My sad little country has been making a lot of embarrassing headlines ’round the world lately thanks to Toronto’s buffoonish mayor Rob Ford, who has, as we all know, recently confessed to smoking crack cocaine while in office — a charge he previously (kinda sorta) denied.
I’ve written two editorials for the Huffington Post on the whole mess, both of which look at media reactions to the Mayor’s public breakdown and the increasingly loud calls for his resignation. Here’s the first: Rob Ford Brings out the Puritan in Media (Nov. 4). And the second: Five Media Perspectives on Rob Ford (Nov. 7).
What I find most interesting about this episode is the degree to which it makes us ponder one of the fundamental questions of democratic government: does there exist a consistently enforceable standard for determining when a politician should be removed prematurely from office? Or is the cry of “resign!” fundamentally just an arbitrary weapon to be used opportunistically against whatever weakened enemy we think we can bring down?
It’s a particularly acute question in the Ford case, considering the Mayor was one of Canada’s most polarizing politicians long before his current crack imbroglio. As a Tea Party-style conservative in charge of a city that’s supposed to embody everything that’s right and respectable about Canadian liberalism, his haters on the left have always been of that most extreme variety, the sort willing to abandon any principle of their own in order to destroy an enemy deemed so awful any means could justify his end.
The idea that Ford should quit simply because he smoked crack — or, to put it in the less elegant words of some of the folks protesting on the steps of city hall, because he’s a “crackhead” — for instance, seemingly contradicts the left’s general position that drug use, and drug addiction in particular, is neither a moral failing nor shame, but rather a sympathetic disease at worst, and a personal lifestyle decision at best. This logic was part of the reason no one much cared when Liberal boss Justin Trudeau admitted in August he’s smoked Marijuana since becoming a member of Parliament. Even conceding the obvious point that Trudeau’s drug of choice wasn’t “as bad” as Ford’s, most of Trudeau’s progressive defenders claimed they simply didn’t think the private, recreational drug use of politicians was the sort of thing intelligent voters in the 21st century should bother their minds about. In that sense, it was a lot like the generally indifferent liberal attitude towards the deviant sex lives of politicians like Anthony Weiner — to quote the Pope, who am I to judge?
To their credit, some on the left have been aware of this contradiction. Ivor Tossell, for example, a blogger from Randomhouse.ca, recently wrote a well-shared essay on the matter entitled “Wait, NOW Rob Ford is unfit for office?” Tossell’s thesis was basically that Ford has always been a horrible politician, and indeed, horrible person in many, many ways, and rather than suddenly “becoming” unfit for office through drug use, Torontonians “simply lowered the office to let him in” when they elected him in the first place. His resignation could have been justified from day one, in other words.
Others, such as the left-leaning editorial board of the Toronto-based Globe and Mail have conceded that if this was just a story of a mayor with a “drug problem” it “might be possible to forgive him,” but the fact that the Mayor lied about his drug use back in May ups it to a resign-worthy scandal. Leaving aside whether or not Ford actually did lie (I maintain, as Gawker’s John Cook did at the time, that the Mayor actually wove painfully elaborate non-lies to give himself plausible deniability from this very charge once the truth about his crack use inevitably came out), this indictment raises that other infernal question, which we discussed the other day in regards to Obamacare, are all political lies created equal? Is lying to cover up a personal embarrassment as bad as lying about, for example, the cost and scope of a government program?
The final camp, shall we say, are those who use the fact of Ford’s formal lawbreaking — his admitted use of a forbidden substance under the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — as an appropriate pretext for booting him from office. At first glance, this seems like perhaps the most reasonable of all the anti-Ford stances. As many pundits have noted, mayors are supposed to be “chief magistrate” of their communities, and it doesn’t reflect well on their magisterial competence if they can barely obey the law themselves. But then again, it’s hard to argue all crimes are equal any more than all lies are. Thomas Mulcair, the NDP leader, once ran five stop signs in a row. If our only standard for dismissal is brazenly breaking the law, then why does Mulcair get to keep his job?
I have no love lost for Mayor Ford. But I’m also an old-fashioned conservative in the sense that I think it’s perfectly acceptable for a politician to resign, or be impeached, simply for violating polite society’s sensibilities of morally acceptable behaviour. I think President Clinton should have resigned or been impeached for having oral sex in the Oval Office, for instance, simply because that was an awful, embarrassing, disgraceful thing for a president to do, and I think those three horrible politicians who were recently expelled from the Canadian Senate deserved what they got simply for being greedy scammers, even if they committed no formal crime and were not sentenced with due process.
I’m aware such standards are inherently subjective and will invariably be arbitrarily applied, but in a democratic society I think the best way to bring closure to any morally hazy situation is to simply posit a preposition — say, “the mayor must leave office” — and see if you can mobilize enough support, either from the broader public or through votes in the legislature, to make it a reality. That sounds self-evident, but it’s actually a fairly radical proposition these days, a time when there’s so much movement towards making the whole business of political removals and resignations scientific, standardized, and legalistic, as if “unfitness for office” was a condition that could be objectively observed and diagnosed.
Rather than attempt to dream up some grand, abstract, ironclad principle of why Ford should go — “politicians should never lie” / “politicians should never break the law” / “politicians should not do drugs” — that are bound to be inconsistently and hypocritically enforced due to the vast array of exceptions to such rules one can easily imagine tolerating (and indeed, already have), what’s wrong with just embracing Occam’s razor — that he should go because most people think he’s offensive, immoral, and embarrassing?
We already elect our leaders on what amount to basically arbitrary standards of virtue — what’s so wrong about turfing them for equally subjective standards of sin?