Pointing out the hypocrisy of right-wing populists and their supporters misses the movement's central premise.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 23, 2019
A recent investigative report in The Globe and Mail delves into the Ontario Government's "propaganda machine", an entity called Ontario News Now (ONN).
The communications service, run by Progressive Conservative staffers, is fronted by Lyndsey Vanstone, a former broadcaster. ONN travels regularly with the Premier, posting exclusive footage and interviews on social media, mimicking a mainstream news outlet.
At first glance, ONN looks like news content, raising concerns about whether the government is purposefully trying to blur the lines between partisan messaging and journalism.
ONN is a taxpayer-funded PR group that creates flattering content advancing the government's agenda, disguised to look like news reporting. We don't know how much it costs, since the ONN budget is unknown, hidden inside the PC caucus services fund, which does not need to be detailed publicly.
It goes without saying that if the previous Liberal government had dared to do anything even remotely like this, the province would be drenched by all the conservative heads exploding. Indeed, a taxpayer slush-funded state propaganda organ is totally antithetical to conservative principles.
But this obvious hypocrisy won't do a thing to dislodge the support of diehard conservatives. A better understanding of the right-wing populist strain of modern conservatism helps to explain how Ford's supporters can resolve their cognitive dissonance over this double standard.
Right-wing populists like Ford don't criticize the systems of government or promise to address structural unfairness in those systems. In fact, they generally criticize people who do take a systems approach as "technocrats" and "social engineers" trying to control people's choices.
Instead, they attack those in charge (or perceived to be in charge) of the system. It is these "enemies" of the "people" - whether characterized in a given populist's rhetoric as elites, liberals, socialists, foreigners, some religious group, etc. - who need to be exposed and cast out.
Right-wing populists promise to root out the enemies, punish them for their treason and return the levers of power to "the people" - who just happen to be their families, friends and investors. The populist leader insists that he alone (it's almost always a man) can fix the country and restore it to imagined former greatness by expelling the enemies from power and making them pay.
So when Doug Ford spends taxpayer money on state-funded propaganda promoting his party's agenda, his supporters don't mind because they trust him, personally, to do the right thing. Who needs a system of accountability when you've got the right folks - your folks - in charge?
It's not just taxpayer funded party propaganda. In 2016, for example, the Toronto Star exposed the Liberal Government's "cash for access" fundraising program in which donors could pay to attend events hosted by cabinet ministers.
In response to rising public outrage against this formerly acceptable practice, all parties in the Ontario Legislature voted unanimously to shut it down, changing the rules to forbid cabinet ministers from attending fundraisers.
But late last year, the PC Government quietly changed the rules back, allowing cabinet ministers to start attending fundraisers again and weakening the donation reporting requirements to make it easier for corporations to launder corporate donations through individuals.
Sure, the PC Party railed against cash-for-access when they were in opposition and supported the government banning it. But their real problem back then wasn't the corrupting influence of donors, it was the fact that the Liberals were benefiting from it.
Ford, in contrast, insists he can headline a $1,250 a plate dinner with impunity because, unlike the corrupt elitist Liberals, he personally can't be bought.
"I can tell you one thing: No one can influence Doug Ford, no one can influence my ministers or my caucus," he said on Friday in Washington, where he is on a trade mission. "Lobbyists ... they want to get their point through, good luck to 'em. But we're going to do the right thing for the people. We're a government for the people, we're going to do the right thing for taxpayers."
This is the same politician who, as a Toronto City Councillor, literally handed out cash to constituents at a housing complex in 2013.
Doug Ford handing out $20 bills at a public housing development in 2013
Ultimately, pointing out the right-wing populist's blatant hypocrisy to the populist's supporters misses the point: they're totally okay with it as long as their guy is the one doing it.
So what does this mean in terms of how to build an argument and persuade the populist's supporters to reconsider that support?
I honestly don't know.
It may be that only the sustained press of grim, unyielding reality against the populist's false promises has the power to gradually erode his support. In Ontario, the 40.63 percent support Doug Ford's campaign received on election day has already receded in less than a year.
An Environics poll [PDF] published on May 17, 2019 found that 75 percent of Ontarians and even 37 percent of 2019 PC voters say the Ontario Government is "on the wrong track". In the same survey, 83 percent of Ontarians and 56 percent of 2018 PC voters said they oppose the government's cuts to public health.
Unfortunately, under Ontario's electoral system, the Ontario Government has wide latitude to ignore public opinion and do as it pleases - at least until the next election in 2022. The only thing that might derail this government's anti-democratic agenda is a broad-based, province-wide resistance movement too big to ignore.
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