Rob Ford has been stripped of much of his power and, according to the latest polls, he’s likely to lose next year’s mayoral election. Rob Ford the man is much diminished. But Rob Fordism, the idea, endures. It’s an ideology of resentment, bitterness and negativity. It is politics by dumb slogans rather than considered principles. It is the conservatism of “No.” If Canadian conservative parties, and Canada, are to prosper, they – and we – have to rise above it.
Mr. Ford did not invent this thing we’re calling Fordism. It existed before him, and it will be around long after he is gone. Some things about it are almost endearing. For example, Mr. Ford has always tried to turn the running of a multi-billion-dollar government into a very personal matter. As the storm swirled around him this month, he repeatedly closed his short interactions with the media by saying that he had to get back to his office to resume his most important job: returning constituent phone calls. This probably isn’t the best way for the chief executive of a giant organization to be spending his time. It would be helpful if he spent more time, say, reading up on the issues so as to better understand them. He might even change his mind.
But Fordism doesn’t come with an open mind. He and his advisors have sought to channel and inflame a certain group of angry voters. Seeking to address voter rage is one thing; aiming to embody and feed it is another. And Mr. Ford is hardly the only conservative politician to have sought to do this. Others have tried and often they have stumbled.
In the 2011, Ontario provincial election, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak thought he had found a great wedge issue: Putting provincial prisoners to work, outside, for 40 hours a week. Maybe in another country it would have been a winning idea, motivating a base that always thinks criminals are coddled. But in this country, it was mocked as the chain gang proposal. The meanness of the idea repulsed voters. Conservatives, in pitching this plan, were attempting to solve no problem, other than their own desire to look tough at someone else’s expense. Voters saw it for what it was: petty, small-minded and cruel. And besides, anyone in a provincial jail is serving a sentence of less than two years, which means they’re soon to be your neighbours. It wasn’t about rehabilitating criminals.
Is the future of conservatism government by enemies list? We hope not, and so do many conservatives. Mr. Ford often campaigned and governed that way. Every party across the spectrum does to some extent. What you are for is always at least partly about what you are against. But how far do you push it? Are you constantly running against a growing enemies list – unions, the pinko left, “elites”? It can sometimes yield electoral results, but it coarsens all of us.
And is government itself on the enemies list? That’s the Tea Party position. It’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives to want government to be smaller and more efficient, and for taxes to be lower. But conservatism at its best is a project of improvement of government, not tearing it down. This is the fight between Tea Partiers and traditional Republicans in the United States, and the battle over who gets to call themselves a real conservative. It’s also at the heart of the contest between Canadian conservatism and Fordism.
But Fordism has also been, above all, a conservatism of slogans over principles. And the slogans are shallow and easily changeable. What kind of fiscal conservative pushes “Subways! Subways! Subways!”
Mr. Ford always puts the Scarborough subway near the top of his list of accomplishments. Which is weird. Conservatives normally want to spend taxpayers money with greater care and efficiency, yet here was Mr. Ford advocating the most expensive, least efficient solution. Long-standing recommendations of non-partisan experts were ignored. (Then again, “experts” are “elites.”) Economics, fiscal prudence and even basic arithmetic were thrown out the window for the sake of political gain. Isn’t this what conservatives are supposed to be against? Instead, Mr. Ford claimed that Scarborough had always been discriminated against – again, the resentment – and was somehow owed a subway rather than the long-proposed, much cheaper surface rail line. Cowed by the fear of losing votes, a remarkable number of city councillors, along with the provincial parties, lined up with him. The subway that shouldn’t be built will be, and the precious public dollars spent mean that other, better public transit projects, serving a greater number of riders, won’t ever be built.
When it comes to transit policy, the Brothers Ford have been writing the script not just for the city, but also for the provincial official opposition. Mr. Hudak’s provincial Tories want to spend less on Toronto-area public transit than the current Liberal government but, in obeisance to Mr. Ford, they also want much more of that diminished pie to go to subways rather than long-planned, lower cost suburban light rail. Cutting the family food budget while simultaneously insisting that every meal include steak is recipe for going hungry.
Conservatism in Canada has a long history and a bright future. Fordism? Hopefully not.