On Ralph Lean, fundraising, and civic engagement | #TOpoli #thepublicgood #TeamFord

It’s not exactly a revelation to note that political campaigns cost money. Lawn signs, bumper stickers, phone calls, communication strategy, polling, consultants, and the ground game — they all add up. Naturally, you need a team of dedicated volunteers as well — and working on campaigns is a wonderful way of involving yourself in the civic life of your community — but the kind of strategic professional expertise that can co-ordinate all those factors effectively isn’t all that common, and it doesn’t come cheap. 

There’s always been a degree of tension between that and classical (and admittedly idealistic) notions of democracy. The idea that one person’s voice and vote carry just as much weight as anyone else’s is intuitively appealing, and it’s tied to the equally appealing notion that reasoned and respectful discourse can influence one’s fellow citizens and persuade them to make public choices in the service of the greater good.

Lined up against that, of course, is the cynical observation that in contemporary politics, you can have as much democracy as you can buy. I can’t possibly list, comprehensively, everything that’s been written about the influence of money and lobbying on the electoral and legislative processes, both here and elsewhere, but any discussion like this has to be informed by the corrupting effect of money on democratic politics.

Exploring that tension is beyond the scope of a single blog post, but it’s part of the context for any discussion of people shaking trees on Bay Street to finance mayoral campaigns.

It’s not as if I’ve made any secret of my disagreement with Rob Ford and his approach to governance. His thoughtlessness, his demonstrated inability to build coalitions, his reduction of everything to taxpayers and gravy trains, his elastic approach to the truth, and his overall coarsening effect on public discourse and civic life are a matter of record. If he’s got any notion of what the public good is, let alone any commitment to advancing it, he’s got a funny way of showing it.

However, there are people who think otherwise. Regardless of what I think, they have that right. I can disagree, and try to convince them that they’re misguided or worse, but the fact is, no matter how much damage Rob Ford does to the community and to the body politic, there will always be people who, for whatever reason, cheer him on. It sucks, but that’s democracy. 

Which brings us to Ralph Lean. Earlier this week, the Globe reported that he’s decided to back Ford in 2014. A senior counsel at a Bay Street law firm, Ralph helped raise more than $2-million for George Smitherman in 2010. While it’s amusing to read the potshots between him and John Laschinger, the story is noteworthy for quoting him as saying he thinks Ford’s gotten the big things right.

The Globe’s story isn’t the only take, of course. Over at the Grid, Ed Keenan suggests that Ralph’s decision may not be as weighty as it appears when you consider the way he makes his decisions. According to Ed, who cites an earlier piece from John Lorinc, Ralph just sniffs around, tests the wind, and then lines up behind whoever he thinks is likely to command the most support among the money boys. 

And at Toronto Citizens, my friend David Hains cites a recent Toronto Life piece wherein 

Marci McDonald points to conservative fundraising elites as telling Ford they won’t support him in 2014.

However you read it, it’s hard to discern much in the way of ethics or principle in the way some of these decisions are made. It’s just my inference, but it seems to me that they’re informed more by instrumental considerations than by anything else.

Now, I’m not saying guys like Ralph aren’t ethical or principled, nor am I suggesting that he’s not entitled to support whomever he likes. It’s a free country after all, and he’s got just as much right to back the candidates of his choice as anyone else. Whether I think his choices advance the public good is irrelevant.

But it raises some uncomfortable questions about the nature of civic engagement. This little corner’s gone on at some length about its importance. Indeed, it’s one of my favourite hobbyhorses; god knows I can get a little sanctimonious (really, Sol? no shit … ) when we’re talking about the citizen’s obligation to participate in the civic life of his or her community.

So I can’t very well chide Ralph or anyone else for taking an active part in the electoral process. I can’t say civic engagement is something to be encouraged, as long as you do things I agree with, and then turn around and discourage it in people who do things I don’t like. In my naivete, I’d like to think that genuine, thoughtful engagement will naturally lead folks to make reasoned, considered, and intelligent choices, and that anyone genuinely committed to the public good can’t possibly support Ford, but that’s just me.

Is it cynical to wonder, though, whether it has a different meaning to folks like Ralph and the well-heeled and privileged circles within which they move? Deteriorating infrastructure and disintegrating social fabric may not be as much of a concern when you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and insulate yourself from the larger community. I’m not saying that’s what motivates Ralph or his friends, of course. But it does underline a profound difference in perspective and one’s approach to civic engagement, and it would be naive not to acknowledge the extent to which money and privilege inform that difference.

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  1. DH
    July 19, 2012

    Or we can take the most cynical route: Lean’s pledge of support was less about the money than the message to establishment conservatives that Ford is in this, he’s serious, and you should be too.Both Lean and Ford get some relevance and credibility and it’s a plus for them. It’s not about principles, it’s about the game.

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