Toronto Mayor Robert Ford did some terrible things. He smoked crack, drank heavily in public, cavorted with shady characters, and lied to reporters and voters repeatedly about it all. And yet, to the surprise of many, he is still immensely popular. The rules of politics and public relations don’t appear to apply to him. That enduring popularity is what I would like to speculate on with this post.
To explain Ford’s resilience, I would like to draw on the ideas of a 19th century German sociologist and a communication scholar who published in the first half of the 20th century. Bear with me; I think the look back is worth it.
Georg Simmel – the German sociologist – understood that a group’s identity – its sense of solidarity and cohesiveness – was driven in part by its recognition that it is different from members of other groups. Simmel described how, when an individual encounters a member of a different group, he or she asserts him or herself through opposition: “the first instinct with which it affirms itself is negation of the other party” (1903, p. 503). We deal with difference by drawing closer to those who are most like us and by opposing the others. We stress the difference between us and them.
All kinds of groups do this, not just political groups. Imagine a group of Maple Leaf fans walking down rue Sainte-Catherine in Montreal and encountering a group of Montreal Canadiens fans. The louder the Canadiens fans jeer, the closer the Leafs’ fans will feel and the more they will rally around their team.
In much the same way, the more members of Ford Nation realize they are different from Starbucks drinking downtown dwellers, the more united Ford Nation will feel and the more they will rally around their mayor.
Harold Lasswell – a University of Chicago communication scholar who, among other things, studied war time propaganda – understood that symbols in the media could bring about this same dynamic. He called it affirmation and counteraffirmation (1935, p. 33). In this way, “vehement campaigns of denunciation” – think here of the Toronto Star, 22 Minutes or The Daily Show – will, according to Lasswell, “arouse hostile forms of counter expression” (p. 7).
This is precisely what we are witnessing. Jon Stewart has a field day with Ford every night for a week and Ford’s approval ratings go up. Why? Because Jon Stewart and other media types are all different from members of the Ford Nation. They are, shall we say, members of the liberal elite. Their attacks against the mayor compel members of Ford Nation to circle the wagons ever more tightly. The more coverage those attacks receive, the more Rob Ford bobble head dolls can be sold.
Now, this kind of political strategy doesn’t work for just any candidate. You need a candidate who, like Ford, has attracted the support of a distinct group of voters – a group, in other words, that already thinks and acts like a group. Ford’s support largely comes from the suburbs and from people who don’t identity with the liberal elite.
Rob Ford expresses and embodies the frustrations and aspirations of “the little guy.” He is their mayor because he is like them. If others attack Ford, his supporters feel attacked and they fight back – counteraffirmation. His supporters, as a result, like Ford even more – affirmation.
The risk for Ford in all of this is that his personal behaviour will run so counter to the norms of the group of his supporters that he will lose their confidence. The drugs, drinking and lies may yet earn him the rejection of the very group that sustains him. Only time will tell, though cracks in the armour may be appearing.