Instead of taking time to explain his position on controversial issues, Rob Ford simply resorts to a series of stock, flippant retorts that he repeats ad infinitum without any elaboration. But, in doing so, he’s undermining the democratic will of the taxpayers he purports to be serving.
It’s no secret that Mayor Rob Ford’s communication strategy relies on a stubborn adherence to a few carefully scripted slogans, repeated over and over: “Respect for taxpayers!” “Stop the gravy train!” “End the war on the car!”
No matter what the question, Ford has a bumper-sticker response that doesn’t really address it at all, and he’ll recite it aloud to you, again and again, as if the problem were your hearing rather than his failure to explain himself.
He displayed this trait best in a kind of absurdist masterpiece of anti-responsiveness this week, addressing a scrum of reporters on the subject of Transit City. “It’s the taxpayers. The taxpayers want…I was elected on subways, they want subways, I was out on Saturday, people want subways. That’s it,” he said. And then, to clarify in response to a question about his apparent lack of support from city council, he went on: “It’s all subways. It’s all about subways.” A follow-up question? “All about subways. So, it’s the taxpayers that elected me to get the subways in and that’s what we’re going to do.”
It’s the political equivalent of a child cupping his hands over his ears and repeating himself to drown out any opposition. Ford’s words do little to help our understanding of why he prefers to spend truckloads of money to bury an LRT line, or what he says to an apparent majority of councillors who disagree with him, or on what grounds he disagrees with the legal opinion stating he overstepped his authority in stopping work on Transit City.
It may seem quaint to point out that the goal of such a communication strategy appears to be to disallow any sophisticated understanding or discussion of the issue at hand. It’s not argument; in fact, it’s a refusal to even acknowledge the need for reasoned argument—he’s simply scoring points by pushing strategic buttons.
This is even more evident in the admission of budget chief Mike Del Grande this week that his proposal to divert $16 million in funding away from Regent Park construction was a prank, calculated to make the heads of leftist councillors “explode.” Even legislation is not offered in good faith to make the city better—it’s a game.
It’s sad to see the opponents of Team Ford begin to embrace the catchphrase-as-discussion tactic, but that’s what happened recently when, out of the blue, several of them started calling Ford a “radical conservative” in virtually every sentence they uttered.
This is a strategy that’s become common among North American politicians in recent years—it is bizarrely celebrated as “message discipline” by pundits whose job it should be to decode the message and explore an issue. It’s distressing to see it become dominant here in Toronto. Whether you agreed or disagreed with David Miller, at least he was always willing to discuss, at length, why he thought a given policy was the best one. Listening to him was actually the best way to determine whether you agreed or disagreed with him. He was actually willing to discuss nuances of an issue and, moreover, you never had any doubt he was familiar with the nuances of the discussion. The same is not true of Ford: his robotic explanations are clumsy symbolic generalities, calculated to obscure understanding. It’s nearly impossible to divine the thinking that led to them.
As much as Ford constantly refers to his electoral mandate, this style of “debate” actually seems to undermine democratic legitimacy. Democracy, at its heart, depends on a good-faith conversation about policy in which our experts and leaders explain in as much detail as we can tolerate why one policy is more deserving of support than another. Cynicism is the only rational response to what’s happening at City Hall. After all, when even the politicians advocating and implementing policies become unwilling or unable to discuss their merits—and if even proposed bylaws are simply attempts to punk opponents—what hope do voters have of making good decisions? And then, what does democracy even mean?