On this, Councillor Doug Ford and I (and the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale) could all agree. Mayor Rob Ford is indeed a fantastic retail politician although, unlike his councillor-brother, I haven’t seen every politician in the country so can’t really make the complete comparison. But certainly, the mayor just might be the best I have ever witnessed.
Now, you might consider that a startling confession if retail politics was something I was looking for in a politician. Unfortunately (for me), it isn’t. In fact, it’s the kind of populism I abhor in those seeking public office.
When I think of retail, I think of somebody trying to sell me something I don’t need at a price I can’t afford. Pandering also springs to mind. What do I have to say for you to buy my product?
According to the etymology of the phrase, ‘retail politics’ meant ‘buying votes’. Hardly the most flattering of descriptions for a politician and probably not the way we think of the phrase these days. It’s more, tell me what you want to hear and I’ll say it. You don’t like paying taxes? Let’s cut taxes. You hate streetcars? Me too. Let’s get rid of streetcars.
It’s more complicated than that, of course. Like any good retailer, it’s about shaping the perfect pitch for your product to the consumer. Snappy slogans, easily committed to memory. Political jingles, really, that stick in your mind and spring up unexpectedly years later.
“Marine Land and Game Farm!”
(Yeah. I’m more of a word than a tunesmith.)
Retail politicians essentially sell themselves to the voting public, complete with easy to follow labels and instructions. Their policies are usually just extensions of their personalities, extra bonus add-ons that come with the full package. Pick me and I’ll freeze property taxes. Pick me and get subways.
At least since amalgamation, Toronto seems to love its municipal politics retail. The very first mayor of the place was in fact a salesman. Who voted for Mel Lastman? Ev-er-ee-bo-dy!
Now, Mel served in the capacity of mayor since 1972 up in North York. Over the course of 30+ years, he certainly refined his product to suit the changing political landscape but, ultimately, it was always Mel people voted for, and his pledge to keep taxes low and the government small. Who wouldn’t want that?
The problem with retail politics, however, is that they’re very, very limited in their scope.
If you buy a carton of milk from the supermarket, for example, you don’t go back there to get the brakes of your car fixed (except maybe at some Walmarts). You shop at a supermarket for supermarket-y stuff. You take car problems to a garage with a qualified mechanic.
If the city you live needs more than lower taxes and small government, like say a transit system or other infrastructure requirements, politicians who promised nothing more than low taxes are kind of out their depth. In fact, the bigger matter of governance in general may well be beyond their grasp or even interest level. Whoah, whoah, whoah. Pilgrim. I promised to look out for the little guy not build them a liveable city.
The complicated nature of big city politics finally took its toll on Mel Lastman in his 2nd term as megacity mayor. Ironically when it came to selling Toronto to the world in an Olympic bid, he came out embarrassingly flat and awkward. He was hopeless during the SARS crisis. Lobbyists filled the void created by his increasing disinterest in the actual day-to-day running of the city.
We’re witnessing a very similar failure of retail politics, much earlier in his administration from Mayor Ford. In the face of the severe storm on Monday and with much of the city’s infrastructure under duress, he was nowhere to be seen. The press conference he eventually participated in the day after was perfunctory, as most of his press conferences are. He toured some of the sights still struggling with the excess of water and stared blankly at them.
“There’s no doubt about it. We do need infrastructure. We just have to fund for it,” the mayor said.
Funding. The billion(s) dollar question, and one the best retail politician in the country is ill-equipped to answer. How to invest in infrastructure when all you promised to do was lower taxes and reduce spending. He’s already come up empty on the promise to build more subways in Scarborough. It’s hard to imagine how the mayor can be a part of this solution.
But he’s not to blame for that.
On the campaign trail, he told us what he stood for, what he planned to do if elected. Sure, he polished some rough policy corners but what retailer doesn’t buff out the blemishes of their product? Buyer beware, right?
We bought what Rob Ford was selling us, so it’s unfair to expect that he has anything much of value to contribute to this ongoing discussion of city building. That’s not his product. Anyone reading the fine print would’ve known that.
— sellingly submitted by Cityslikr