I was talking to my barber last week (which is very cliché, I know, but also true) and the subject of Rob Ford’s funeral came up. My barber couldn’t believe they would let Ford lie in state. I laughed and said they’d have had a riot on their hands if they hadn’t.
Then we got into a discussion of the merits of Rob Ford. Like a lot of people, my barber wasn’t a fan. Ford said sexist, racist, and homophobic things so often it was hard to be surprised. He disrespected his political colleagues and showed no understanding of how to be an effective municipal politician. He flirted with conflict of interest and corruption. And of course, he did hard drugs while mayor. To be clear, Rob Ford was a bad mayor and a bad political leader.
Where I objected, however, was when my barber said Ford was a bad politician, because there I don’t agree.
There are a lot of skills that make a good politician. Part of it is being a good manager. Part of it is understanding and negotiating complexity. Part of it is being able to take decisions with genuine long-term wisdom.
And part of it is appealing to people. Intellectuals and academics have a tendency to dismiss that last part. After all, how hard is it to whip up the masses? Go online for proof. Moreover, this part of being a politician is probably the least beneficial, or the most dangerous. Appealing to people can easily be used in the wrong ways (see for example every charismatic dictator ever). There’s a reason we treat the phenomenon of cults of personality with suspicion.
But cults of personality around political leaders are inevitable, even around leaders you wouldn’t expect. By virtue of what I do, I’ve met a lot of politicians from different levels and different parties. With very few exceptions, I’ve found that there is something about them, some personal magnetism that makes it obvious why they have people who are loyal to them.
So why does this matter? We dismiss the ability of a politician to appeal to people at our own risk. Denying that as a skill set creates a divide between people who intellectualize politics and people who respond to their gut. As a political scientist, whose job it is to literally intellectualize politics, it would be easy for me to say that gut feelings are a terrible way to decide on leaders. And yet, I’m not so sure. Or at least, even if it’s not the best way, it’s a valid and common way of choosing political leaders.
Rob Ford wasn’t a good mayor. But to deny that he was good at being a politician, or to pretend that his mass appeal didn’t matter, is to miss an essential element of how politics works. Explaining it away or ignoring it means we don’t understand what happens when a Donald Trump explodes in popularity, and there’s the real danger.