Rob Ford, Ford Nation and the Suburbs: What’s Going On?

When the first slate of police search warrant documents were released on October 31 — detailing his intimate associations with alleged drug dealer Sandro Lisi, who has been charged with extortion — and Toronto’s Chief of Police Bill Blair told the media the police had the infamous crack video (two videos, in fact), Ford’s support didn’t drop. Instead, it went up by 4%, infuriating and bewildering Ford’s critics. This emboldened the combative mayor against the “downtown elites” he and many of his supporters feel have been unfairly targeting him.

Another poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid after Ford admitted on November 5 that he has indeed smoked crack, found that while a growing number of people would like him to either resign or take a leave of absence to get help, 40% of Torontonians still support his policies. A poll released on November 22 reported that 33% would vote for him again. This support is highest in the inner suburbs.

Even if personal support for the embattled mayor may be finally faltering, there is still significant support for his attack on what he describes as entitled and unaccountable city “elites,” alleged government waste and unfair taxes on “the little guy” — the bread and butter of his angry, blustering and controversy-plagued 13 years in elected office (the first 10 as a city councilor). This support for Ford’s policies poses a serious challenge to liberal, social democratic and radical critics, most of whom have made no serious attempt to understand it.

The ignorant masses of inner suburbialand?

So how have the incredulous media commentators and Ford-haters who gobble up what they spew forth responded to this support for Ford and his policies? A Huffington Post article that circulated around Facebook offers us Rob Ford as the “suburbs” personified. To paraphrase: the ugly truth of the suburbs is that people there think like he does: xenophobic, conservative and so on.

An op-ed piece published in the Toronto Star suggests there is a “clash of values” between central Toronto and the inner suburbs. Central Toronto is supposedly ecologically forward-looking in its support for things like better but affordable public transit, more bike lanes, higher density neighbourhoods and so on — all viewed with disdain by Ford and therefore, supposedly, the backward inner suburbs.

One generally progressive Toronto Star writer even referred nastily on her Facebook page to Ford supporters as having a low IQ. How else but sheer stupidity or ignorance could someone continue to support Ford in the face of all these revelations? Still others say it’s all about the cars. A University of Toronto political scientist was quoted in the Globe and Mail suggesting the most likely way to identify a Ford supporter is if they drive to work.

The conclusion some draw from this is the need for deamalgamation: undoing the merger of the old city of Toronto, Etobicoke, North York, East York and Scarborough pushed through by Tory Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s.

This smug, self-righteous and short-sighted response avoids making any effort to actually understand support for Ford in the inner suburbs. Does everyone in the inner suburbs really prefer to sit in traffic for hours every day? Wouldn’t they prefer to walk, cycle or take efficient and affordable public transit, just like people in central Toronto, if these were viable options?

The dismissive response to Ford supporters also conveniently avoids placing any responsibility for the situation on what passes for a social democratic Left (if we can even call it that anymore) at City Hall and at the provincial and federal levels. That’s the same Left that has embraced neoliberalism and offers no alternative to austerity, anti-union politics (especially in the public sector), law-and-order policing, and the imposition of the market into increasing areas of our lives.

To understand support for Ford and his policies — and for right-wing populism more generally — we must look seriously at why such policies resonate with people, not write supporters off as inherently flawed, especially considering that the majority of Toronto’s population lives in the inner suburbs. The analysis I will lay out points to a sobering conclusion:  support for Ford’s policies actually tells us a lot about the failure of the social democratic Left and the weakness of unions and social movements.

Ford Nation

It’s easier to simply dismiss support for Ford when it’s some homogeneous, faceless category of people whose opinions you don’t take seriously. But, like all nations, Ford Nation is (to borrow from Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities) an imaginary one, a product of myth-making by political leaders, the media and, to a lesser extent, its members. It isn’t homogeneous. There are people in different class locations in it. It includes the Canadian-born and immigrants, and you’ll find within it people whose first language is English and others for whom it isn’t, among other differences.

But there are some patterns among supporters of Ford’s policies that are important to understand. In 2010 Ford won 47% of votes for mayor across the city as a whole. But he won majorities — in some cases significant ones — in most city wards with heavy concentrations of lower-income workers and recent immigrants. Ford dominated most wards where incomes and the rate of English-as-a-first-language are below (and in some cases significantly below) the city average, and where the proportions of low-income people, people of colour, and immigrants are above (and in some case well above) the city average.

Ford’s support is also strongest in those wards where residents are less likely to be in (to use census language) “management” and more likely to be in “processing”, “manufacturing”, “trades”, “transport”, “equipment operators” and “sales and service.” These wards are almost all located in the inner suburbs. Interestingly, though, Ford won two wards in central Toronto, Ward 17 Davenport and Ward 31 Beaches-East York, whose residents are in many respects more similar to the inner suburbs than they are to the population of the rest of central Toronto.

What deamalgamation proponents are really saying, then, is let’s separate the whitest, wealthiest parts of the city (central or “old” Toronto) from the parts that have the highest concentrations of recent immigrants, people of colour and low income people, and which are the worst served by most city services. They conveniently ignore that, besides winning Wards 17 and 31, Rob Ford came second in all other central Toronto wards but one. They also ignore that the person who came first in most central Toronto wards — George Smitherman — is a reactionary who would have pursued an austerity agenda.

Understanding right-wing populism

The suggestion that homophobia and racism have played an important part in his political success is explicit or implicit in the arguments of those who are quick to dismiss Ford’s supporters as one reactionary mass and to call for deamalgamation. Ford himself is no doubt both homophobic and racist, which may indeed net him part of his support. But he and his policies do have support within some communities of colour. And the emphasis on homophobia is itself racist. It assumes that immigrants of colour are more homophobic than whites or the Canadian-born and that these views determine who they vote for.

To really understand support for Ford and right-wing populism, we need to look deeper. The last 30-plus years have been witness to successive defeats for the working class in Canada and the steady rollback of most of the gains won by hard-fought workers’ struggles between the 1930s and the 1970s against employers and the state. Toronto’s inner suburbs (and some neighbourhoods in the central part of the city) bear witness to the harshest effects of the extremely racialized neoliberal remaking of the working class.  Stagnant wages, especially at the bottom end of the labour market, the increased casualization of work and the erosion of public services intersect with the racism of Canadian society, including immigration policy that increasingly denies immigrant workers citizenship status. This historic remaking of the working class in Toronto has dramatically shifted the city’s political terrain (a fact that many on the Left haven’t fully come to terms with). The defeats of union and community resistance to neoliberalism since the 1980s, along with the end of both the moderately reformist and the Stalinist alternatives to unbridled markets, have profoundly marked the working class.

This reality has shaped the trajectory of the mainstream institutions of the Left, which have also reinforced it. The NDP at the federal, provincial and municipal levels has been on a long march to the centre. It offers no alternative to neoliberalism. You’re lucky if you can get NDP support for a strike or campaign. As Stefan Kipfer and Parastou Saberi pointed out after Ford’s election, former Mayor David Miller embraced the Toronto Board of Trade’s agenda of  increased user fees and shifting more of the city’s tax burden onto residential property taxes (which landlords pass on to renters).

The state of political organizing outside of the electoral arena is desperate, especially given that social movements are what drive social change forward. Outside Quebec, how many people under 40 have seen a mass movement that has been able to sustain its momentum and win its goals, let alone present the possibility of an alternative to neoliberalism? How many people under the age of 40 have ever seen a successful strike by a union? What meaningful efforts are unions making to organize with poorly-paid workers stuck in casualized labour – disproportionately women – or with workers who aren’t citizens?

Sadly, for increasing numbers of young people, people of colour and immigrants the possibility of being in a union – never mind a union that’s highly democratic and has a mobilized membership – seems as distant as a better-paying job in management. In fact, becoming a manager is something people can imagine. The idea that a social movement could challenge the status quo and demonstrate that people can change society by mobilizing collectively is something that most people never consider. People’s sense of what is possible in our society is inevitably narrowed by this sad fact.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real sense of injustice and anger about the reality of bad jobs, poor wages and paying taxes for substandard public services. But today it’s not, for the most part, being expressed through collective mobilization against governments or corporate power. It’s rarely expressed at the ballot box either because of what the NDP has become. Instead, for many it’s expressed through outright alienation from the political system. For others, though, it’s getting channeled into right-wing opposition to things and people seen as threatening the ways that people try to survive in an increasingly harsh market-dominated society.

Not duped

In capitalist societies, most people’s strategy for survival is based on living in households supported by wage income along with the unpaid work of household members, often supplemented by help from family and neighbours. Where public services like Canada’s medicare exist, they also play a role.

For people who deal with the daily insecurities of life by trying to compete and succeed in the job market as individuals, supporting politicians who offer support for this survival strategy has a certain logic. This isn’t people simply being duped. It’s true that ultimately right-wing populism can’t resolve the economic insecurity and alienation from which supporters seek relief, but there is a material basis to this kind of response. When unions and the NDP fail to offer any opposition to austerity and the market and the radical Left that looks to mass movements to change society is unable to offer hope of an alternative social order, right-wing populism like Ford’s becomes more appealing to working-class people.

Many of us have heard expressions of its logic: why should I pay more in taxes, which will go to the salaries of unionized public sector workers who already make far more than me and have better working conditions? Why should I support public sector workers striking to defend their pensions when I don’t have a pension at all? Why should I have to pay more in taxes to fund poor public services or that will go to a government that doesn’t represent me? Or why should I support a new downtown subway line or road tolls for public transit when I have to drive to work (in a region with the worst commuting times in North America) and there’s  little prospect of public transit becoming an attractive and affordable alternative in the foreseeable future?

This outlook was expressed by students with whom I spoke following the long strike by CUPE Local 3903 at York University in 2008-2009. Most of them didn’t really care about the outcome; they just wanted it to end. As one of them said, the only hope they have of getting a decent job (and, I’d add, a distant hope at that) is the university degree towards which they were working, which cost $6000 a year in tuition. The strike interfered with this very expensive effort. She wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. She simply didn’t see any possible alternative to her individual strategy for survival: spend lots on a university degree in the hope it might get her a decent job. From her perspective, this strategy was threatened by the strike.

And why would she see an alternative? Horizons of possibility have become so limited for so many people that the common response to attacks on better-off workers isn’t “I deserve what they have” but “if I don’t have that why should they?” This isn’t a hatred of public sector workers as a matter of conservative principle. It flows from a realistic assessment of their chances at significantly better working and living conditions, in an age when working-class solidarity is declining, expectations are falling and scapegoating has become common.

Right-wing populism feeds off of this sentiment. Not everyone who feels this way ends up voting for the Rob Fords of the world, but clearly many do, including people in central Toronto. And while some who for vote right-wing populists, such as men and white Canadians, may be drawn to their racism, sexism and homophobia, that’s not a full explanation for its success. Those who vote this way, including workers of colour, are voting for someone they think will protect their material interests, their strategy for surviving through individual competition in the market. In the case of men and white Canadians this strategy may also be linked with opposition to measures (real or imagined) to help oppressed groups, such as employment equity.

In Rob Ford’s case it helps him that his right-wing populist rage against wasteful government and taxes is attached to an outsider status with which some people identify. While he’s from a wealthy family, he’s certainly not a polished or articulate insider who moves in the circles of the politically-connected Upper Canada College grads on Bay Street, those whom he calls “slick-talking” lawyers and politicians. Partly for this reason, he was not their choice in 2010 (he’s more like a neoliberal Frankenstein’s monster: a horrific creation of their crazed austerity science that they ultimately couldn’t control). He talks of fighting for the “little guy.” He has proudly proclaimed “there are more poor people than rich people in this city; I’m on the side of the poor.” Even if we understand the ultimately anti-worker nature of right-wing populism, when was the last time you heard an NDP politician say something like that? He would appear to have a record as a city councilor of helping individuals in need in his ward, including poor people, who are trying to deal with an often-uncaring municipal bureaucracy. One taxi driver interviewed by the Globe and Mail in Ford’s old ward expressed his support for Ford saying “the man is a worker.” When no one else seems to offer much to the inner suburban working class, and the NDP appears as much on the inside of the apparatus of power at City Hall as do the Liberals or “respectable” Conservatives, Rob Ford-style populism has an appeal.

But we should be careful not reduce the Ford’s electoral victory to his image as an outsider. A large number of people, particularly in the inner suburbs, still support his policies. With or without Rob Ford in power, most people in the city, especially those in the inner suburbs, don’t have a government that represents their material interests, can’t afford to pay more into a tax system that is in fact incredibly unfair to them, have little hope of a higher-paying unionized job and are stuck driving long hours to poorly paid work on increasingly congested roads.

Building an alternative to right-wing populism

The answer to Rob Ford and right-wing populism ultimately lies in building mass social movements rooted in the working class, including among low-waged non-union workers and people without status, movements which don’t push the fight against racism, patriarchy and homophobia to the margins. Without such movements, the possibility of an alternative to the neoliberal status quo will continue to seem remote and right-wing populism will remain a draw for some.

We have a lot of work to do, and the challenges are daunting. But we should also be confident in the knowledge that support for right-wing populism isn’t inevitable. At its core are deep, irreconcilable contradictions between its promise that people’s lives will get better and the reality that it doesn’t challenge the forces that are making economic insecurity worse. And we know from history that people will mobilize when they think such action has the possibility of accomplishing something positive, and that mobilization can influence how people understand their world, what’s wrong with it and the possibility of changing it.

We needn’t go back too far in history to see how the outbursts of potentially mass movements have shifted the political landscape, if only momentarily. Consider, for example, the resonance the Occupy movement’s language of the 1% vs the 99% had, or the polls in Canada that recorded widespread sympathy for the movement’s broader goals of challenging inequality. Here in Toronto, think back to the role that Stop the Cuts and other community-based activist organizations played in challenging the austerity agenda of Ford and most of City Council in 2011, and the steady decline in support for cutbacks registered in the city during the height of the fightback.

The challenge is to build on these struggles, to find ways to create sustained and sustainable momentum for movement-building, and to offer a hope that there is indeed an alternative to neoliberalism.

Todd Gordon is a member of Toronto New Socialists and the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010).