Conflict of interest and the toxic Ford effect | #TOpoli
It’s no surprise that the Ford conflict-of-interest proceedings have our attention. Laughs, drama, embarrassment, and more #headdesk moments than you can shake an Escalade at — this has it all.
And of course, it’s no surprise that it’s generating more noise, commentary and Twitters (that is what the young folks are calling it these days, innit?) than any reasonable person can normally keep track of. If there’s any quick observation here, it’s that whatever your views of the mayor, nothing coming out of these hearings is likely to change them. The storylines likely to emerge are, also, predictable, whether you’re talking about the sneering from the Downtown Elitist Lefties on teh Tweetr or the standard braying from the tabloid poo-flingers.
But let’s take a breath, step back, and try for a somewhat higher-level view, because despite the easy snark, there’s a larger lesson in this.
That lesson goes beyond conflict of interest, reading behind the wheel, blowing past open streetcar doors, mischaracterizing the St. Clair ROW, fumbling the transit file, all-night deputations, lack of curiosity, simplistic lapel-button slogans, Ferris wheels, drunken tirades at Leaf games, lies, charging at Star reporters with fist cocked, or bike lanes. If there’s an overarching theme here, it’s this: we’ve seen, over the past day and half, just how uninformed and disengaged our Chief Magistrate seems to be when it comes to the mechanics of government and the requirements of his job. And yet, we’re faced with the possibility that a large number of our fellow citizens are just going “meh … what are you gonna do. That’s Rob Ford.”
And it’s then that the realization sinks in. Just consider the impact that the Ford ascendancy’s had upon politics, upon governance, upon public conversation, upon civic life in our city. Consider the effect on our standards for transparency, for integrity, for intelligence and the ability to work collaboratively. If I were to try summing up the effect, I’d argue that the Ford era has enervated us so profoundly that it’s lowered our expectations of government, and by extension, of ourselves. It’s stripping the whole notion of “citizenship” of any sense that it’s something honourable, something to be cared for and stewarded.
It wasn’t that long ago that ignorance, shallow thinking, and disengagement were considered drawbacks. They weren’t marks of pride or authenticity; they were things to be downplayed, traits you wanted to work to overcome. Now? We just shrug it off. We’re used to it.
I’m not going to try predicting the outcome of this particular court file. Opinions on its merits and its political significance are plentiful, and while I don’t necessarily agree with him, I’d recommend Matt Elliott’s take in particular. I’ve also been mulling over Michael Kolberg’s argument at the Toronto Standard: what if Ford gets struck down, runs again, and wins? Initially, my inclination was to blow off that possibility, reasoning that the dead-enders of Ford Nation are so invested in their victim complex and committed to avoiding critical thought that they’re going to lose their shit no matter what happens. But Michael may be on to something with this:
… despite the technical details being debated by pundits and political junkies in the City Hall bubble, I’m not convinced that inside baseball stuff has any effect on the broader electorate. Those of us who choose to live inside the bubble tend to forget that there is a huge contingent of voters who chose their leaders based on gut-instinct.
It’s instructive, in that regard, to recall something Trish Hennessey wrote almost a year ago about the mythologies underlying the Ford appeal, in particular because of the way they tie into Michael’s argument about gut instinct.
He made them feel hopeful that positive change was coming; that he was going to punch a hole into the bubble of the elites. When they talked about Rob Ford, they often spoke in appreciative, glowing terms – in the same way they spoke about another well-loved politician, Jack Layton. In the focus group discussions, they saw little ideological divide between Jack Layton and Rob Ford. Rather, they felt the two men had in common a sincere drive to take on the struggle of the people despite great odds.
My response to Trish’s piece may have been a little intemperate, but she’s just as right now as she was then. The events of the past year have simply brought things into sharper relief.
But back to people voting on gut instinct. We all know the Victim Narrative the tabloid screed-writers and talk-radio yellers will be spinning — witch hunt, bullies, elitists, a regular guy being persecuted by a bunch of sore losers, yada yada yada. It may not have much to do with factual accuracy, but it’s got emotional resonance.
The key, I’d submit, is to frame a counternarrative with just as much emotional resonance. And Rob Ford’s testimony yesterday has furnished us with plenty of material for that.
How would you feel about a guy who grows up privileged, who’s had more money, support, family connection and opportunity than most of us will ever see, but who’s never had to deal with the consequences of his actions? Not only does he not follow the rules — he doesn’t even bother to figure out what the rules are. Add that to a demonstrated record of stretching the truth and obvious unfamiliarity with the requirements of his job as both mayor and councillor and we’ve got something with the potential to hit a lot of people right where they live.
One of the guy’s most powerful assets to date has been his regular-guy appeal. I’m just like you folks! Well, no. Ordinary people have to follow the rules and face the consequences when they don’t, but not him. He thinks he’s special. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Be interesting to see how that plays on the campaign trail, whether it’s now or in 2014.
Update: Now playing over at TorontoCitizens.
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