Assessing Rob Ford’s Political Leadership (This is Not a Joke)

Though Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has become the butt of jokes the world over, we who live in Toronto have had to suffer through his mayoralty. It seems reasonable, therefore, to evaluate his political leadership to understand both why he was elected and why his administration has collapsed under its (his?) own weight.

In my 2011 book Governing Fables, based on a reading of a wide range of political memoirs and authored political narratives, I developed a three factor model of political leadership. Successful political leadership depends on having a vision, a set of policies to introduce; having the ability to govern, in particular the conceptual and emotional intelligence for making decisions; and having control over one’s personal life. Vision is what appeals to the electorate. Capacity for governing doesn’t mean that a politician must be her own policy analyst, but rather that she is able to critically reflect on the often conflicting advice given by policy analysts. Self-control means an ability to avoid the personal temptations resulting from fame and power as well as cope with the stress created by the burdens of exercising power. The need for self-control is magnified by the capacity of online and social media to turn every aspect of a politician’s personal life into public information.

Rob Ford has done well in terms of having and articulating a vision. It involves cutting municipal government spending by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse (“ending the gravy train” as he put it) and consequently reducing taxes – the Tea Party vision in a Canadian context. He promised to “end the war on the automobile” by cutting taxes on automobiles, in particular Toronto’s $60 annual registration fee, and eliminating impediments, such as bicycle lanes, to vehicular flow. The preference for drivers was aimed at suburban constituents, who are heavier users of their cars than downtown constituents, who are more likely to choose public transit. Whether or not his vision is anachronistic – which I think it is – is beside the point: what matters is that it is a clear vision.

Ford has shown absolutely no capacity for governing. His focus as a municipal councilor was on taking constituent calls and fixing service problems, a necessary activity, but the work of a mayor’s staff, hardly that of the mayor himself. When it came to the discussion of serious policy issues, his response has only been slogans and generalization from his own experience. Thus, his transportation policy is the bald statement that “the people want subways” and his advocacy of a downtown casino was based on the revelation that “it’s where I’d like to spend an evening.”

Finally, nothing more need be said of his absence of self-control than that it has been the cause of his global notoriety.

So, clearly Ford scores one out of three.

In retrospect, why was Ford elected? The man has a genius for simplicity, in the sense of communicating a vision through compelling slogans that appealed to a large enough slice of the Toronto electorate. (For those not resident here, we have a first-past-the-post electoral system without political parties.) During the campaign, there were mutterings from other city councilors that Ford had problems with anger management and self-control, but the media didn’t dig as deeply into his background as it might have, and his constituents (Ford Nation, as he calls it) didn’t care.

It was also difficult to make an issue out of his lack of competence in governing. So what if Ford is a college dropout? His predecessor, David Miller, a Harvard summa in economics and a lawyer, wasn’t able to resolve a summertime civic workers strike, a.k.a. the garbage strike, and decided not to run rather than accept an inevitable defeat. Perhaps the association, however tenuous, of Rob Ford with a successful family business gave him the appearance of managerial competence.

In general, I’d say that it is more difficult to communicate managerial competence and policy-making capacity to the electorate than either vision or personal integrity. Academic honours and professional experience in other areas (business, law, academe) are imperfect indicators of the capacity to govern. As politics, in both the US and Canada, has become more ideological, decisions are less frequently driven by cool assessment of the evidence, so capacity to govern matters less than in the past. The rise of ideological politics has rendered all our politicians less intelligent. Stephen Harper, a powerful intellect who ignores evidence when it conflicts with the beliefs of what he calls “our base,” typifies that approach.

Toronto Council, by reducing Rob Ford’s powers to that of a figurehead has let Ford be Ford and, paradoxically, strengthened his position for the mayoral election in 2014. Ford was never interested in governing, and he now no longer has that responsibility. He can spend his time doing photo-ops and constituency service, his two passions in politics. The ovations he received during appearances at two recent professional football games attest that elements of Ford Nation are still in existence. In the coming election campaign, if he retains the support of much of Ford Nation and his competitors split the anti-Ford vote, re-election is a real possibility.

The best chance of defeating Ford would appear to be if the ongoing police investigation produces ever more evidence of drug use and association with criminal elements. Even if Ford is not indicted, this might lead a growing number of his own nation – people who think of themselves as hard-working and law-abiding – to desert him. This would be even more likely if candidates emerge who offer a similar vision combined with greater capacity for governing and more personal integrity.

Rob Ford is the extreme case of political imbalance, someone who combines both strengths and huge personal deficits. His best unintended legacy could be to stimulate thinking, and then action, on the part of Toronto voters, and global observers, about what we really need in our political leaders.


One response to “Assessing Rob Ford’s Political Leadership (This is Not a Joke)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe by email

If you are interested in my weekly blog posts about politics and political narrative, as well as updates about my research and teaching, please enter your email address below to receive a free subscription.


Previous Posts