“You guys are lower than a bunch of f**kn’ politicians.” Quite the statement, coming from “everyman” Doug Ford – inheritor of a family business, city councillor, aspiring provincial politician, son of an MPP and brother to a mayor. Given their bombastic history and vitriolic response to the unfolding scandal, many Torontonians may be tempted to revel in the poetic justice of watching the tragic flaws that propelled them up, now pull them low.
But even progressives who regret the damage the Fords have done to the municipal agenda and disdain the faux-populist affectations of a couple of self-entitled rich guys passing themselves off as regular joes, should mourn the events of the last few weeks and think carefully before indulging in too much schadenfreude. For although these scandals might ultimately topple one or two “Teflon” conservative politicians (which wouldn’t be a bad thing), the long term effects of scandals like these are likely to make it even harder for us to advance progressive political agendas.
Why might this be the case? The ease with which Doug Ford was able, devoid of irony, to demean the media by insulting politicians, is indicative of a political worldview that is both fantastical and real at the same time. It is a perspective that closely mirrors what Thomas Frank has termed “backlash populism.”
Backlash populism is not really political populism. Political populism, at minimum, argues for substantial procedural changes in the way the political realm functions to give “the people” a more direct say in politics (for example, abolishing the senate, holding direct referendums, or giving grassroots riding associations far more real authority). Historically, political populism has also sought to reduce inequalities of wealth and power. Thus it has usually critiqued the excessive influence and wealth of economic elites, who also tend to exercise a heavy influence over political and media spheres.
Backlash populism, however, merely mimics the linguistic tics of political populism (e.g. invoking the people against an imagined elite) without any actual policy to back it up. In fact, the real achievement of conservative backlash populism – pioneered in the US and sometimes embraced in Canada – is to use populist language while changing the target. In this worldview, having money doesn’t make you an elite. It is the “social” elites (Doug Ford’s term) in the media and politics that are the enemy. Faux populism is probably a better name for it.
One might think that such a narrative is too silly to become popular. But contemporary neuroscience has shown that sheer repetition is a powerful strategy of persuasion. Neurons that fire together, wire together, as they like to say. The constant repetition of these faux populist talking points actually works with lots of people. As Daniel Kahneman – winner of a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in behavioural economics – has shown, the more times you hear something (even if you don’t really believe it), the more familiar it feels. And the more familiar it feels, the more true it seems.
Familiarity may breed contempt among some. But it also breeds acceptance among many others. And the faux populist story has been circulating in Canada in politics and the media for several decades.
One of the core tenets of faux populism is the idea that you can’t trust anyone in the media (latte sipping, look-down-their-nose-at-you city types) or in establishment politics (corrupt and captured by special interests). Hence the reason so many conservative politicians continue to frame themselves as rank outsiders despite it being patently untrue (George W’s successful ability to claim the outsider mantle despite being literally the son of the president shows how far this can go). And why Doug Ford could refer to politicians as the almost lowest of the low without blushing.
Won’t the fact that it is now conservatives that are so spectacularly caught up in a whirlwind of scandal at federal, provincial and municipal levels finally burst the bubble and let people see the empty rhetoric of faux populism for what it is? It is possible. But the more likely outcome is that these scandals will only deepen the generalized distrust and cynicism that Canadians increasingly feel towards politics.
With each scandal, the bar of what we expect of our politicians is lowered farther and farther. It now takes truly absurd events to shock us. And so we become even more cynical about all politicians. If we can’t even trust the guys who yell loudest about stamping out crime; and if we have to watch even the hand of the guys who lecture longest about keeping the public till free from those who feel entitled to their entitlements, who can we put our faith in?
And yet, even if we don’t expect more, we still know we should be able to. So alongside our cynicism, we start to resent the fact that we are constantly disappointed by so many of our political representatives.
The tragedy is that this intensification of cynicism and resentment – even when caused by conservative scandals – is a bigger problem for progressives than it for conservatives. Progressive political parties rely on having citizens believe, at least to some degree, that those in public office might be worth trusting and might actually be working for the general good. And most progressive platforms require citizens to put their faith in the idea that greed is not the only motivator and that we can set up non-market systems that actually deliver more value than if we assume that people will only do the bare minimum they can get away with.
Contemporary conservatism, however, is in a far better situation to appeal to a public that only believes in individualized interest and doesn’t trust anyone. Because the most logical response to those assumptions is to create a night-watchman state that is heavy handed when it comes to national security, crime and protecting (at least the appearance of) a functioning market, but is largely uninterested in developing collective public solutions to many of the issues progressives care most about.
Progressives are well within their rights to express their outrage at these recent scandals and to push for political regime change on that basis. But that ought to be done carefully and for the right reasons. And it certainly shouldn’t be celebrated. Because these messy affairs hurt us all, and in the long run, perhaps progressives most of all.
Paul Saurette is an associate professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. His column appears on thestar.com every second Thursday. You can follow him on Twitter @paulsaurette.