Professor Dan Silver examines the "Ford Nation" and populism in Toronto

January 23, 2019 by Kate Paik

Professor Dan Silver's research was featured on CityLab for his study on how populism took hold in Toronto, particularly under Rob and Doug Ford’s influence in Ontario politics. Professor Silver is studying the rise of the “Ford Nation,” a broader populist movement, along with Fernando Calderòn-Figueroa (a graduate student at U of T), and a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. Their research provides a warning, especially to left-leaning urbanists, that populism can grow in diverse, progressive places like Toronto, and not only in the outgrowth of left-behind places as commonly believed. Importantly, the study shows that populist movements are a political response to economic and cultural threats, where support is garnered through a promise to protect their followers from these perceived fears.

Professor Silver is an Associate Professor of Sociology with teaching duties at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. His research areas of interest include social theory, culture and cultural policy. He is co-editor of The Politics of Urban Cultural Policy, and the author of Scenescapes: how qualities of place shape social life. Professor Silver’s current research studies the role of arts and culture in city politics, economics, and residential patterns.

The full story can be found here. We have included an excerpt below.

Before Trump, the late Rob Ford rose to power in Toronto, arguably North America’s most diverse city, filled with tall towers, dense walkable streets, and a vibrant knowledge economy, with a long history of progressivism on social issues. Rob Ford’s rise was not just a one-off event: It was part of a much broader populist movement dubbed “Ford Nation” that ended up propelling his brother Doug to the much more powerful post of premier of Ontario.The rise of Ford’s brand of populism in Toronto is the subject of a new study by my University of Toronto colleagues Daniel Silver and Fernando Calderón-Figueroa, and Zack Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. Their detailed research is a warning to all of us, especially to left-leaning urbanists, that populism can grow in superstar cities. So exactly how did Ford’s populism emerge in Toronto and Ontario, the largest city and largest province of a country whose national political scene is often noted as virtually immune to populism?

For one, Rob Ford did not fit the conventional image of a populist. We think of populists like Trump as being anti-immigrant, but Ford embraced, and was embraced by, a wide band of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. In addition to the white working class, his base of support drew heavily from recent immigrant groups like Arab Muslims, South Asian Hindus, Caribbean Evangelicals and others. The study notes that more than half (57 percent) of Ford supporters said more should be done to protect the rights of racial minorities, a striking departure from the coalition that often supports Trump and other populists in Europe. That said, Ford’s appeal was still rooted in more traditional values regarding family, gender, sexuality, and religion, similar to many conventional populists. As the study points out, “Ford supporters held the LGBTQ community in much lower regard than immigrants and non-whites, and rated feminists lowest of all.”