My best friends are wonderful people - talented, accomplished, generous, smart and caring. So it's hard to see them in such fear and pain. The way they see it, the Visigoths have battered down the gates of Rome, and the Vestal Virgins had better scramble for cover. In the aftermath of Toronto's election rout, their only consolation is that Rob Ford is probably too stupid and incompetent to completely sack the place. If only they lie low for the next four years, sanity will surely return to city politics.
Like my friends, the people who work in much of the major media - the CBC, the Toronto Star, even my own beloved paper - were stunned by the Ford tsunami. After all, the polls had predicted a squeaker. But there's another reason they didn't see the big wave coming. Very few of these people live or work outside downtown Toronto. Very few ever hang around with someone who voted for Mr. Ford and will own up to it. They remind me of the super-smart editorial writers at The New York Times who are sincerely convinced that Tea Partiers are dangerous crackpots - even though they've never met any.
The media think they understand why people voted as they did. As one Toronto Star pundit helpfully explained, the voters - Ford voters, that is - "were full of largely pointless rage." Only pointless rage could explain why voters ignored the editorial endorsements of two leading newspapers, as well as a long line of former mayors who begged them, in the name of decency, to vote for George Smitherman. Even Justin Trudeau's twinkle dust didn't work.
The day after his election victory, Mr. Ford gave a hilariously disastrous interview to As It Happens, while simultaneously coaching a football game. It was obviously a mistake. It was also clear that, like most of his constituents, Mr. Ford doesn't really give a darn about the CBC, never listens to As It Happens and believes that coaching his football team is far more important than talking to Carol Off. As much as I adore As It Happens, I find this moderately refreshing.
Tuesday, the U.S. Democrats will face their own tsunami. Like Toronto's downtown liberals, they blame the masses, not themselves. The voters are full of pointless rage, they explain. Populist politicians (Tea Partiers, Rob Ford) have whipped up voter discontent with their simplistic slogans. These people are dangerous because their ideas, apart from being incoherent, are also unrealistic and destructive. And if they ever tried to implement them, they would wreck the place.
Both Barack Obama and outgoing Toronto mayor David Miller insist the voters simply don't appreciate what they've accomplished. They say their only real mistake was to not focus enough on positive PR. Both the Democrats and Toronto liberals are convinced they know what's best for the masses, even if the masses massively disagree. They believe that many of the people who vote for their opponents are basically deluded, ignorant and poorly educated (even though the Republicans are currently leading by 20 per cent among U.S. college graduates). They also believe the people on the other side are basically intolerant, anti-immigrant racists (even though a pre-election poll said half of voters born outside Canada were set to cast votes for Mr. Ford).
In other words, this is just another classic anti-incumbency wave, and all they have to do is ride it out.
The other possibility is that it's something else. Could it be that the masses have good reasons for revolting?
Here are some. During the seven years Mr. Miller was in charge, Toronto's spending increased by 44 per cent while services got worse. People grudgingly put up with the city's unrelenting efforts to turn their porches into recycling depots. But they got seriously annoyed when they learned that striking city workers had better perks than they did.
In the United States, people's lives have only gotten worse since Mr. Obama took office. Unemployment is higher. More than half of all families are worried about making next month's mortgage or rent. Health-care reform is so impenetrably complex that people don't know where they stand. What they do know is that their premiums have gone up and their Medicare coverage is being cut. Sixty-three per cent of Americans say they don't feel they'll be able to maintain their current standard of living. They know Mr. Obama didn't create the mess, but they think he's made it worse.
No wonder the independent voters who put Mr. Obama into office have deserted him. Fifty-five per cent of the electorate now say they are or lean Republican.
Americans believe their country is in crisis, and they're right. By next year, the United States will reach Third World debt territory. Yet both major parties seem oblivious. Neither of them has a plan, or even publicly acknowledges the severity of the crisis. If the Tea Party does nothing else, it may at least force the Republicans to face this highly unpleasant fact. If Mr. Obama wants a second term, he'll have to face it too.
Although Canada is far more blessed, even we won't entirely escape the massive restructuring that faces almost every country in the Western world. The problem is simple. People have a lot more government than they can or will pay for. Mr. Ford and Tea Partiers know that. Scaling down the scope of government is the political challenge of the next generation. And if mainstream politicians stay in denial, they'll be toast.