That Toronto Mayor Rob Ford lacks dignity, self-control, shame or any sense of public responsibility, and that he has brought international mockery to his city, to say nothing of himself, is less to be remarked upon – for all this is self-evident – than that perhaps a third of the electorate stands resolutely behind him.
What can it mean that someone who has so demeaned his office and his city, someone who has confessed to breaking the law, still commands such support? Put another way, what would it take for Mr. Ford to shake the faith of his core supporters?
That they stick with him really says more about them and their way of viewing the world of government than it does about him.
There is now in Canada, according to all sorts of polls, about 30 per cent of the electorate that is hard-core Conservative/conservative. For them, public policy is almost exclusively about paying lower and lower taxes, while, of course, demanding the same level of services. As long as their leaders deliver on that promise, or keep talking about delivering even if they don't, this is the prism through which all is judged.
You can see the contradictions everywhere in the Conservative/conservative world. Conservatives who support Mr. Ford are the "tough on crime" voters of the kind also targeted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives. You would logically assume therefore that a mayor who confesses to having broken laws – smoking crack cocaine, for example – would be just the sort of public person the Conservatives/conservatives would revile. Apparently not.
The kind of people who decry high taxes should be furiously against a subway to Scarborough that will cost much more than the light-rail option many urban planners say is more appropriate and cheaper for a sprawling suburban area. But instead, Mr. Ford pitches the subway, and gets $660-million from his Conservative friends in Ottawa for an option that represents a squandering of public money, given the light-rail alternative.
Conservatives, at their philosophical best, have always placed a high premium on personal responsibility. They believe, much less than liberals or socialists, in the social factors that influence personal behaviour. For Conservatives, individuals are responsible for their behaviour, not their upbringing, surroundings or social conditions.
In Rob Ford, here is a man who revels in calling himself a conservative, yet has displayed a flagrant and persistent disregard for personal responsibility, as well as having failed to act in a responsible way as mayor. Rather than being condemned by supporters for this betrayal of the conservative creed based on self-control and personal responsibility, he has been elevated to some weird kind of cult figure, deserving of sympathy and support.
The Conservative/conservative core, as we see in the federal government, is resistant to evidence if it conflicts with ideological nostrums. As in Fordworld, federal ministers look facts in the face and deny them, prefer to lecture rather than reason, to posture as the friend of the "people" against undefined but dangerous "elites," and live in an intellectually self-contained world where curiosity is banished and slogans take the place of deliberation.
Conservatives of years ago saw society as organic, all being part of the whole, and tried to fashion policies that brought people together, whereas the new Conservatives/conservatives, à la Mr. Ford, see society as inherently divided between a mythical sense of the "people" and their foes. And for this attitude, those who fall on their side of this divide reward leaders with loyalty that cannot be shaken.
Toronto has tried for decades to become a "world-class city," a phrase shopworn from overuse by those hoping that it might some day become just that. Cities that are truly "world class" never have to use the phrase; only those that are not employ it. Just as Somerset Maugham once described himself as sitting in the first row of the world's second-class writers, Toronto fears that is where it sits among cities, while desperately wishing it was not so.
Now along comes Mayor Ford to wreck even that ambition, a subject of ridicule and parody from Germany and Britain to Mexico and the United States, giving new definition to the old nickname for Toronto within Canada – Hogtown – without his supporters apparently caring a fig.