The roots of Rob Ford Nation’s anger
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Rob Ford has an innate understanding of how to channel growing non-urban anger toward anyone who makes a living without forming calluses.
Nov 11 2013. By: Edward Greenspon, Columnist
Winston Churchill wrote that in war truth is so precious, she needs to be attended by a bodyguard of lies. But what about in politics? The question arises because of the disconcerting ease with which so many members of Ford Nation and the greater Conservative base seem prepared to shrug off the bodyguard of lies attending a spending scandal in Ottawa and an extraordinary drugs and gang scandal in Toronto.
One would expect conservatives to stand on guard for truth, honour and integrity. One would expect the straight-shooters of the suburbs, exurbs and small towns to choke on the tissue of lies they are being asked to swallow or recoil at a mayor who cavorts with the very low-lives they’d like to see incarcerated indefinitely. So what gives?
Honestly, I don’t know. But given that casual condemnation gets us nowhere, let’s forage for some understanding.
For nearly two decades now, academics and pundits have spoken about a decline in deference. But something much deeper is at play. Technology and globalization have increasingly thrown up winners and losers. Among the former are the infamous one per cent and the rising middle classes of the developing world. The losers in this techno-global shuffle largely consist of hard-working folks from faded industrial heartlands who have traditionally drawn their incomes and dignity from blue collar and clerical work, both under siege. Layer on a post-recession, post-Sept. 11 miasma of moral ambiguity and the value of honesty can give way to the sort of convenient rationalizations epitomized by Walter White, the anti-hero of Breaking Bad.
In their bones, this marginalized middle class fear we are descending into the kind of society Kurt Vonnegut depicted in his 1952 novel, Player Piano, one in which an elite of engineers and managers ran a highly automated economy while the rest of society had little to do but sweep the streets in exchange for what we might call a guaranteed annual income. Although economic history suggests, as Keynes wrote in 1930, that “we are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes,” don’t try selling that in hollowed out factory towns.
Economic anxiety actually cuts a wide societal swath. The people of the cities and the people beyond share similar burdens. The retired worry as market volatility and low interest rates impinge their hard-earned security; 50-somethings worry whether their jobs will take them to the finish line and whether pensions will carry them beyond; the generation behind finds it hard to cover the mortgage and save for their kids’ education; 20-somethings (and their parents) wonder whether today’s economy will provide a return on their educational investments in the form of financially and psychically rewarding work.
But the further you get from the urban hubs, the more these anxieties form common cause with long-standing cultural grievances against the metropolitan elite, particularly the so-called creative classes popularized by urban thinker Richard Florida. Enter Rob Ford and Stephen Harper and their appreciation — innate in one case, analytical in the other — for this inchoate rage against the man. They are skilled and ready to channel this antagonism toward artists and cyclists, the judiciary and media, public servants and academics — and anyone else who makes a living off the public purse or without forming calluses. Ordinary people don’t spend their days thinking through esoteric income inequality measures or the gilded wealth of the plutocrats. They are not nearly as perturbed by income gaps (witness the Fords) as much as lifestyle disparities and a sense of being disrespected.
In his 1994 book, The Revolt of the Elites, U.S. social critic Christopher Lasch warned that a rootless cosmopolitan meritocracy, beneficiaries of education-driven upward mobility, was becoming increasingly detached from those around them. He characterized them as an aristocracy lacking even the basics of noblesse oblige. In many ways, he foreshadowed both the Occupy movement and Tea Party, as well as their Canadian manifestations.
Rob Ford may be pushing his supporters to their breaking point. Stephen Harper may be approaching his best before date. Certainly, their devotees, especially Ford’s, must be feeling the dissonance between their partisan preferences and fundamental values. But until a new wave of political bridge builders can find the language to speak to this aggrieved segment of the middle class without condescension, the conservative base is likely to cut its leaders a crazy amount of slack.
Edward Greenspon is vice-president, strategic investments, at the Star. His column appears monthly. firstname.lastname@example.org
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