This is the first in a series of articles on the upcoming June 7, Ontario election. The series will look at both the partisan political strategies and policy issues at play during the election.
This article takes an in-depth look at the dynamics of Ford populism and the basis of its appeal to its supporters. The basic argument is that the core appeal of Ford populism is cultural resentment against the professional class as opposed to an economic populism in which the resentment is directed against the wealthy and large corporations.
The article argues that the two kinds of populism appeal to voters without university degrees with broadly similar social values. However, when it comes to voting intentions, those not affiliated with a union nor living in a community with a strong labour tradition, lean towards a Ford-style cultural populism. In contrast, those with a union affiliation (or living in a community with a strong labour tradition), lean towards an anti-corporate, economic populism.
The PC’s seem destined for at least a plurality of seats
All Ontario polls done since Doug Ford was elected PC leader suggest a solid, PC majority government on June 7. These polls are relatively consistent with polls done before the Ford PC leadership victory although the consistency likely masks at least some shifts in PC support at the riding level (i.e. PC support has likely gone up in working class ridings in the GTA and down in affluent, well-educated ridings in central Toronto and Ottawa).
As of this writing (May 10), CBC’s Poll Tracker (which combines and weights recent polls) gave the Ford PC’s 41.1% of the vote, the Horwath New Democrats 27.2%, and the Wynne Liberal’s 25.7%.
The Poll Tracker gives the PC’s a 90% chance of winning a majority government and a 95% chance of winning a plurality of seats.
Ford populism vs. Trump populism
Populism always plays stronger amongst less educated voters and this is certainly true of the populism of Ford Nation. In fact, a Forum poll (P. 8) conducted on April 18, had support for Ford at 56% for those with secondary school or less, 51% for those with some college or university, 45% for those who had completed college or university and 35% for those with post-graduate studies.
As such, Ford populism is similar to Trump populism in that at its core, its appeal is to voters who feel looked down upon by “elites” who think “they are better than me”. While there is an element of economic anxiety in the Ford populist mix, it is the contention of this article that the real appeal of Ford populism to its supporters is that Doug Ford is “one of us”, that he speaks for the “common man”, and that he wouldn’t “look down on me if I sat down and talked politics with him over a beer”. Politicians such as Tom Mulcair, Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Wynne don’t pass this test – Trump and Ford do. In other words, cultural resentment against “know-it-all”, professional types is more central to Ford populism than economic resentment against the wealthy and large corporations.
As such, Doug Ford’s tirades against “elites” are not mainly (if at all) aimed at corporate, economic elites. They are aimed at bureaucrats, academics, lawyers, journalists and professionals more generally. In other words, the term “elites” in Ford rhetoric is aimed at professionals who presumably have high-brow cultural tastes. In the eyes of Ford supporters, these elites don’t respect the hard work that average Ontarians do to pay the bills and put food on the table. Ford supporters also think elites look down on Ford Nations’ tastes in TV, music, books, food, etc. Respect is the operative word here. Ford populism portrays a world of good family folk who work hard and play by the rules and still don’t get any respect from “elites”.
In the Ford rhetorical universe, elites value all sorts of details and facts that don’t seem to have any relevance to Ford populists’ everyday lives. More importantly, in the eyes of Ford Nation, elites think they’re better than average Ontarians because they know these irrelevant details and facts. Ford populists pride themselves on “going with their gut” and react negatively to be being told by politicians that they “have their facts wrong” and don’t “appreciate the complexity of the issues”. Kathleen Wynne, fairly or unfairly, strikes Ford populists as precisely that kind of politician.
Ford Nation also likes blunt talk that makes it clear that there are good people and bad people in this world and that the good people work hard and look after their families while the bad people want everything handed to them on a silver platter (the “takers” – who elites support).
Ford supporters think that elites use weasel words when it comes to talking about what’s good and bad – that they make everything related to good and bad behaviour over-complicated. Ford Nation’s view is that the “takers” are simply bad and that “elites” are soft on the “takers”.
In summary, in the world of Doug Ford populism, elites are snots who “don’t think their shit stinks”. Elites also like to tax hard-working Ontarians and support governments that hand their tax dollars over to the “takers”.
There is, of course, considerable truth in the perception that the professional class looks down on average Ontarians and is indifferent to their everyday, pocketbook concerns. But that lack of respect and empathy – which needs to be criticized and is a serious problem in Ontario political culture – is nothing new. What is new is that there is an Ontario party leader who is likely to be Premier in four weeks, that is manipulating the legitimate resentment felt by average Ontarians for his own political gain. And like billionaire Donald Trump, that leader has considerable personal wealth and no real empathy for his working class and middle-income supporters. Nor does he have any intention of making the lives of these supporters better should he form a government!
The truth of the matter is that those who truly wield economic power in Ontario don’t play much of a role in Doug Ford’s rhetorical version of elites. It is these economic elites – the people who run large, multi-national corporations – who actually have the power to determine whether Ford supporters have good paying, full-time jobs with benefits or whether they have low-wage, part-time jobs without benefits.
Why are the wealthy and large corporations completely absent from Ford’s rhetoric on elites? Because talking about who really has economic power in Ontario would shift the emphasis away from the professional class’ lack of respect for average Ontarians and towards the real source of Ford Nation’s economic insecurity – the corporate business practices that lead to low-wage jobs and growing inequality. And Doug Ford, a pro-business, rich man’s son, can’t afford to have the focus be on the real source of his supporters’ economic insecurity.
If there was ever any question that corporate elites don’t figure into Ford’s broader critique of elites, there should be no question now with the first two major economic announcements by the Ford campaign being: 1) a rejection of the legislated minimum wage increase from $14/hr. to $15/hr. scheduled for Jan. 1, 2019 which, even when combined with Ford’s promise to eliminate personal income taxes on workers earning under $28,000, still leaves low-income workers $694 worse off annually; and 2) a big business corporate tax cut lowering the provincial Corporate Income Tax rate to 10.5 percent from 11.5 percent. It is important to note that while there is a separate small business tax rate of 3.5% in Ontario, Ford has no plans to cut that.
The above description of Ford populism essentially describes the ways in which Ford populism overlaps with Trump populism. There are, however, two big differences between the appeal of Ford populism and Trump populism:
- Ford populism does not have a racial/ethnic component. That is because the core message of Ford populism has to appeal to the traditional 35 or so (mostly) rural, white, PC ridings and to the heavily ethnic/visibility ridings of Ford Nation in the 416/905. Ford populism can’t equate “real Ontarians” with (white) families who create backyard skating rinks for their kids and invite (white) neighbourhood kids over to use the rink. That’s because talking about “real Ontarians” in this way would seem like an attack on a good part of the 416/905 component of Ford Nation who consider themselves “real Ontarians” but who are mostly visible minorities and have lives that have nothing to do with backyard skating rinks.
- Social conservatism probably plays a bigger role in Ford populism than in Trump populism in that it unites the two very different constituencies that must vote PC if there is to be a Ford victory (i.e. rural, white Ontario and ethnic 416/905). Ergo the prominence in Ford rhetoric of repealing the provincial Ministry of Education’s sex-ed curriculum.
Strategic voting in Ontario in recent elections.
While a Ford majority government seems likely and a PC plurality almost certain, there could be one stumbling block to the seeming inevitability of the election of a Ford government.
A key feature of Ontario politics over the past 25 years or so is that the centre-left portion of the electorate (around 55-60%) increasingly sees little difference between a Liberal and NDP government. In other words, for several decades, many anti-Conservative voters were equally happy with either party in power as long as the government they formed seemed to be relatively inclusive, supported public services such as health and education, and was open to a modestly active role for government. What they didn’t want was a Harris-like Conservative government that they thought would be intolerant of minorities, likely to implement harsh cuts to health and education, and be overly dogmatic when it came to pro-market, anti-government, and privatization policies. Therefore, when faced with the prospects of such a government, a good part of the centre-left segment of the electorate voted strategically for whichever of the two parties they believed was in the best position to keep the PC’s out of power. They did not see three distinct visions corresponding to the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP. They saw only two: The Conservative vision and the centre-left Liberal/NDP vision.
While in Ontario the Liberals benefited from strategic voting much more often than the NDP, the NDP did sometimes benefit from strategic voting in other provinces. For example, in the past Alberta election, the NDP vote went from 10% to 40% when the Liberal vote collapsed and centre-left voters united behind Rachel Notley’s NDP. On the other hand, it is the Liberals who benefited from this dynamic in almost all federal and provincial elections in Ontario – witness the October 2015 federal election where the NDP vote shifted hard to the Liberals in the last 3 weeks of the campaign to ensure that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were soundly defeated. Much of the same dynamic played out in Ontario provincial elections starting with the 1999 election in which a stampede of NDP voters to the Liberals to stop the PC’s resulted in the NDP losing Official Party status in both the 1999 and 2003 elections and barely achieving status in 2007.
Economic populism and the possibility of a different pattern of strategic voting – was 2014 just the start?
However, the 2014, Ontario election began to show some differences in the anti-Conservative vote that were there all along but that were somewhat hidden by the consolidation of the anti-Conservative voters behind the provincial Liberals in elections since 1995. These divisions in the anti-PC voting block might be characterized as the difference between working class voters who embrace a kind of pocket-book, “anti-elite”, economic populism and voters who are socially liberal, well educated, environmentally-oriented and profoundly hostile to populism of any sort. In Ontario, both kinds of voters have been voting strategically to prevent a PC government since the Mike Harris era but have very different political concerns and social values.
This returns us to the central thesis on the nature of Ford populism detailed above: namely that it is primarily a cultural (as opposed to economic) populism demanding respect for average, hard-working Ontarians. More specifically, Ford populism is aimed at bringing down “snotty”, tax and spend “elites” sympathetic to the “takers”, while simultaneously excluding powerful corporations and the wealthy from its critique of elites.
But in Ontario as in all provinces, there has always been significant support for a very different sort of populism – a pocketbook, economic populism in which the practices of large corporations and the rich and the powerful, are the problem. In Ontario, anti-elite, pocket-book populism of this sort still holds sway in traditional union strongholds – mostly in ridings where industrial unions such as Unifor and the United Steelworkers have historically had a strong base. In these ridings, NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s folksy personality played well in 2014 and the populist campaign she ran proved to be very popular. While there was a collapse of NDP support to the Liberals in central Toronto and Ottawa (and amongst well-educated, progressive voters more generally), NDP support actually went up 1% province-wide in an election where the turn-out was also somewhat up from 2011.
One could give many examples of how this dynamic played out in individual ridings but the obvious example is the collapse of NDP support in the central Toronto lakeshore ridings cited above (resulting in the loss of 3 NDP seats) while first-time, NDP candidate Jennifer French coasted to an unexpected landslide victory in working class Oshawa with 47% of the vote – burying the incumbent PC who came in at 31%. To give the reader the extent of the resonance that this sort of economic populism had in working class ridings with strong union traditions in 2014, NDP MPP Percy Hatfield received an astonishing 62% of the vote in Windsor-Tecumseh with the Liberals and PC’s each getting approximately 15% of the vote. This in a riding that until recently was held by the high-profile Liberal Cabinet Minister Dwight Duncan! In fact, the NDP swept all three Windsor area ridings by large margins and it is no coincidence that an EKOS study ranked Windsor as the most populist municipality in Canada.
Therefore, should the sorting out between the two, different types of anti-Ford voter strengthen at the riding level during the current election, the “strategic voting” question of the 2018 election may not be whether the 60% or so of the electorate strongly opposed to a Ford government will consolidate behind one of the Liberals or the NDP province-wide – but rather whether they will consolidate behind one party at the riding level.
As an example of this possible dynamic at the riding level, in Thornhill in 2014, the Liberals lost to the PC’s by only 100 votes – roughly .1% of the vote. The third-place NDP candidate received 8.2% of the vote or just over 4,000 votes. Presumably, those 4,000 NDP voters in Thornhill will strongly oppose a Ford government in the 2018 election and will be well aware that the Liberals are in a much better position than the NDP to take the Thornhill riding from the PC’s. The question then becomes the extent to which those voters will switch to the Liberals in a riding where Doug Ford populism is not a particularly good fit even with PC voters – and give the Liberals the win.
Another example of where this dynamic could play out is in Oshawa where Doug Ford is likely to be a good fit with a riding that went PC consistently until the NDP’s Jennifer French took it in 2014. The Liberals took 19% of the vote in the 2014 election and the question in Oshawa is the extent to which the Liberal vote might shift to the NDP in a very tight NDP-PC race in which the PC candidate is unlikely to receive less than 40% of the vote.
In other words, one scenario might be for there to be no province-wide, anti-Ford voter consolidation behind one party and for both the Liberals and the NDP to finish in the 25%-30% range with the PC’s finishing in the 35% – 40% range. However, there could be an anti-Ford consolidation behind one anti-Ford candidate in individual ridings where either the Liberals or the NDP are clearly destined for third place and traditional supporters of the third-place party shift strongly behind the candidate best able to beat the PC candidate in that particular riding. In other words, it is possible that anti-Ford voters in ridings with a significant proportion of working class, economically populist voters will consolidate behind the Horwath New Democrats while ridings with a significant proportion of socially-minded, well-educated voters will consolidate behind the Wynne Liberals. Should this occur, there is at least some chance of the end result being the PC’s falling just short of a majority government.
While there is an element of economic anxiety in Ford populism, it is first and foremost a cultural appeal to those who feel ignored and disrespected by what might be called the “professional class”. Respect for hard work and traditional values is at the heart of Ford Nation populism and snotty, know-it-all, “elites” who think they are “better than me”, are the enemy.
As suggested above, there is considerable truth to the perception that the professional class in Ontario does not take the pocketbook concerns of ordinary working people seriously and this is indeed a problem. That said, teachers, academics, lawyers, social workers, journalists and civil servants can hardly be blamed for the dramatic increase in private sector, low wage work that is the source of much of Ford’s Nation’s economic anxiety. It is corporate Ontario’s business practices that have led to these changes in the labour market and it is an indisputable fact that Ford rhetoric and policy does not portray large corporations and the wealthy as part of the despised elites. Put bluntly, a Doug Ford government would do nothing to help the lives of its working class supporters and, in fact, its policies would actually hurt them.
Co-existing with Ford populism in Ontario is a labour-based, explicitly economic populism that directs working class resentment towards the wealthy and large corporations and rightly blames them for the economic problems of working people. The parallel with U.S. politics is the cultural populism of the Trump sort vs. the economic populism of the Bernie Sanders sort. Both rail against “elites” on behalf of ordinary working people but the elites they are railing against represent very different segments of society. However, while the two kinds of elites may represent completely different worlds, the voters attracted to the two strains of populism have considerable overlap with those voters with union affiliations leaning towards economic populism while those without a union affiliation leaning towards Ford/Trump style populism.
In the 2014 election, Andrea Horwath’s NDP made significant gains amongst Ontarians with pocket-book concerns with landslide wins in blue-collar Windsor, Hamilton, Oshawa, Niagara and Northern Ontario. It should be noted that while in 2018, Horwath’s rhetoric hasn’t been as explicitly populist as it was in the 2014 election, the official NDP platform is probably more populist (and certainly more substantive) than in 2014. Economically populist platform planks include an increase in the corporate tax rate from 11.5 per cent to 13 per cent, an increase in the personal income tax on income over $220,000 by one per cent and an increase in the rate on income earned over $300,000 of two percent. The NDP would also implement a new, three per cent surcharge on luxury cars that cost more than $90,000.
In summary, while the Liberals seem likely to hold onto their well-educated, professional base in central Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph, Kingston, etc. and the NDP seem likely to run strongly in union strongholds in the North, Southwest, Hamilton/Niagara, Oshawa, and perhaps the northwest GTA, it seems unlikely that the anti-Ford 60% of the Ontario electorate will consolidate on a province-wide basis behind either the Liberals or the NDP.
As such, at this point in time, the only possibility of preventing a Ford majority government would appear to be a sweeping anti-Ford consolidation at the individual riding level which would give the Liberals and NDP just enough seats combined to deprive the Ford PC’s of a majority government. Under this scenario, given that Liberal support would be restricted primarily to socially liberal, well-educated voters in central and north Toronto, Ottawa and public sector towns such as Guelph and Kingston, it is likely that the NDP would end up holding more seats than the Liberals.
What organized groups opposed to a Ford government might do to make sure that the PC’s falling just short of a majority doesn’t result in a Doug Ford minority government, will be the subject of a subsequent article.