Populism’s In The Eye Of The Beholder

September 16, 2013

I’ve been trying to figure out if the notion of ‘populism’ has always been one best treated with, populismif not a dose of suspicion, at least with a grain of salt.

In theory, it sounds both noble and desirable. The most basic definition seems like something every democracy should strive toward. An egalitarian political philosophy or movement that promotes the interests of the common people.

Certainly this fundamental tenet of populism has served as the backbone, at least initially, of various important socio-economic movements throughout history. The Reformation. The French Revolution. Anti-colonialist uprisings in Latin America.

Too often it seems populist movements descend into some sort of rigid, anti-democratic, cult of personality that winds up acting against its basic principle ‘promoting the interests of the common people’. I immediately think of the reign of terror in France paving the way for the ascent of Napolean. Mao in China. populism1Hell, even the Nazi’s initially promoted themselves as a populist movement, opposed to the elites who destroyed the greatness of Germany.

This dangerous undercurrent of populism can be seen in the definition of it by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell in their book 21st Century Populism.

an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.

Stated as such, you can see populism’s goal posts moved. From the storming of the Bastille in reaction to the cruelty of the self-proclaimed divine right of kings and Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in protest of the excesses of the Catholic church to something less tangible and reeking of reactionary xenophobia. bullhornWhere liberals, intellectuals or pick your dark-skinned foreigner of choice here replace an actual unaccountable, powerful sort of oligarchy as the target of resentment and rage.

The Tea Party, currently wreaking havoc in the United States, immediately springs to mind.

Followed closely by our own mayor, Rob Ford.

Toronto’s very own Tea Party populist, always looking out for the little guy against the elitist cabal of downtown dwelling, bicycle riding, unionized, anti-casino and island airport, pro-LRT media maggots types who hate Tim Horton’s. It’s almost as if he read Albertazzi and McDonnell’s book in order to become the perfect populist although we know that’s not possible because populists don’t read books.

The hope, at least for those of us painted as the ‘other’ by the mayor’s populist brush, is that the sheer hypocrisy of the man’s claim to be looking out for the little guy is eventually exposed as nothing more than a mendacious construct. That his voting pattern to cut and gut services, to reduce the size of local government, to flat line the operating budget will eventually smoke him out as the actual anti-populist he is. populism2Sooner rather than later, enough people will see that he’s merely mouthing populist sentiment while actively trying to undermine it.

But here’s where populism gets tricky. When a particular strain of it gets associated with one individual, it becomes less issue oriented and more personality driven. So the debate in Toronto isn’t about Mayor Ford’s record in office. It’s about attacks on the mayor himself and, by extension, those who still support him.

Take the Scarborough subway debate for example.

This isn’t being fought on the merits of any of the plans. If you support Mayor Ford, regardless of where you live in the city, you support the subway. Those who don’t support it, don’t support it solely because they oppose the mayor and for no other reason. The good, enduring people of Scarborough are being deprived of their rights to a 1st-class mode of public transit that downtowners enjoy in spades.

Mayor Ford and a Scarborough subway meld into one entity in this debate. Le metro du Scarborough, c’est lui.

Once people throw their support behind someone claiming to be a populist representing their cause, populism3it’s difficult to dislodge them from that camp. It’s one thing to turn on a politician you once voted for because they didn’t live up to the promises they made. They lied. They abused your trust in them. You have every right to turn your back on them.

But when you’ve identified with a candidate as being just like you, representing your interests and just generally looking out for you, that’s a tougher relationship to walk away from. It calls into question your judgement of character. It’s not a question of being deceived or lied to. You were wrong.

Who likes to admit that?

So wily politicians wrap themselves in the plaid flannel shirt of populism in the hopes of gaining, not voters’ trust, but loyalty. Some throw big BBQs and invite every aspiring member of Ford Nation over to share some beer, burgers and personal data. Ford Fest. Some make videos of themselves out shaking hands on the street, arm wrestling celebrities, posing for pictures. Some call the video The Summer of Ford.

This sort of populism isn’t about the politics. It’s certainly not about the people in the traditional sense of the word. It’s about the person. populism4It’s about that person and your connection to them and membership into the community of others who see themselves and their struggles in that one person.

It’s where politics get very, very personal and rarely operates on a rational level. It’s no longer an arena of battling ideas. It’s a feud between clans.

And those kinds of contests rarely get settled with a firm handshake and a compromise. To think we can change the local dynamic by quiet reason and soft persuasion, may just be under-estimating the pull personal populism exerts. As the mayor’s brother once pointed out, you can’t teach loyalty. You can’t break its bond easily either.

down my nosily submitted by Cityslikr


We Can Get Angry Too

August 30, 2010

This is composed as a dare.

After yesterday’s post there was an exchange of heated words tossed around the office here. While my colleague, Cityslikr, was quite content with his evisceration of the Rob Ford/reactionary phenomena now running amok on the campaign trail, I suggested it wasn’t nearly as belligerent or uncompromising as he might think. In fact, I may’ve called it a ‘cop out’ if memory serves. A mere reactive piece cast in the terms of the debate that they’ve established.

“I’m the angry one here,” I was informed, haughtily. “All Fired Up’s John Lennon.” Refusing to bestow the McCartney label upon me, Cityslikr reluctantly granted me George Harrison status, saying it was impossible that I could match him, taunt for taunt, mockery for mockery, in putting together a cogent argument against the rising tide of Fordism. So here I am doing just that.

Since the very beginning of this campaign, an inchoate anger has driven the political discourse. While sometimes veering of onto bike lanes and the nebulous ‘War on Car’, its focus has been largely on numbers. Big, absolute numbers devoid of much context and certainly no explanation. $9.2 billion. $3 billion. Wow! That’s a lot of money. Clearly something’s wrong at City Hall.

With Rob Ford’s cannonball entry into the race, words were put to numbers but with no additional clarity. We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem. The gravy train ends now. Nice, easy-to-remember T-shirt slogans, full of emotive power with negligible substance. The campaign became awash in indignant, empty rhetoric.

Of which, much of the mainstream press has lapped up. Witness last Wednesday’s piece from the Globe’s Christie Blatchford who is clearly vying to become Election 2010’s Queen of the Dumb-Down. Nothing more than a litany of councillor salaries and expenses, it reads like a Team Rob Ford press release. Did you know that a Toronto city councillor makes more than 3 times the median income of Joe Average Torontonian, and has a hefty expense account to boot? (Where’s the wage comparison between a councillor and, say, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, we wonder. Know the newspaper industry has taken a hit lately but surely someone like Christie Blatchford still has an expense account.) The insinuation in all this is that those working at City Hall are not worth the money we spend on them.

No, no, no, you’re saying. That’s not the point at all. Comparing the public and private sectors is apples and oranges. What happens in the private sector is none of our business and beyond our control. The public sector spends our money.

Alright, let’s disabuse you of that notion. It is not our money. It’s tax money. The agreed upon amount that each of us contributes to various levels of government in order that our society functions properly. I know this quote’s been bandied about almost to the point of irrelevancy through repetition but I think it worth another go-round so that it might begin to penetrate the thick skulls of the Christie Blatchfords of the world.

“I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.” So said Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Now we can argue about if our tax money is being spent wisely and what to do if it’s not. Or, we can debate about how much tax money is too much or too little. That’s a matter of ideology and can be hashed out over reasoned, rational discussion.

The thing is, there’s none of that happening. When confronted with opposing views that call into question some of their claims, the Anger-stons have taken to turtling, and wrapping themselves in a cloak of Just Ol’ Down Home Plain Folks. (Witness Blatchford’s recent offerings.) Well, I may not be much of what you city types call a ‘Big Thinker’ with all yer university edu-macations and $19 coffees and uncooked fish but I do claim to knows what I knows and I knows we taxpayers are bein’ fleeced.

No. You know what? Fuck you.

Grow up and stop trying to mask your obstinate ignorance as some kind of homespun wisdom. It isn’t. It’s just obstinate ignorance.

We’re tired of having to talk down to your level. Being uninformed cannot be proudly called ‘populist’. It isn’t. It’s just being uninformed.

Does that make me an elitist? Only if it means that I feel a sense of entitlement to a thoughtful, cogent and logical debate about the future of this city and not some boiling brew of unharnessed and misplaced ire that spouts speculative, spurious nonsense with the demand of being taken seriously. Blind rage is not a reputable campaign platform. Thinking it is, is just your own sense of misplaced entitlement.

So all your Rob Ford types out there (and the Smithermans and Rossis trying hard to tap into that bitterness and bile base), you’re not the only ones capable of being angry. There is a growing contingent of us out here who feel that you are misrepresenting the wider swath of Toronto voters and are threatening much that has been accomplished in this city over the last 7 years. The difference is that ours is a positive outrage at your increasingly outlandish claims and childish behaviour. Ours is the anger that builds not destroys things.

And calling that patronizing and condescending doesn’t make it any less true.

— angrily (even lividly) submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Really, People? Really!?

April 20, 2010

It’s too early to panic. Deep down I know this. In the bright light of day, I can convince myself that it’s nothing to get all tied up in knots about. This too, it shall pass like a quick bout of food poisoning.

But come the darkness in the early morning hours, when irrational fears and unconquerable dread combine to produce buckets and buckets of the night sweats, well, it ain’t so easy to shrug off. There is recent precedent for such justifiable, anxious concern. Madness, initially brushed aside as merely temporary bouts of insanity, coalescing into a movement, a serious threat and, ultimately, government.

There was Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution in 1995 and again in ’99. Mel Lastman in ’97 and 2000. A little further afield but no less detrimental, George W. Bush in 2000 (the fall of which was a dark, dark time around these parts) and once more in 2004. Clown princes all, who rode to power on a combined wave of misdirected discontent and apathetic nonchalance and then rode off into the sunset, leaving in their respective wakes little more than a big heaping mess of problems for others to try and clean up.

And now there’s Rob Ford.

A recent poll has unexpectedly placed him second among mayoral hopefuls, almost double his nearest competitor and a mere 7% behind front runner, George Smitherman. Surely you jest, comes my first response. Even acknowledging the large degree that name recognition factors into the political equation at the municipal level, Ford is known as much for his bad behaviour as he is for anything positive. Yes, he promptly returns calls from his constituents (and sometimes those of other councillors which probably endears him greatly to his coworkers) and spends none of his office budget, making him a folk hero to some. But he’s also made a name for himself for his loutish outbursts, both at city hall and out in the wider public, and doesn’t seem to play all that well with other councillors. How that will translate into an effective mayoralty is anybody’s guess.

Unless you’re a Rob Ford fan and know, you know, in your bones, that he represents everything that would turn this city around.

Clearly, I am being too rational in my approach. Nothing about the prospect of a Mayor Rob Ford or those who rabidly support him makes any sense whatsoever. He has tapped into to the deep well of disgruntlement and unfocussed anger that rises up during times of economic turbulence. Ford is our very own, home grown, Tea Party Patriot, full of blind rage and illogical, nonsensical, simple-minded solutions. A populist, anti-politician politician who promises that, if elected, will do as little as possible for his ward, his city and that’s exactly how it should be to his cultish followers.

He is the screaming id that now passes for modern conservative thought. Mindless banalities spewed forth from the cerebellum, sounding all homespun reasonable but amounting to nothing more than short-sighted, counter-productive, regressive measures that will make no one’s life better. No one, OK? Cuts to your taxes can only result in cuts in your services. Everybody’s services. Cuts to the number of councillors cannot possibly result in better response time from them. Take a moment and do the math on that one, folks. And fewer councillors mean more power for unelected bureaucrats and all those with a whole lot less concern for the general welfare of this city.

So yeah, you better believe that I’m fucking concerned that Rob Ford’s being taken seriously. It just seems beyond belief.

But it’s April, still more than 6 months before election day. I’m not panicking. Yet. But I will confess to a creeping edginess.

stoically submitted by Cityslikr