A Rob Ford Democracy

Despite the fact on Monday we tried to get away from the barrage of news surrounding the shameful antics of Rob Ford, his actions do deserve some comment on our blog. Much has been said about the meaning of Rob Ford's time in office as a symbol of race inequality, of democratic decline, of left-wing alienation, and so on and on. It's easy to be a bit overwhelmed by the deluge of pundits scrambling to offer their opinion on Ford's downfall. Let's look at some of what has been said to date and what it means for Canadian democracy.

Rob Ford has appeared in media coverage across the world. Some, like historian Adele Perry, pointed out the advantage of white privilege. For her, Ford's race allows him to paradoxically be both a wealthy drug-user as well as a man of the people. The advantage of white privilege and racial connotations of “crack-smoking” has been expressed by others as well. John Doyle has remarked that Ford is the champion of the “hosers,” and succeeds with a bumbling, well-intentioned style of politics. For Andrew Coyne, Rob Ford's enduring success “is the same condescending populism, the same aggressively dumb, harshly divisive message that has become the playbook for the right generally in this country, in all its contempt for learning, its disdain for facts, its disrespect of convention and debasing of standards.” 

Each of these seek to explain how Rob Ford has stayed popular for so long. Zack Taylor's article on Ford's election 2010 echoes what many pundits have been writing for the last three years: Rob Ford is a product of Toronto's suburbs reacting to its core's emphasis on left-wing issues. Taylor writes of how being “squeezed in the jaws of rising income inequality, many suburbanites were receptive to Rob Ford’s simple and coherent message: cut waste in government, hold the line on taxes, and end the 'war on the car'. For them, Ford was the right man at the right time.” Like Coyne argues, Ford's success comes partly from a message that rings true for many voters outside of Toronto's downtown. Rick Mercer, who compares Ford – only slightly favourably – to a plane crash hitting a freeway and killing a busload of nuns, makes the same point. “He is a circus act,” Mercer says in his recent Rick's Rant, “but his politics are very real and they should not be written off just because he's about to be.” Finally, one of the ministers of a “hard on crime” federal government chimed in, when Jason Kenney denounced Ford's behaviour

All of these allegations come before the release of a recent poll that suggests the Ford Nation is still strongest among low-income households and the young and old. Like Mercer says, Ford's politics resonate with people, even if his criminal actions do not.  But Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam's indictment of Ford is revealing – at this point it is not his politics that are divisive, but his apparent disrespect for the office he holds and the democratic system it is entrenched within.

At the root of almost all of these articles (and there are many more!) is the question: Who is to blame? Is it the voters who put him into office? The staffers and police who let it continue for so long? Conservative populism? Left-wing elites? Rob Ford himself? His family? All of Toronto?

It's easy to get depressed after hearing about Ford for so many weeks.  Especially if your hobby is reading every article you can find on it.  Maybe it's just a problem with our democracy that let a man like Rob Ford be elected. But what do we do about that?

Andrew Coyne's recent talk at the University of Alberta runs longer than an hour but is well worth watching.  Entitled, "The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy",  he dissects the problems with Canadian democracy, wisely framing it as legitimate problems with a democracy and not a road to autocracy. All stakeholders are at fault – from the Cabinet, to the MPs, to the media, to voters who enable it. Taken in light of a recent Guardian article by David Runciman, it's easy to wonder if western democracy has begun to peter out. As Runciman writes, “The pattern of democratic life is to drift into impending disaster and then to stumble out of it. Undemocratic practices creep up on us unawares, until the routine practices of democracy – a free press, a few unbiddable politicians – expose them. When that happens, democracies do not get a grip; they simply make the minimum of necessary adjustments until they drift into the next disaster. What is hard for any democracy is to exert the constant, vigilant pressure needed to rein in the forces that produce the crises. It is so much easier to wait for the crisis to reveal itself before trying to do something about it.”

This is not the first time we've talked about democracy here.  This time, in light of the bizarre outbursts of Toronto's mayor and an ever-expanding Senate Expense Scandal, we think it's worthwhile to reflect on some of the contours of our democracy that Runciman points to when he discusses its enduring strength.  Because Clio knows we need that strength now.

So who is responsible "for maintaining that vigilance for new crises" that Runciman discusses and that face today in Canada? The answer is found within the strong enduring cultural institutions of liberal democracies. In a democratic society we possess the crucial advantage of free speech, and in its more potent form, free criticism of the state.

Anyone who participates in the public, political discourse is a part of that process. Anyone who reveals the unpleasant truths about our open society and pulls back to the curtain to show the failing of Runciman's "democratic complacency." Like Churchill famously said, democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others. They corrode quickly. Look at Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" becoming an almost ironic statement after helping vault him into power. Often the methods used for electoral success are easily open to pointed criticisms and sarcastic barbs because empty rhetoric fuels mass democratic action. Why? Because trying to get people to voluntarily participate in choosing who rules over them is really hard. We know this just from witnessing the last hundred or so years of democratic government.

So the answer lies with what Tony Judt calls the people who insert themselves between the governors and the governed. The journalists who uncover unpleasant truth about a democracy in decline. The photographer who encapsulates the truth in a single moment.  The intellectuals who point out what has gone wrong when the truth remains hidden. The comedians who scratch at the truth beneath a veneer of humour. Surely there are others. These are people who generally cannot survive in authoritarian societies because the state does not allow any questioning of its "TRUTH." Those who do are usually the most clever and resilient - the rest end up voluntarily silent, in prison, or dead.  We should take advantage of that freedom.

We're not saying all of these people are prophets or some sort of messianic conveyors of Truth (especially the blogger intellectuals). No, they are just as vulnerable to human failings and the seduction of ideology in whatever its form. We see them mess up all the time (cough Ignatieff cough) but some do point to our problems and that's where we can find solutions to them. That's where we can find rallying points. Unfortunately, they probably existed in greater numbers in 1776 or 1789 than they do in 2013. Worse, in a mass democracy in the age of mass communication, most people don't hear them and fewer listen to them.

The questions remains, how do you mobilize people to do something about it? How do you keep people from doing the wrong thing? We are optimistic. We think places like Reddit bring once-disparate people together to participate in political discourse. There, they talk constantly about the problems of Canadian democracy and even though they have their share of political and ideological divides, there's many there who are willing to bridge them for the sake of better governance. The governed reach out to each other to talk about those unpleasant truths that democratic complacency ignores. Even if they disagree on what they are, at least they're talking about them.

If the internet is the age of mass ignorance and mass distraction, it's also the age of mass knowledge and mass cooperation. Like many times before, it's premature to read the obituary of democratic government.  If you want to take the first step, take an hour an listen to someone who has inserted themselves between the governed and their governors and judge for yourself what he has to say.  The worst possible outcome would be if Canadian democracy fades away on the sour notes of Rob Ford and Mike Duffy, so do your bit.  A Rob Ford democracy is still our democracy.