post-war suburbs were significantly more likely to vote for Ford than Smitherman or Pantalone. In general, voter turnout was below average in the suburbs. However, a closer look at results by individual polling station reveals that, among those who voted, Ford was supported by residents in all types of districts there. This held true not just for the upper-, middle- and working class single-family residential areas (which tend to determine the municipal vote) but also for the townhouses and apartment nodes between them (which tend to have significantly lower rates of citizenship and are often bypassed in electoral campaigns).

While Ford’s success indicates that the political dividing line between the “416” of the City of Toronto and the surrounding newer suburbs in the “905” is more porous than often assumed, there was also a great deal of variation in voting patterns within the City of Toronto’s wards themselves. Without a credible, ‘popular’ alternative candidate, few polling stations in Etobicoke, Scarborough, and the eastern and western flanks of North York returned pluralities or majorities for candidates other than Ford. Yet the wards in central North York and the former cities of York and East York provide a much more variegated picture even though these areas voted mostly for Ford. And Ford’s support also went deeply into the wards which voted predominantly for Smitherman and Pantalone. There, a range of polling stations voted for Ford, among them parts of elite Forest Hill, some of the condo towers on the waterfront and public housing districts like Moss Park.

Much more research is needed on how various class fractions, ethnic groups and genders positioned themselves in relationship to Ford’s populism across the city. What is clear is that playing up the city-suburb divide is a dangerous game, particularly for the left.

Already during the Miller years, it became commonplace to treat the “suburbs” as a potential “Paris problem” for Toronto: racialized danger zones of guns and gangs. To contain and micro-manage the perceived threats emanating from the City’s most stigmatized neighbourhoods, Miller’s city developed “place-based” social policies such as the “strong neighbourhoods” strategy and the public housing redevelopment strategies for suburban Lawrence Heights (as well as downtown Regent Park and Don Mount). The neo-colonial fear underlying these policies resurfaced in some post-election newspaper commentaries, which explained the vote as the expression of an “immigrant-led working-class uprising” (Globe and Mail) or “Toronto’s angry (non-white) voters” (National Post).

What the electoral results indicate without a doubt is that Miller’s strategies to extend his Third Way urbanism to the postwar suburbs (not only with place-based policies but also genuinely progressive initiatives like Transit City) were no match for Ford. But Ford’s anti-urbanism cannot be countered effectively by simply reasserting a downtown-centric progressivism. To prevent Ford from consolidating support in the postwar suburbs (and, ultimately, Toronto as a whole) is impossible unless ways are found to undermine the symbolic divide between “city” and “suburb”, which, far from simply reflecting bifurcated realities on the ground, help produce and reproduce acommon sense about territorial boundaries in Toronto municipal politics.

Conclusion: a future beyond urban reform?

There is no doubt that many concerned about the future of Toronto will make a virtue out of the necessity to organize against City Hall under Ford. Activists and organizations in labour, anti-poverty, migrant rights, environmentalist and queer political circles have already announced important campaigns to organize against Ford and mobilize in defense of public transit, the fair wage policy, grants for non-profit and arts organizations, public funding for Pride and various environmental measures implemented during the Miller years. Given that Ford’s mayor’s office is unlikely to organize a permanent majority on Council, effective mobilization has the potential to produce concrete results.

Of course, if resistance efforts against Ford’s provincial populist predecessor, Mike Harris, are any indication, there are at least two pitfalls in counter-mobilization. The first is to reduce right-wing populism to the nasty personality of its leader. The second is to build a strictly defensive counter-populist campaign on the basis of an illusory unity of the ‘good’ people. One Toronto, the network of various factions of the Miller coalition that came together at the end of the electoral campaign, illustrates both of these pitfalls. Instead of dealing with the contradictions of the Miller years and engaging with the uneven everyday realities of various, differentially racialized and gendered, segments of working class Toronto, suburban and otherwise, One Toronto tried to project an abstractly harmonious image of progressive, forward-thinking Toronto to defeat the ‘negativity’ of Ford.

The implications of Ford’s victory go much beyond City Hall. For, ultimately, today’s Ford-ism is not solely a result of our current political conjuncture. His neoconservatism not only exploits the contradictions of Miller’s regime. It also rearticulates much longer historical traditions of white-settler city Toronto: first, the tradition of narrow, ‘apolitical’ and strictly property-oriented form of municipal politics that was consolidated a century ago and, second, the inward-looking, ‘family-oriented’ urban development model embodied by the mass-produced, resident-only, privately-owned subdivisions of single-family bungalows that has defined the ideal of urban living since the 1950s.

In the present historical situation of global austerity and resurgent authoritarianism, Ford’s populism brings to a logical, radical conclusion these conceptions of urban life which were developed in part to stave off any threat of socialism in the 20th century. Then and now, these pacifying ways of living relegate genuinely collective and messy public life to the margins of an individualized everyday life defined by patriarchal domesticity and the desperate search for social security in homeownership. In such contexts, it is always an uphill struggle to push for socially redistributive and environmentally progressive policies. Indeed, whatever their achievements, no urban reform currents since the 1970s have done much more than redirect, qualify and circumscribe private-property-based conceptions of urban life. Without a horizon that goes beyond the urban building blocks of bourgeois life, past and present, there will thus always be another Ford (or Hudak) waiting around the next street corner (or cul-de-sac).