With populist politics, it’s emotion not economics that drives decisions

Posted on April 21, 2018 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Populist leaders play to perceived grievances and, to date, Ford has been running to type and laying it on with a trowel.
April 20, 2018.   By

The Star’s democracy reporter Sabrina Nanji trained an instructive spotlight this week on a major – possibly pivotal – challenge facing the Liberal and NDP campaigns in the June 7 election in Ontario.

In studying the unlikely coalition that makes up so-called Ford Nation, Nanji encountered a Windsor resident, a single mother on social assistance, who was having trouble finding work and who had two children under 12, both with learning disabilities.

The woman’s answer to her plight?

She plans to vote for the team of Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.

She intends to do so despite the fact none of the sketchy proposals Ford has so far set out would alleviate her considerable problems, and could quite possibly make them worse.

So why would someone dependent on government, being offered the enticements of denticare and pharmacare and improved mental-health services by other candidates, opt for a retailer of deep budget cuts, corporate tax cuts, privatization, deregulation and an inevitable reduction of social services?

It is, on the face of it, a puzzle.

But the phenomenon of voting against one’s own economic interests is hardly unique to Ontario. That trend has supported the rise of populist leaders across the continent and around the world.

As Thomas Frank wrote more than a decade ago in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the question of how so many people can get their fundamental interests so wrong is “the pre-eminent question of our times.”

As Frank said, people who identify as working-class continually opt to support conservative agendas that favour the corporate classes and have done “historic harm to working-class people.”

Their answer to a corporate world that has “so manifestly screwed them,” Frank marvelled, is to support rich men dedicated to serving the interests of that very world.

His book tried to understand “the species of derangement that has brought so many ordinary people to such a self-damaging, political extreme (that) they strangle their own life chances.”

The woman in Windsor revealed something of that by explaining she reached her decision because she felt abandoned by government and politicians.

Her vote – and those of many like her — will be motivated less by consideration of her own economic concerns than by “values,” “moral interests” and that large sense of woundedness.

In fact, that self-image of victimhood is a recurring drumbeat in populist parades, as is the resentment at having been disrespected by patronizing and undeserving elites.

Populists believe that if the collective voice of ordinary, authentic people – of which they are one, and however inexpert they may be – were heeded all would be great again.

“Since the populists are unwilling to admit that the real world might be complicated – that solutions might prove elusive even for people with good intentions – they need somebody to blame,” Harvard politics professor Yascha Mounk says in his new book The People vs. Democracy.

“And blame they do.”

To that end, populist leaders like Ford manufacture a parade of cartoonish scapegoats – bent-pinkied champagne sippers and the like – for followers to target.

The American professor George Lakoff has said that if we were wholly rational, we would make ourselves aware of the relevant facts and figures and calculate our way to the logical conclusion.

“But voters don’t behave that way,” he said.

“They vote against their obvious self-interest; they allow bias, prejudice and emotion to guide their decisions. . . Or they quietly reach conclusions independent of their interests without consciously knowing why.

“Deft politicians (as well as savvy marketers) take advantage of our ignorance of our own minds to appeal to the sub-conscious level.”

While it might seem a simple task for Ford’s opponents to change such minds by setting out some facts and figures, the challenge is extraordinarily difficult.

Perhaps no one understands the phenomenon of populism and the tenacious loyalty to Ford Nation better than Nick Kouvalis, the one-time strategist for the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Kouvalis grew up among such folks in Windsor, ran focus groups to study them during the former mayor’s rise, and knew that emotion – not economics – drove their political decisions.

“They believed the elites had been given so much that little was left for them,” Kouvalis told city councillor John Filion for his book The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford. “That sense of unfairness put a chip on their shoulders.”

“Ford Nation inherently has been treated like s—,” he said. “That’s how they feel. They didn’t get their fair share in life. They were rejected.”

He said populist leaders play to that grievance and, to date, Ford has been running to type and laying it on with a trowel.

What should concern Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath – as polls consistently suggest Ford enjoys support in majority government territory – is how immoveable those drawn to populists are once committed.

“Once they’ve made a decision they have a hard time admitting they’re wrong,” he said.

Wynne or Horwath will need to find a way to crack that nut and shift the attention of such voters from their large grievances to their immediate interests.


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