It took me most of my young life to figure this out.

After growing up as a precocious political junkie I got jaded pretty early. I grew up in a rural conservative family but somehow, deep-down I’m an urban technophile who often hopes there’s no problem that walkable neighbourhoods and Twitter hashtags can’t solve.

In high school I went through a phase of believing that communism would work if only the greedy capitalists would stop sabotaging it. Thank god nobody hooked me on Noam Chomsky. By the time I finished university I was in a phase of believing that a pure form of libertarianism would work if only the naive socialists would stop meddling in the free markets. Thank god nobody hooked me on Ayn Rand.

In the course of not committing to anything I’ve learned what it’s like to believe just about everything. The political philosophy I have now is very close to the philosophy of pragmatism. I’ve taken it seriously enough to write a book about it, but most of it’s on an inaccessible theory-level. Thankfully there are more and more real-world cases I can use to explain what I’ve come up with. Yesterday’s municipal elections in Ontario are perfect.

Rob Ford is not someone I’d vote for, and I think Toronto will be worse in many ways with him as mayor. But I know this: there are people who chose to support him and I have to respect that.

Ford’s an especially vivid example but I’ll say the same for everyone here in London and anywhere, at all levels. Think about this as we refocus our attention towards other challenges and debates.

If an issue is controversial enough that people strongly disagree, then assume that your opponents are just as self-assured, just as honest, and just as well-intentioned as you are. They’re not rubbing their hands together, deliberately scheming to screw people over (well, there may be exceptions — but there are always exceptions and almost certainly a few bastards on your side too).

The people who disagree with you probably aren’t evil or stupid, just different. Even if they are stupid and evil, you won’t win them over for long by dictating right and wrong. Stuff like high speed rail and ubiquitous bike lanes might be the best ideas ever — back your proposals up with all the research you want — but what matters most to people isn’t the idea itself, it’s whether they feel like they had freedom to disagree and an opportunity to change the outcome.

Take that sense of relevance away from people and you’ll lose their support — it doesn’t matter what for.

This is the key to everything. Not just in politics but at work, at home, everywhere. People look for ways to feel competent and autonomous; they’ll thrash against whatever or whoever makes them start to feel like robots or puppets. People don’t want to merely follow instructions, no matter how good the instructions are.

Of course believers in ideas often seem to behave like puppets, but how they got that way is important (and remember to think about how you came to believe in your ideas, and that your behaviour probably looks pretty puppet-like to others).

The way beliefs work is that once people identify with them, those ideas and sentiments generate a sense of relevance on one’s behalf, so we don’t mind trading-in autonomy on behalf of your beliefs because it pays off when we see our beliefs winning, or simply when we’re able to live and work within those structures (like soldiers, gratified by the sense of duty, discipline and honour that comes not just despite sacrifice but because of it).

It’s not the physical city we’re wrestling over so much as its soul. That’s probably not news to fighters for justice and change, but keep in mind a lot of your opponents believe they’re just as righteous. It’s not the visible structures we’re trying to build or protect so much as our vision and values, or sense of purpose — all the reassuring little reminders that what we do and what we believe actually means something and makes a difference.

When I was trying to figure this stuff out I was heavily inspired by Jonathan Haidt, the influential moral psychologist. Conveniently, last week Haidt published an excellent article on what motivates the tea-partiers in the US. It can be adapted to understand conservatism more generally and Rob Ford’s victory in Toronto specifically, as well as Joe Fontana’s surprise upset here in London.

Haidt argues that to understand the Tea Party we have to appreciate the protestant work ethic — deeply rooted in North America’s up-by-our-own-bootstraps immigrant lineage (I point out) — by which it’s important that a person be rewarded for hard work and discipline, while people who are irresponsible ought to suffer (and learn from) the consequences of their mistakes.

Here’s how Haidt put it, brilliantly I think:

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.

Substitute the specifics and reflect on the broader notion of “social engineering” and how government programs are perceived by many people — the “silent majority” — as dangerous and naive, even evil.

Rightly or wrongly there’s a common perception that taxes basically transfer justly-earned rewards to people who are cheating or otherwise getting off easy. It’s about fairness — same word but different meaning than the “fairness” used by people on the left.

The belief is that if you earned the reward, it’s only fair that you get to choose how it’s spent. If people want to build houses and businesses in growing suburbs, it’s their money and it’s socially just to give them that freedom. If people want to drive their own car, it’s socially just… etc. If people start perceiving that taxes are too high, then things like streetcars and public art become symbols of injustice and distraction — choices earned by good, hard-working folks being taken away and given to a people who didn’t earn them and therefore aren’t qualified to make them.

I’m as guilty of progressive idealism as anyone, sometimes. It’s easy to get in these bubbles where we talk about hope in great ideas and building a better society, but we still need to engage in dialog, listen to people’s fears (whether warranted or not) and genuinely address their concerns.

Perception is reality in politics. It doesn’t matter if there’s a surplus of downtown parking, for example; if someone has trouble finding the perfect spot one day and perceives there’s not enough parking, if you don’t take them seriously they’re going to think you’re messing with the city’s karma…

Sometimes it feels like you absolutely know we’re right — we don’t just have the best opinion but the only opinion — and if we believe in our hearts that our ideas are valid and our cause is just, we’ll get the outcome you hope for. They have to change their mind because we’re right.

And as elections prove again and again, eventually we get just what we deserve.

Note: this is certainly not the only way to lose elections and alienate people. I haven’t even started to figure out exactly what happened here in London…