EDITOR: We’re pleased to publish this guest post by Frank Cunningham, an emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at University of Toronto. To download a PDF of this article, go here. Photo by Shawn Micallef.
Spending part of each year in Vancouver, I have witnessed changing attitudes toward the plight of Toronto given its current mayor. Initial amusement and even a certain enjoyment of Toronto’s embarrassment has been giving way to concern for the reputation of Canada as a whole with the demeaning international publicity of its largest city and to worries about whether the sort of politics that led to Ford’s election could be imitated in other cities and levels of government. This intervention addresses what I take to be the core aspect of that politics. It is intended as an effort to encourage thought about how to head such politics off.
— — — —
There must be something about Ford’s appeal that sustains popularity for an otherwise internationally infamous crack smoking, drunkard, vulgar buffoon and friend of criminals. Conventional wisdom has it that the appeal derives from his initial campaign promises to ‘stop the gravy train’ in City Hall and to end ‘the war on the car.’ Both messages, and especially the second, were aimed at Ford’s major constituency, residents of the pre-amalgamation inner suburbs who are, in general, less affluent than those in Toronto’s centre, less well educated, and many are from new immigrant communities. Largely living in suburban housing developments without access to good public transportation or amenities, they are very dependent on cars.
When questioned, Ford’s supporters (in and out of the former suburbs) endorse him on the grounds: that he is one of us, a hard working ordinary person (though he is in fact a millionaire); that he is an opponent of the downtown ‘elites,’ including the press, who have been persecuting him — the same elites who are portrayed as disrespecting people in the suburbs; that he is saving the City money and us taxes; and, as to his bad behaviour, their publication is, again, the work of the downtown elites, and moreover ‘a man has a right to do what he wants in his private life.’
That a fair measure of support survives fact-base criticism and the continuing loutish activities of the mayor further persuades many that his appeal is of a specifically populist nature. If this is so, then an analysis of such appeal and of ways to combat it is called for.
The definition given in the Free Online Dictionary provides a good place to start:
‘A political doctrine where one sides with ‘the people’ against ‘the elites.’
To expand on the definition, three general characteristics of populism are noteworthy: it is homogenizing, simplistic, and agonic. To say that populism is homogenizing is to say that it employs blanket and ill-defined categories: in the Toronto case, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites.’
Ford’s campaign well illustrates the simplistic dimension of populism. His claim that he would cut spending at city hall was not just an easy message to understand — achieving this is something that anti-populists can learn from populism — but so inattentive to economic realities and complexities as to be utterly unrealistic. Ford did achieve some modest savings, for instance, by firing city staff and privatizing some services. But the savings are far less than he repeatedly declares, and in a total budget of over nine billion dollars they are of marginal significance.
The announced policy to stop the war on the car is also simplistic. Providing adequate transportation in a city approaching a population of three million people with a large urban region around it is a very challenging task and one that has occupied the City and the Province for some time. Simply eliminating bicycle lanes and reducing street cars could not possibly have a beneficial effect, and in fact, will have detrimental ones. The plan to build a subway will be discussed more below, but such a project is both costly and involves the work of many agencies.
The wording of this campaign slogan (the use of ‘war’) underscores a third general dimension of populism, namely its agonic nature. The term ‘agonic’ is taken by some political theorists from a Greek word for a contest to describe the conflictual and antagonistic nature of much politics. Its form in populism is to identify an enemy of ‘the people’ which the populist leader promises to combat. The enemies are also described in simplistic and homogenizing terms, in Ford’s case ‘the downtown Toronto elite,’ and they typically expand to include anyone who disagrees with or criticizes the populist leader.
Viewing the world agonistically populists both play to and help to instill attitudes of anxiety and resentment on the part of the people they wish to attract. Indeed, many of those in the former suburbs of Toronto are justly anxious about keeping or finding a job, advancing a career, and providing for their children’s education. Many new immigrants come to Canada with career aspirations that are thwarted in spite of the credentials they bring with them.
Meanwhile, thanks to gentrification of the city centre, it is increasingly populated by relatively wealthy and largely white professionals who enjoy the inner city’s cultural and other facilities and who own residential property beyond the reach of most in the former suburbs. This situation breeds resentment that is easily exploited by populists. Ironically, many of the wealthiest in the centre of Toronto — its economic elite — also support Ford, not out of anxiety or resentment but due to sympathy with his neo-liberal policies, especially regarding taxation. Along with those from affluent enclaves in the former suburbs, they are also receptive to his war on the car, preferring to drive than to take public transit.
Here are six possible strategies for reacting to or heading off populism.
Some propose fighting fire with fire by turning militant social movements, thought of as populistic, into broadly political movements. However, not all social movements, and especially the enduring ones, are properly classified as populist. One can appeal to the broad base of a population without foregoing sensitivity to differences and complexities, and similarly with respect to forces a movement opposes.
A difficulty I see with this strategy can be illustrated by considering the anti-1% occupations and demonstrations. These events, sometimes referred to as populist, were certainly agonic, and if their slogans were taken as components of a political program, they would be subject to criticism for being homogenizing and simplistic. However, the demonstrations were not a political movement, but expressions of extreme discontent with gross and growing inequalities. Were they to become a political movement, they would need to work out specific goals beyond just highlighting the inequalities. My intuition is that this would confront an insurmountable dilemma.
If the goals and analyses that support them are sufficiently sophisticated to do justice to the complexities of societies dominated by the capitalistic forces that cause and profit from inequalities, populist simplicity would be lost. But if simplistic and homogenizing stances are maintained, the resulting left populism would have little chance of successfully competing with right-wing populists. Those people, at least in places like Toronto, who are most susceptible to populist mobilization are also those most likely to be attracted to the rhetoric of the right. Moreover, there is the longer term concern that even if a left-populist campaign were successful this would be at the price of encouraging a politics that preys upon, fosters, and depends upon simplistic and agonic attitudes. Such left-wing populism is socially destructive and can turn into something hard to distinguish from right-wing populism.
Remove the Conditions for Populism
This brings us to a strategy based on understanding the sources of populist appeal. It is doubtful that populist messages could take hold in a population without certain favourable conditions already in place. I think of three such conditions.
Bigotry and Prejudice. Nearly all populists draw on racist, homophobic, sexist, national chauvinistic or other bigoted and prejudicial attitudes. Such sentiments are, themselves, prime examples of homogenizing and simplistic thinking, and they lend themselves to agonic hostility if they can be associated by the populist with whatever the enemy of the people is supposed to be. In a gesture that plays well to segments of his constituency Ford has made a point of not attending the annual Toronto Gay Pride parade, unlike previous mayors.
Thin citizenship. Aristotle described a citizen as one ‘who shares in governing and being governed. He differs under different forms of government, but in the best state he is one who is able and willing to be governed and to govern with a view to the life of virtue.’ This is a robust, or ‘thick’ sense of citizenship. Its two main components are that people are not only able to be governed but also able to participate in governing, where this means civic engagement beyond just voting, and that they partly act out of a sense of civic virtue. That is, they respect one another, act not exclusively in their personal interests but to support common goods, and value their city insofar as it promotes these things.
When these characteristics are lacking, when people are only concerned to lead their own private lives and to be left alone to do so, citizenship involves no more than voting, if even this. Such ‘thin’ citizenship is ripe for populism. Enemy forces are seen as interfering with someone’s personal aims, and easy solutions to problems not requiring much effort on the part of the thin citizen are attractive.
Insufficient information and deficient critical thinking skills. Simplistic policies appeal to populations lacking the information and critical skills to see through them. Ford’s Scarborough subway venture is an illustration. Critics point out that this subway would require increasing the city taxes Ford proclaims he will cut and, having only three stops, would not serve more than a small minority of Scarborough residents. Supporters of Ford are either ignorant of these facts or do not understand their implications and instead take criticism of the proposal as further evidence of disrespect for the former suburbs by the downtown elites.
These considerations suggest as an anti-populist strategy exposing bigotry, helping to empower people and to provide forums and institutions to nurture robust citizenship, and engaging in formal and informal educational campaigns. These things most certainly ought to be pursued. However, this is only a long-range strategy, requiring for success a concerted effort by many people over protracted periods of time — years if not decades. So shorter range strategies are also required.
Foes of populism sometimes suffer themselves from homogenizing and simplistic thinking. It is not uncommon in Toronto, for instance, to hear critics of Ford writing off all the residents of the former suburbs as irredeemably susceptible to his approach. In such large and diverse populations, however, this cannot be accurate. Ford won the election in a three-way race with 49% of the vote cast, and the voter turnout, though relatively high, was still under 50%. Moreover, analysis of poll-by-poll voting reveals some support for Ford in the city centre and also opposition by significant numbers of suburban voters. This suggests a strategy that, while it involves more traditional electoral politics than many political theorists favour, still has potential. This is to identify those ridings where voters not sympathetic to the populist position reside and targeting campaigns in part at them. Of course, an electoral campaign of this sort, like one that could avert splitting the anti-Ford vote, would require organization and co-ordination. If this anti-populist strategy has merit, it therefore highlights the need for these things, and I confess to not knowing what agency could undertake them.
Address Sources of Anxieties
Earlier it was noted that populism plays on people’s anxieties. Sometimes anxieties are of a racist or other prejudiced nature, but often they derive from other sources. Concerns about inadequate transportation and insecure employment are cases in point. So an anti-populist campaign might identify and directly address such sources with realistic proposals. Fear of crime is high among many city dwellers, and this is almost always greatly exaggerated in populist rhetoric. In reaction, one need not just cite statistics demonstrating relatively low crime rates, but also, recognizing that crime is a problem in many jurisdictions, propose ways to address it as alternatives to those of the populist (which are typically to met out stronger sentences and relax constraints on the police). A downside of this strategy is that alone it allows the populist to define the issues of an election, but this need not be the case, if it is combined with focus on other issues.
Ford’s predecessor, David Miller, identified 13 ‘priority neighbourhoods’ marked among other things by persisting crime and established task forces that tried to identify and address basic sources of their problems. This approach received widespread popular approval. An alternative to concrete strategies like this is to attempt co-opting the populist’s policies, not out of agreement with them, but just to capture votes. The problem with this opportunism is partly that it is seen as such by an electorate and partly that it legitimizes the populist’s agenda.
Treat People as Publics
Yet another possible strategy is to conduct urban politics in a way that encourages citizens to think of themselves as ‘publics’ rather than as isolated individuals or as parts of an homogenous mass. This was a main effort by the American social philosopher, John Dewey, who, confronted with simplistic and objectionable nationalistic politics in the U.S. of the 1920’s, urged that his compatriots regard themselves as publics. A public for him is any group of people whose actions affect one another and that, despite the different values and world views among its members, confronts problems that must be addressed together. In a city these would include things like providing vital infrastructures, waste removal, education, parks and other public spaces, and so on. The ability of people to seek solutions to common problems partly depends on viewing themselves as publics, and this is hindered by agonic attitudes toward each other.
A limitation of this strategy is that the more agonic a situation, the harder it is to encourage people to set aside their particular differences to address problems in a spirit of cooperation, and it is just these divisive stances that populism preys on and encourages. Obama, for instance, used Deweyan language in urging Republicans and Democrats to cooperate in solving problems facing their country as a whole. The effort failed mainly due to agonic fanaticism and short sighted pro-capitalist politics in the Republican Party. This is not to say that attempts to establish constructive dialogue across divides ought not to be undertaken. I am inclined to classify this with the longer-range strategies of addressing deep conditions for populism.
Or perhaps it should be thought of as a medium-range strategy. It may have more chance of success at an urban level, where the common problems people face are evident to them on a daily basis, than at a national one. Also, at least in Toronto, political-party politics are less prominent than on provincial and national levels. In addition, cities offer more opportunities for robust citizenship engagement, as in neighbourhood associations and social movements. This, in turn, facilitates cooperation. For example, in a recent experiment, the Annex Residents’ Association, one of the more active neighbourhood associations in the centre of Toronto, and the Don Mills Residents’ Association, which is active in the previous suburb of North York, undertook to ‘twin,’ where this involves their executives attending one another’s meetings and the two associations seeking ways to cooperate in addressing shared problems.
Populist simplistic thinking extends to their visions. Such visions are usually negative — implying without demonstrating that foiling the urban enemy will relieve the anxieties of the people, and when they do have positive content it is in the form of easy solutions to complex problems — cut taxes, get rid of bicycle lanes.
This suggests as another strategy presenting positive and realistic visions which have the potential to appeal to large portions of the population. A vision developed by Miller proposed achieving urban environmental sustainability as an overriding city-wide task. This proposal was well received across the city, and in his two terms he and the city council did succeed in implementing significant, multi-pronged policies to this end. (It is noteworthy that polls at the time of the 2010 election showed that had Miller been running he would likely have bested Ford.) Both the formulation of non-simplistic visions and their presentation require no small measure of leadership ability, and, of course, good communication skills and public presence.
— — — —
Setting aside the left-wing populism alternative, this leaves five candidates for combating populism: a long range undertaking to get at its preconditions, a medium range one of forging publics, and the three shorter-term strategies of targeted election campaigning, addressing sources of concern, and the development of visions. No doubt other strategies are conceivable. Populism is turned to by conservative forces because it is effective and resilient, so I doubt that any one of these strategies can decisively head it off, but perhaps a combination could.
Frank Cunningham is an emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Toronto, whose current research is on urban philosophy. He has also been a municipal activist in Toronto, including resistance to gentrification and the organization of educational projects at Regent Park.