Privileged Victims and Well-Connected “Outsiders”

This week’s column is about lessons from the Rob Ford Disaster: Ford is an extreme example of what can happen when highly privileged people also imagine themselves as victims.

The mayor of Toronto is not the first or only politician to abuse his privileges while portraying himself as a martyr. (His brother Doug, another expert practitioner of the privileged victim persona, went so far as to compare Rob’s suffering to that of Jesus last week.)

The same mentality was on display in the Senate spending scandal. Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, in particular, “earned” their Senate seats by ingratiating themselves in political circles during their broadcast careers. Once appointed, they milked the perks of the job for all they were worth and then some.

When it became clear that they had crossed lines and broken rules, they switched to playing victim. The system is unclear; the Prime Minister is setting us up as the fall guys; on and on and on. Somewhere in Canada, Pamela Wallin is still probably complaining that it’s a sad day for democracy.

In my column I talk specifically about white privilege, and the fact that men like Ford—wealthy, well-connected white men—enjoy advantages that make it even more absurd when they portray themselves as victims. The fact is, much of contemporary racism and sexism is built on a privileged victim mentality.

White males with racist and/or sexist leanings buy into the myth that they’re self-made men who have come by their successes in life completely on their own, and now feminism, immigration, Affirmative Action and so on are out to ruin their way of life. All the ills of the world can be traced to minorities and freeloaders clamouring for a bigger piece of the pie.

“They’re only after handouts” is a common line thrown at minorities, especially Aboriginals.

The truth being ignored, of course, is that the status quo exists because of the advantages white males have enjoyed for decades and centuries. Virtually every Western empire was built on slavery, colonialism, subjugation of indigenous peoples and/or cheap exploitation of foreign resources. Privileged victims will argue all that happened years ago and pretend we don’t still feel the effects of these things today. The “woe is me” white male refuses to acknowledge that even on his hardest day, he probably doesn’t have to worry about being killed by a shotgun blast to the face when he’s looking for help after a car accident.

Closely related to the privileged victim mentality is the insider/outsider strategy. This is another common one in the political arena: leaders who are insiders but portray themselves as outsiders, just little guys fighting against the system.

Rob Ford got elected this way. He fancies himself an everyman, a renegade crusader out to end the “gravy train” at City Hall.

Never mind that he’s the son of a former provincial politician and successful businessman. Never mind that he counts federal cabinet minister Jim Flaherty among his family friends.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also employs this Insider/Outsider tactic. At the recent national Conservative convention, Harper presented himself to the party faithful as “an outsider battling elites,” the only party leader to stand up for everyday Canadians like cab drivers and farmers.

Hearing a man who has sat at the centre of power for seven years describe himself as an “outsider” is a ludicrous, brazen lie that would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive. It’s a strategy carefully designed to appeal to the heart over the head. Put more bluntly, Harper is actively encouraging his followers not to think.

Don’t like the researched opinions of federal scientists? Paint them as eggheads. Science is the realm of the “elites,” and what do they know?

Media is critical of you? They’re all a bunch of high-falutin’ liberal swine anyway. Don’t pay attention to ‘em. They’re not real people, not like us common folk.

It’s cynical and dishonest, but it works. It also seems to be scandal-proof. Ford is taking his lumps, but if he manages to stay out of jail he will likely hang on to the mayor’s seat until 2014 and possibly beyond. No matter how bizarre his transgressions, he has sold Ford Nation on the storyline that he’s the only man to save City Hall from the hoity-toity spenders.

Same goes for Harper. He’s at the centre of the Senate scandal and he has changed his story enough in the past month to make it clear he hasn’t told the truth, but if an election were called tomorrow I expect he would triumph easily over a divided left. Enough people buy into his self-spun narrative of being the only party able to manage the economy that they’ll overlook his other sins.

(They’ll also overlook the cash he let Tony Clement throw around on Muskoka gazebos, enormous mismanagement of Defence spending, and the fact he hasn’t delivered a balanced budget yet. Harper’s “sound fiscal management” argument is so convincing people forget it’s not even true.)

Governing with a two-pronged strategy of privileged victim and insider/outsider is profoundly unethical, in my opinion, but it’s also proven to be an effective approach for leaders who care about winning elections more than they care about an informed and engaged citizenship.

It’s a simplistic, divide-and-conquer, us-versus-them approach that dumbs down the political discourse considerably and leaves the average voter feeling increasingly disillusioned. But it works, so it’s not going to disappear anytime soon.

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