We will see what we will see. This time next week, we will be poring over results from the U.S. midterm election. It will be one of those surprising elections: surprising whether the polls are right or wrong. In the meantime my fellow political junkies have results from municipal elections across Ontario to masticate and digest and produce trends from.
Our province is not known to be electorally excitable. We do replace governments decisively sometimes, but seldom after one term. We are an exceedingly polite people, or have become so over the last couple of generations, and we do not like to turn incumbents out in the street, especially towards winter.
I once applied Jonathan Swift’s dictum on the Irish instead to us: “A servile race in folly nursed, who truckle most when treated worst.” For we can be as happy as they once were, to be told what is best for us; and take an almost Scandinavian relish in paying our taxes, and being ordered about. This was not true in the past, however, and the attitudes of old Ontario, back when we were a growing dynamic polity, were more like those of present-day Texas.
The municipal results were the more telling for being outwardly free of the taint of party politics. The voter had to inquire carefully to discover the party affiliations of the candidates, or guess them by the colour of their lawn signs or the looks on their faces. The arrows pointing “left” and “right” were thus obscured.
This, in turn, made the principal trend clear. It was, to adapt a Newfoundland phrase, “death on incumbents,” and whether the electorate swung arguably left, as here in Ottawa with the election of a former cabinet minister in the McGuinty government, or arguably right, as almost everywhere else, it wasn’t a good night to have been in office.
Rob Ford’s mayoral victory in Toronto, after a masterful campaign to harness voter irritation at high taxes and visible government waste, was the key indicator. It was a race big enough to be fully polled, under the immediate scrutiny of Canada’s most concentrated “mainstream media,” in a town supposed to be ruled by media and other elites.
I wrote about this five Wednesdays ago, and so now update. The pollsters discovered to their acute surprise after Labour Day that Ford had run away with it over the summer, with a huge lead over a rich field of establishment candidates. George Smitherman, “anointed” as the emissary from Dalton McGuinty’s Queen’s Park (rather as Jim Watson in Ottawa), was getting no respect.
Progressive types across the city fell first into panic and then into action, begging candidates third place and down to quit the field. The idea that a Ford victory would be “the end of the world” became the chief talking point, and the whole boiler room of peer pressure was stoked behind Smitherman’s faltering campaign. The polls showed a race tightening to the last, into a two-horse final. We were told to expect a photo finish.
But in the event, the man widely characterized in liberal media (perhaps correctly) as the fat, crazed, know-nothing, tea-bag, slash-and-burn, suburban redneck from Etobicoke, trounced the smooth Smitherman. And with this humble slogan: “Respect for taxpayers.”
The key to the failure of the campaign against him was in the same characterization. The Left are not used to arguing about details, or about broad agenda for that matter. They are instead accustomed to demonizing their opponents as crass simpletons, misogynists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and so forth. Often this is conveyed more smugly and subtly through such gently loaded terms as “populist.” You don’t argue with them without getting mud-bathed.
This approach worked for a couple of decades, through the neurotic power of political correctitude, and is still partially effective insofar as the media parrot standard “progressive” talking points.
It starts backfiring when the voters themselves realize they are included in the contempt.
Which is just what gave rise to the Tea Party in the U.S., and is turning a lot of career politicians out of comfortable jobs up here.
And while polls are tightening across America, I would guess we will see the same result there as in Toronto: an end to “progressive” wishful thinking, and more fundamentally, to the whole concept of a safe seat.
Of course, the winners often have no idea how to govern, nor experience of playing with a winning hand. They make terrible mistakes, at first, which may or may not be forgiven.
Rhetoric is a wash; politics is a blood sport, and survival over time requires knowledge, instinct, strategy, tactics, and very cool heads. We learn who has them only after the election.