City & Politics, Essay

Rob Ford and Spike TV populism

By: Luc Wennington

Is there a bigger celebrity right now than Rob Ford?

(Miley Cyrus, put down your hand.)

An astute political historian could probably trace the intersection of celebrity and politics back to a time when Hunter-and-Gatherers decided who hunted and who gathered. Every medium, the enablers of idolatry, had their people. Ronald Reagan was the President of the Television Era. Pierre Trudeau, the CBC. Barack Obama had the Internet.

It’s readily apparent that pugnacious Toronto Mayor Rob Ford represents the natural evolution of this idea. I’m not the first to call him a Reality TV Mayor, but it’s rather appropriate is it not? The dismissal of substantive policy debates in favour of oversimplified sloganeering has long defined political discourse, but there’s something about this phenomenon that seems only possible in these modern times.

Seemingly every day brings yet another PR disaster that leaves watercoolers across the world hollering like a Jerry Springer audience. Yet Ford Nation stands impervious, even emboldened. Raucous fans exalt his exit from a Toronto Argonauts football game, chanting his name. More than 1,000 people line up to snag a Rob Ford bobblehead.

But they’re laughing at him, not with him. Sure. But for all the incredulity of the past few weeks, perhaps nothing is more shocking than a November 14 Ipsos Reid poll saying 62% of Torontonians wouldn’t vote for Ford in the upcoming 2014 mayoral election under any circumstance.

Meaning 38% of the electorate would still consider voting for the guy? That if these polls hold, he could still conceivably be reelected?

There’s no doubt that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation/Tea Party-inspired ideologues are a political force to be reckoned with, but surely they must be worried about message dilution every time the Mayor is forced to answer another question about his personal drug use. At some point his relatability to the “Every Man” has been lost (maybe somewhere in that Windsor Road crack house?).  Hell, even Santa Claus wants nothing to do with him.

So who does this leave? Who is this 38%?

Sadly, I fear it’s a growing, politically cynical underclass redefining the limits of political scandal. And with each tirade about cunnilingus and ripping people’s throats out, they hear a voice for a generation weaned on Girls Gone Wild and Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Too often, personality has carried far more weight than policy with an electorate. But even when the motivations of these individuals become subsumed by the pursuit of power and celebrity at the expense of the public good, an outward (at least) respect for the institution of government was still maintained. Even the ousted mayors of several Quebec cities, for all of their closed door pillaging of the public purse, said all the right things to the outside world. While cutting taxes and focusing on core municipal services is a respectable enough platform to run on, even if you didn’t agree with it, Rob Ford’s shocking lack of political awareness has detracted from his ability to implement this strategy. The circus that has come to define his mayoralty is akin to him dropping his pants and taking a dump on the institution that is public office.

It has been fashionable to talk about political polarization for a while now. Red State-Blue State. Urban-Rural. Is this the next step? Responsible citizen-societal saboteur? It is as though those who haven’t walked away from politics altogether have decided to engage in it in a sarcastic, mocking sort of way, either inadvertently or consciously destroying it. And for those who still consider governance as something still worth taking seriously, well, Rob Ford makes for good drama. But usually, keeping up with politics feels honourable – it is a citizen’s democratic duty. Keeping up with the Rob Ford saga feels as lowbrow as the Kardashians.

A recent study by the Pew Research Centre suggests the public’s trust in government is as low as it has ever been, dating back to the late 1950s. While this study is US-based and was conducted just before the conclusion of the government shutdown to raise the debt ceiling, it doesn’t take Rex Murphy to anecdotally extrapolate these trends to Canada. Rob Ford’s shenanigans – and you can talk about Senate scandals and fire hall land swaps here too – certainly don’t inspire confidence. The public is simply reciprocating the level of respect afforded to them.

For those of us who aren’t set on debasing our public institutions, we watch, appalled. But if I had run into that delirious mob surrounding Rob Ford at the Argos game, there’s a pretty decent chance I would have joined in, ironically relishing in my celebrity encounter. I’d love a Rob Ford bobblehead – it would sit on my desk at work, parroting sound bytes from the most recent media scrum for the delight of my amused coworkers. But is our schadenfreude enabling something potentially destructive here?

Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into this. This saga is far too unprecedented to be considered anything other than an anomaly. It has become too ridiculous to take seriously, at least to non-residents of Toronto such as myself.

Then again, I think there is something worrying about treating democracy like something you would see on Spike TV. 


Luc Wennington is a Winnipeg-based writer looking forward to the inevitable Cards Against Humanity Rob Ford expansion pack.