Populism in the City

January 21, 2019

Zack Taylor, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

What does the success of Ford Nation say about populism?

Zack Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance, has researched the growth of populism in Ontario, and the success of Ford Nation, in two recent publications.

Writing with Daniel Silver and Fernando Calderón-Figueroa of the University of Toronto, Taylor examined the rise of suburban populism in Toronto. They write that most analyses of populism, “deem cities counter-movements to and targets of populist force, which tend to be concentrated in rural areas and declining post-industrial regions.”

The article, which was recently profiled by urban geographer Richard Florida on the Atlantic Magazine's CityLab blog, challenges this idea.

Rob and Doug Ford both received substantial support from Toronto’s ethnically diverse suburbs in their 2010 and 2014 campaigns for Mayor of Toronto.

Unlike right-wing populism movements from other countries, Ford’s populism included many non-European and non-Christian immigrants. The movement remained “socially conservative in that it was hostile to gay rights and feminism, and fiscally conservative in its drive for low taxes,” the authors said.

“Ford’s supporters could present themselves as defending traditional religious and family values against secularism and feminism imposed from above.”

In a separate article in Inroads, Taylor interprets the geographical distribution of support for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party in his successful 2018 provincial election campaign. He finds that the party’s support was mostly drawn from rural areas, however it also attracted votes in greater Toronto’s post-war suburbs.

Doug Ford was able to transfer his late brother’s base to provincial politics, combining support from “the ethnically diverse Toronto coalition his brother had built and joined it with a largely white rural population.” He did this while keeping many aspects of Rob Ford’s approach as mayor: avoiding nativist appeals, maintaining suspicions of the progressive ‘elite’ and claiming to speak for and directly to a ‘silent majority’ of taxpayers.

Rob Ford’s campaign and time as mayor was “a clear translation of the populist logic to the local setting – the candidate as the authentic embodiment of the popular will against a self-interested elite.” His success shows “how the populist repertoire may be adapted in unusual contexts while retaining its core features,” suggesting alternative conditions where populism may thrive.

In the two publications, Taylor concludes that “other cities may become ripe for populist insurgencies,” particularly those experiencing uneven growth and social divisions. At the same time, he raises the question of whether Doug Ford’s suburban-rural coalition is durable given his need to satisfy the demands of both groups.