Saturday, October 10, 2009

How issues work

Recently John Lorinc, a columnist with whom I often agree, raised the possibility that the cycling plan might emerge as one of the decisive issues in the 2010 campaign for the mayor's office. A year before the election, the decisive issue has yet to emerge, but clearly some conservative pundits and prospective candidates have started sniffing at possibility of making cyclists that issue. From time to time, a trial balloon floats by on the breeze; a reference dropped into a speech here, and column or two there. With all of this, John Lorinc fears, and a few people presumably hope, that some conservative will ride (pardon the pun) a denunciation of cyclists straight into the mayor's office.

To understand whether this will happen, and for cyclists to prevent it from happening, it might help to look carefully at the way issues work; how people make decisions based on particular political promises. David Miller did get elected mayor in 2003 largely on the strength of his promise to cancel the bridge to Toronto City Centre Airport, but why did that promise work for him? The common description of the bridge as a "wedge" issue doesn't fit very well. A wedge issue, according to the usual definition, splits your opponent's supporters. In Canadian politics, the gun registry functions as a wedge issue: it separates the worried urban middle class, that likes tough on crime policies but doesn't like guns, away from rural conservatives. For years, the gun registry made it politically impossible for conservatives like Stockwell Day to make common cause with anti-crime activists like Priscilla deVilliers. You have a wedge issue when two halves of your opponent's coalition (or potential coalition) will die on opposite sides of the same hill. But few people in the coalition behind Barbara Hall or, as far as I know, John Tory coalition wanted their candidate to persist in supporting the bridge if it meant defeat.

His stance on the bridge did not so much split David Miller's opponents as attract supporters to him. But how did opposition to the bridge work for him? Looking back on that year, I think the bridge and the airport brought David Miller's campaign two things: an issue that influential segments of civil society coalesced around, and a symbol. The idea of a bridge over the Western Gap offended boaters, an influential group in Toronto politics and society. Meanwhile, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health had concerns about the effects of aviation-related emissions on the waterfront. As a result, at least two large, elite groups came together in opposition to the proposed bridge, and their support had nowhere to go but David Miller's campaign.

Meanwhile, the coalition campaigning against the airport and the campaign to elect David Miller, both together and separately, worked to paint the bridge as a holdover from the Lastman years, and a product of corrupt lobbying by an unaccountable financial elite and a remote and uncaring Federal government. They worked to portray opposition to the airport and the bridge as a symbol of commitment to a livable city as opposed to a profitable business community.

The symbolism had a darker flip side, whether David Miller and his supporters intended it or not. Since the 1970s, a basically conservative elite governed Toronto by consensus. They had a positive influence on the city, exemplified by the "tiny perfect mayor", and later Conservative MP David Crombie. As immigration reshaped Toronto culturally, racialized communities, with their own issues and needs, migrated to the ring of suburbs around the city. The concentration on an issue of greatest interest to the central waterfront neighbourhoods signaled that the wealthy, educationally privileged "creative class" that dominated Toronto politics for thirty years would continue to shape city politics for some time to come.

What does this mean for cyclists?

For one thing, it suggests we do not need to panic. Most of the conditions that made stopping the bridge into a winning issue for David Miller do not apply to the attempts to make cyclists an issue. The well organized segments of civil society that opposed the airport bridge do not oppose cycling, and we may actually count on support from some of them. That leaves the risk that some demagogue may try to harness the inarticulate resentment some motorists feel against cyclists by attaching a meaning to it. While I do not like to underestimate risks to the cycling community, very few politicians have the talent to harness inarticulate resentment. Certainly, David Miller never did: he had strong and solid community groups pressing for a clear and limited measure. Nor have David Miller's failures turned the whole population of Toronto into clones of Mike Harris. The city as a whole remains progressive, concerned about livability, and receptive to anti-pollution measures. As a cyclist, I believe in staying engaged and concerned, but I do not expect opposition to my bicycle to emerge as anyone's winning issue.

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