The partisan problem is spreading

Editorial: Ford Nation lives, as does the political nightmare of caustic partisanship
Mark Blinch/Reuters

Before he smoked crack cocaine, before he admitted to drinking and driving, before he showed up raging drunk at a function honouring Canada’s armed forces, before he bowled over a colleague in council chambers—before he became an international laughingstock, in other words—Rob Ford was a populist city councillor with designs on Toronto’s mayoralty. And win it he did in 2010, quite handily, thanks in large part to the citizens of “Ford Nation.” More refined city types might have howled, but with a near-record voter turnout, it was participatory democracy at its best.

The population of Ford Nation is notably diminished today, as their leader has stumbled from charming oddity to dangerous pariah. And yet, incredibily, he remains in the mayor’s chair of Canada’s largest city, his powers curtailed but his title intact. He is there because of his obstinacy and because of the citizens of Ford Nation, who continue to give legitimacy to their favourite mayor—and who are proof of the dangers of caustic partisanship, a growing problem in Canadian politics.

Ford Nation has hardened as it has shrunk, adopting a garrison mentality in which Ford opponents are likened to, in the words of one pro-Ford website, “gravy-train spendaholics,” “slop-diving troughers” and “progressives.”

This isn’t the stuff of a few nameless cranks. A recent poll taken days after Ford was stripped of most of his powers suggested the mayor has a 42 per cent job-approval rating. While support doesn’t necessarily translate into votes come next October’s municipal election, it is a comfortable perch on which Ford can sit until then. Ford Nation once brought massive (and, arguably, necessary) change to Toronto; today, it holds Canada’s largest city hostage.

Partisanship might be defined as the triumph of gut over brains. It turns caustic when the afflicted defend the indefensible or the absurd, out of a perverse sense of loyalty. It affects both sides of America’s political spectrum, from those who think President Barack Obama walks on water to those who believe he was born a Kenyan Muslim.

Though not as deep-seated as in the U.S., caustic partisanship is taking a firmer grip on both the right and the left in Canada. Take Toronto Centre, one of the country’s most liberal (and Liberal) ridings. Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland and her NDP counterpart Linda McQuaig are similar: Both are strong-willed, left-of-centre journalists who have written passionately about income inequality. The campaign nonetheless degenerated into petty name-calling by partisans and political types alike. Liberals criticized McQuaig for having once lived in a nice house, while the NDP camp put forth the absurdist notion that Freeland was ambivalent to gay rights. Freeland handily won the by-election, as predicted. Yet the exercise was nasty, and its level of debate hardly uplifting.

Not to be outdone, both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair dove into the slop. After his party’s win in the Montreal riding of Bourassa, Trudeau cynically repurposed former NDP leader Jack Layton’s dying words into a Liberal victory speech. It was an unnecessary thumb in the eye, given the riding in question has been solidly Liberal for 20 years. Mulcair responded by questioning Trudeau’s “judgment and character”—a worthy point, to be sure, but a bit odd coming from the man who has spent much of his political career as a partisan attack dog.

There are any number of reasons for the uptick in partisan surliness in Canadian politics. Social media have turned every partisan into a pundit, and political discourse into duelling echo chambers. Lower voter turnout rates have made winning elections largely a matter of which party can best fire up its base. Increasingly, fundraising is done on the backs of one’s political opponents. It is perhaps why politicians themselves seem to have more personal enmity for one another—or, at least, less apprehension in expressing it.

Canadians are fed up. A recent Léger Marketing poll suggested less than one-fifth of Canadians have significant confidence in their elected representatives. Federally, voter turnout rates have been on an accelerated downward slide since 1984. When partisans shout, most people tune out.

If there is a cautionary tale about the consequences of caustic partisanship, it is the rolling political nightmare of the Senate scandal. As a senator, Mike Duffy shamelessly shilled and fundraised for the Conservative brand. The Conservative party was more than happy to defend this situation, until Duffy’s expenses became a political liability.

The resulting mess saw Duffy turn against his former party, and the party suffer politically from its shoddy attempts at damage control. If the Conservative party’s handling of the latest chapter of Duffygate—the potential political interference in a Senate audit—is any indication, the Conservative party hasn’t yet learned the dangers of excess partisanship. Perhaps the partisans of all stripes should.