Emo­tion rules, not eco­nomics

Toronto Star - - IMPROBABLE CAUSE -

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 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 self­dam­ag­ing, 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 such as 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 im­mov­able 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.

Abby Ay­oola says she’ll vote for Doug Ford be­cause he cares about the lit­tle peo­ple

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