The Death of Democracy

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Rachel Maddow: Democracy has been hijacked, children have been poisoned in Michigan (salon.com)
Michael Moore calls for Snyder’s arrest for Flint water (Detroit Free Press)

It’s not easy being a person with political views that could accurately be described as left-of-centre, at least from a world perspective, trying to live in a country where even right-of-centre views are often shouted down as somehow being “socialist.” Sometimes I cope with my frustration by trying to fight for small things I believe in, especially when I can find a way to frame them in a way that will appeal to all those people to my right. Sometimes I just have to vent my aggravation that America clearly isn’t moving towards my beliefs, at least not with any appreciable speed. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just move to a country where the national political median is much closer to my own beliefs just to save myself so much aggravation.

When things don’t go my way, though, I try to find things to comfort me so I don’t go too crazy. (With as often as things don’t go my way, I would have gone insane long before now if I didn’t try to cope in all the ways I can.) One of the things I try to keep in mind is that we do live in a country that, at least nominally, practices democracy. Yes, there are structural issues that undermine the American democracy machine, like the lack of Instant Runoff Voting and the culture of selfishness that’s permeated the country for nearly all my life, but at the end of the day “That’s what the people want” can provide at least a modicum of comfort.

I stopped following politics so closely back before the 2010 midterms, just because that election was clearly shaping up to be one with an outcome that I wouldn’t be able to stand. I really didn’t like the direction that the country was taking, and I was particularly aggravated with the fact that Democrats were either unable or (more likely) unwilling to play offence on the small achievements they were able to make in those two years where they had control of both the legislative and executive branches. For as bad as the 2010 election was, though, and as aggravated I got by the few new stories I read in the months that followed, I still tried to keep in mind that Republicans, for better or worse, won big in the 2010 elections, and that was a reflection, however skewed it may have been by other factors, of where the country wanted to go.

It was hard for me to ignore what Republicans were doing in Michigan after they won control of the legislature and governorship in 2010, though, and not just because both sides of my family are originally from Michigan (and, despite being born and raised south of the border, I consider myself more of a Michigander than an Ohioan). Lots of states took hard-right tilts after the midterm elections as a result of Tea Party Republicans pushing aggressive agendas, but the tactics that Michigan Republicans implemented to shove the state as far right as they could, as quickly as possible, went so much against the tenets of democracy that I couldn’t help getting incredibly angry and worried about what was happening just north of me. The water crisis in Flint, which is still very much ongoing, is just the most tangible example of what can happen when power-hungry politicians of any stripe blow up the foundations of democracy in order to get everything they want.

A thorough discussion of Michigan laws is beyond the scope of a blog like this, but in brief, most significant laws that are passed in Michigan can’t take effect until after the following statewide election, which theoretically provides a good way for voters to effectively undo a law they don’t like by sending new legislators to Michigan to repeal it. However, sometimes big laws need to take effect right away, so there is a way to get that to happen in Michigan, and that’s to get a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s signature. After the 2010 elections, Michigan Republicans actually got over a two-thirds majority in the state Senate, but fell short of that threshold in the Michigan House of Representatives. Instead of accepting that, though, Republicans repeatedly pushed “immediate effect” bills through the House by voice vote, claiming that over a two-thirds majority voted in favour of the bills even when every Democrat demonstrably voted against them. No matter how many times  Michigan Democrats proved that those bills didn’t meet the two-thirds threshold required for them to take immediate effect, they were treated as though they had. Sadly, this is only the start of how state Republicans ignored the basic tenets of the democratic process to do what they wanted.

One of the bills that was passed in this controversial way was Public Act 4 of 2011, which greatly strengthened the power of Emergency Managers in Michigan. An Emergency Manager is someone appointed by the governor to essentially take control of a city in the event that the city’s finances are going haywire and, in the governor’s estimation, local government lacks the ability to get their finances under control. The first Emergency Manager was appointed in Michigan in 1988, but they were used relatively infrequently until Michigan Republicans expanded their powers in 2011.

There are two important things to keep in mind about Michigan’s Emergency Manager law. First of all, it’s another huge slap in the face to the democratic process. Particularly after Public Act 4 of 2011, Emergency Managers basically have the power to overrule all locally-elected officials in most important matters. Local elections still happen, but the people who get voted into office can basically have everything they do overturned by an unelected official appointed by, and directly reporting to, the governor. Second, Emergency Managers don’t work. With the possible exception of Benton Harbor, no city that has had an Emergency Manager appointed to take over its governance has had any kind of lasting recovery. If the purpose of Emergency Managers is to set cities on the road to recovery then they don’t work, and local democracy is essentially nullified for no good reason, not even for the stated purpose of an Emergency Manager.

Michiganders realized this, and they weren’t happy with the direction the state was going in, so in 2012 voters got a repeal of Public Act 4 of 2011 put onto the ballot for November’s election, and the repeal won. It wasn’t quite a blowout, but the people of Michigan had spoken clearly: They wanted the powers of Emergency Managers curtailed. However, Michigan Republicans had already made clear just what they thought about their constituents, and so mere weeks after Michigan voters had repealed Public Act 4 of 2011, Michigan Republicans pushed through a bill that essentially put it back into place, along with a financial rider that made the new laws impossible to repeal by public ballot measures. As if the state’s Republicans hadn’t already given enough of a “fuck you” to the state for going blue in 2012, Governor Snyder also reneged on a promise not to vote for union-killing “right-to-work” laws in the state, and appointed an Emergency Manager to the state’s largest city, Detroit. They also made it much harder for Michigan voters to recall them for their actions, just in case they hadn’t made their contempt for the democratic process clear enough. I honestly wonder why they didn’t just build a giant middle finger atop the dome of the capitol building in Lansing while they were at it.

It was one of these Emergency Managers in the city of Flint — famous not just for being Michael Moore’s hometown, but as one of the birthplaces of the American union — decided to try to save money on public utilities by having the city get its water from the Flint River instead of from the city of Detroit. I’ll let Rachel Maddow take over from here, because if you haven’t seen this video yet then you really should:

That was a few weeks ago. The story has reached some more national press outlets since then, and Rachel Maddow has filed reports on the latest developments in the story since her initial segment on her MSNBC show. Unfortunately, most of these reports have only confirmed the state’s glacial response to this crisis. Although Flint is no longer using river water, city water pipes are still spewing out brown water because of the corrosion the river water caused while it was interacting with all that lead soldering.  People are literally setting up GoFundMe pages to get clean water to Flint residents because the state’s response has been so pathetic. Governor Snyder’s response has been compared to that off President Bush in the days following Hurricane Katrina, and even that may be giving Snyder too much credit.

It’s that comparison to President Bush that’s most poignant right now, though, because for all that Bush had a 23% approval rating when he left office, and his personal unpopularity arguably helped Democrats to their gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections, he really didn’t suffer any significant consequences for his actions, not just for Hurricane Katrina but for his roles in the 2008 economic meltdown and the intelligence failures that led up to the Iraq War as well. He might have left office in some state of disgrace, but he’s still making loads of money from speeches and his personal popularity has actually gone up since then. He may not go down in the history books as a president the caliber of Washington or Lincoln, but that’s a trivial price to pay in comparison to the suffering he inflicted not just on America, but the rest of the world as well.

Children have been poisoned, and permanently damaged, as a result of officials trying to cut costs — I’ve heard people claim that this whole crisis could have been avoided by treating Flint River water before it went into those pipes for as little as $140 a day — for the kind of basic necessity that should never be the target of cost-cutting. This is, at best, gross negligence, and when you look at the systematic way in which cities under Emergency Managers have been treated, it gets easier and easier to believe that there is something more at work here. The focus right now needs to be on getting the water quality back up and taking care of the children who have suffered irreversible damage as a result of this crisis, but the people who allowed this to happen — especially if they knew of the trouble before late last year and didn’t say anything, as mounting evidence is pointing to — need to be held accountable.

The contempt that Michigan Republicans have shown for the democratic process is not unique to Michigan. Remember that in the 2012 elections, Republicans held control of the US House of Representatives despite Democratic candidates getting over 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates, largely as a result of the wave of gerrymandering that took place after the 2010 “red wave” election. Michigan is no different, and hasn’t been for a while; although the state is reliably blue in presidential elections, control of the governorship and state house is very fluid, and the state senate has been in Republican control for over thirty years now. In other words, don’t plan on seeing that Emergency Manager law repealed anytime soon.

As we go towards the 2016 elections here, and as so many of us have become disgusted with pretty much all the major party presidential candidates, it’s still impossible not to note what it could mean for Republicans if they gain even more control on the national level here. The Flint story may be generating bad press for them, but it’s not like the impact is being felt by any Republican outside of the state, especially because Democrats are too stupid to make this into the albatross that it should be for every single Republican running for office in the country. Part of the reason Governor Snyder won reelection in 2014 is because the Democratic Party of Michigan, like so many state Democratic parties these days, is full of dumbasses, and the current chair of the Democratic National Committee isn’t exactly winning many people over herself right now. Needless to say, I’m not counting on Democrats saving us from Republicans any time soon, because there is no such thing as an inevitable or unelectable candidate, especially in this day and age; despite what people on television say, a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz could very easily be our next president.

For all the flaws that Democrats may have, though, it’s hard not to look at the devastation that Republicans have wrought on this country over the last two decades, and to see what the party has become in this most recent election cycle, and not conclude that the Republican Party has lost the moral authority to govern. This is not an indictment of conservatism as a whole, but just the current strain of misanthropic, selfish conservatism on display everywhere from Congress to Twitter feeds. As long as all elected Republicans have little else to worry about as a result of their actions than lines in a history book that won’t be written until they’re pocketing five-figure speaking fees, then there’s no reason to believe that what is happening in Flint right now won’t happen on a national level if Republicans regain control of the federal government. If that’s not enough to get all of you to move to Canada with me if that happens, then I don’t know what to tell you.

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