Doug Ford And Populism’s War On “Smart”

Doug Ford’s entry into the Ontario premier sweepstakes, including its on-brand trainwreck conclusion, was perhaps inevitable. And while we’re less than a week in, it already feels like a DoFo election night victory may be inevitable, too.

After all, he’s eminently unqualified.

That seems to be what the angry masses want right now — a war on the “elites” led by one of the common folks and qualifications for the job be damned. (Being actual commonfolk as opposed to an actual elite born-rich millionaire running an inherited business is also apparently to be damned.)

This is the definition of populism and was what previously propelled the resentment-fuelled campaigns of Donald Trump and the new Ontario PC candidate’s late brother Rob Ford, both of whom were also eminently unqualified.

Now it’s easy to forget in the shadow of tawdry crack and tragic cancer, but Rob Ford was a very bad mayor sans scandals. He wasn’t a bad city councillor, though. That was a low-stakes job that he could handle and seemed legitimately devoted to. His famous policy of personally returning constituent phone calls and accompanying city workers to address their complaints was admirable. I know someone who called in a pothole and then watched Rob roll in with a road crew to fix it. Great stuff. But even without his addiction, issues the dude was way out of his depth running the largest city in Canada, and the city suffered.

Thing is, everyone knew that going in. But Rob’s regular-joe shtick got him elected because, as the political aphorism goes, he seemed like a guy you’d want to have a beer with. And, of course, because he promised to stick it to those downtown, latte-sipping intellectual elites.

It’s an argument we hear all the time now, though not a new one. But let’s dissect it for a moment. Intellectual just means someone who is really smart. That seems like a good attribute to have if you are going to lead a city, province or country. And as for elite, the Oxford dictionary defines it as “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.” Also, seems like a good attribute in this context. Personally, I want someone more skilled than me to run things.

Yet populist politicians have so successfully equated elite with condescending snobbery that Oxford also offers a secondary definition with this telling example: “the silent majority were looked down upon by the liberal elite.” Thing is, it’s a distraction. For one, what’s making many mad at the so-called liberal elite is their efforts to protect non-elite marginalized groups like people of colour, women and the LGBTQ community. For another, it’s just a bad way to pick a leader.

Now imagine you’re hiring someone for a top job at your company — say, Deco Labels and Tags — and you’re interviewing potential candidates. Would you hire the person with little experience who blasts other applicants for being too smart? Not if you want to have a successful business you wouldn’t. You’d hire the most qualified candidate.

And yet, time and again voters buy the anti-intellectual argument. Ronald Reagan traded Hollywood for politics in 1964 by attacking the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol.” It was how likeable C-student George W. Bush beat wonks Al Gore and John Kerry, and all it cost America and the world was the Iraq War and the Great Recession. And it’s how Donald Trump beat smarmy smarty-pants Hillary Clinton. (Well, that plus racism and Russia.).

In a pre-election New York Times op-ed by Max Boot, the foreign policy adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns warned his fellow Republicans about the “anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites” that had taken over the GOP even before picking a leader who boasts about not reading books. “After decades of masquerading as the ‘stupid party,’ that’s what it has become. But if an unapologetic ignoramus wins the presidency, the consequences will be no laughing matter.”

Well, there’s been little laughing but lots of chaos, and just this week Trump added more ignorant fuel to the fire by boasting that he’d lied to our Prime Minister. “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in – ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed,” said Trump, according to audio reported by the Washington Post. “I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’” Enter trade war.

And now it’s Ontario’s turn at bat.

Doug Ford is a one-term city councillor who took over his brother’s long-held seat and missed more than a third of votes during his term, got in shouting matches when he showed up, was sued for defamation by the police chief, proposed building a monorail to the ironic delight of Simpsons fans, and was found by the integrity commission to have violated council’s code of conduct to help clients of his inherited family business.

Having never led a political party before, much less a city or province, this is the only “political experience” Ford’s bringing onto the campaign trail while asking us to give him the second most powerful job in the country. As the Globe & Mail put it, ”he lacks policy depth or even a firm understanding of what the provincial government does.”

Oh, and he also raged against a group home for autistic children because “no one told me they’d be leaving the house” and told one of the kid’s dads to “go to hell,” called a female city hall reporter “a little bitch,” and tried to shut down public libraries while beefing with Canada’s most famous living author, Margaret Atwood.

He’s better behaved so far but, again, it’s been less than a week. Still, he was already outmatched in a CBC radio interview where he couldn’t answer basic questions about his plans, including how he’d cut $6 billion from the budget without cutting jobs or how he’d handle the loss of revenue from scrapping the carbon tax. (The Toronto Star reported an economist has calculated “a PC government would have to cut about 40,000 public service jobs if it intends to balance the provincial budget” without one.) Instead of specifics he repeated buzzwords and slogans or attacked the interviewer: “I’ve done it. You haven’t. That’s the difference. Next question!” He also lied about minimum wage-related layoffs and described the sex-ed curriculum he wants to scrap as “Liberal ideology” but wouldn’t, or couldn’t, elaborate. Later in the week, this man-of-the-people declared the minimum wage hike a “tax grab,” and promised to freeze it — a plan that would cost the working poor about $1500 a year…

As Waterloo political science prof Emmett Macfarlane tweeted, “This is a man who is patently unqualified for public office and who seeks to breed an anti-intellectual, anti-evidence cynicism into our politics.”

And yet Ford may still win because the Liberal Wynne government is historically unpopular and the NDP has so far been a non-entity. But the problem here isn’t a left, right or centrist one, it’s a qualification one. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Christine Elliott had won the PC leadership race as well as winning the most votes and most ridings.

Look, I agree with Ford that we need leaders who respect regular folks and serve their needs. But we also need competent leaders like that who can actually do the job — not angry salesmen hawking populist labels and tags.

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