If the government of the State of Michigan is anything, it is Republican. All three of its branches are Republican and have been since 2010. Today, in 2016, the Governor, Rick Snyder, is Republican. The 38-seat Senate has 27 Republicans, 11 Democrats. The 110-seat House has 61 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and 3 vacancies. The 7-member Supreme Court has 5 Republicans, 2 Democrats. Most branches of government were dominated by Republicans before then. So Michigan’s legislation and administration are what Republicans have enacted and directed for most of the twenty-first century.
For decades, Michigan’s larger industrial cities have suffered from the decline of heavy manufacturing in the emerging global economy. Corporations have collapsed or relocated with tax benefits; employees have been left behind with little or no assistance. Results include declining population, increasing unemployment, declining housing values and state tax revenues, deteriorating public services and schools, and increasing costs of social services to aging and disproportionately minority populations.
Michigan’s Republican politicians have adopted conservative Republican analyses to explain the decline and prescriptions to prevent metropolitan bankruptcies. Notably, it passed legislation (first PA 4 in 2011, then PA 436 in 2012) empowering the Governor to appoint City Managers to replace local elected officials for all practical purposes, with powers to dismiss elected officials, appoint department officials, set budgets, impose new taxes, abolish labor contracts, privatize services, and sell public assets—all ultimately intended to balance budgets. Because of their ideological blinders, Republicans do not recognize that balanced budgets do not address the conditions necessary to revive the economies of the cities in dire financial straits prompting this dictatorial legislation.
Given autocratic powers irrelevant to that purpose, Republicans have enacted legislation to plunder already impoverished cities for personal and political benefit. The results have been predictable: cronyism and corruption, and budgets balanced, urban life eroded, and local economies further deteriorated. One City Manager gave himself a quarter-million-dollar-a year salary. Other City Managers have awarded uncompetitive contracts or sold public assets to friends or corporate supporters. In short, Republican legislation and administration have further impoverished the cities which they pretended to rescue but have enriched appointees and their apparatchiks.
At present, six cities—Allen Park, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Ecorse, Flint, and Pontiac—lack democratically elected leadership yet are liable to higher per-unit costs or higher taxes without representation. Most of them are majority African-American, and all of them encompass a majority of the state’s African-American population. In short, over half of Michigan’s minority population is disenfranchised in the cities in which they live and work.
The consequences of autocratic Republican rule are clear in the case of Flint, with its population of about 100,000. The Governor-appointed City Manager decided to save money by shifting from treated water treated purchased from Detroit to water pumped directly—that is, without treatment—from the Flint River. This raw river water contains toxic contaminants which, when pumped through Flint’s lead pipes, have corroded them, added lead to the other contaminants, and become poisonous water used for drinking, cooking, bathing, and plumbing. As is well known, lead in elevated levels has many irreversible damaging effects on children, especially those under the age of seven. Flint has over 25,000 minors, about 9,000 in this younger age group.
The sight and smell of this untreated Flint River water immediately prompted concerns by residents. State officials assured residents that their concerns were unwarranted and that the water was safe. Independent scientists tested the water and reported elevated levels of lead two or three times higher that water-quality standards. State officials dismissed their reports and attempted to discredit scientists. Months later the state was forced to admit the truth. For weeks thereafter, the state did nothing. When the Republican Governor apologized, he did not bother to visit Flint, an hour’s drive away. Only when the federal government launched a criminal investigation, did he declare a state of emergency. However, in the week thereafter, the state did almost nothing, did less than it needed to do, and did not ask for help from FEMA. Michigan still refuses to declare the water now coming from Detroit safe for use by residents. Whatever his press releases say to the contrary, the Republican governor shows no evidence of caring about inadequate supplies of safe water and the permanent effects of polluted water on residents.
Accountability for endangering the health of an entire city population and damaging the development of hundred or thousands of children by the decisions and conduct of Republican officials and agents remains uncertain. Government officials usually, but citizens rarely, can escape indictment and prosecution for actions harmful to others. Any parent who sought to save money on water bills by substituting polluted river water for safe tap water and exposing children to it would likely face a variety of criminal charges for abuse, endangerment, or negligence. But elected and appointed Republican officials who make and implement comparable decisions, with health-destroying and life-impairing consequences, may get off by pleading good intentions or governmental immunity. My non-lawyer’s opinion is that Michigan Republicans have engaged in a conspiracy to advance their interests in reckless disregard of dire consequences from using industrially polluted river water.
This disastrous record of health, economic, and political abuse teaches important lessons about the nature of Republican rule in Michigan. Despite their slogans about small government, freedom, and opportunity, Republicans, given this chance, have operated in disregard of traditional American democratic principles: the consent of the governed and no taxation without representation. In Flint, they denied citizens the freedom and opportunity to drink safe water; instead, they forced them to drink poisoned water. They have exercised exclusive power autocratically and irresponsibly, without consulting with or accountability to the people whom they rule. They have acted out of partisan ideological concerns like a balanced budget, not basic, practical concerns like safe drinking water. Once again, they have shown a greater interest in property than in people. Not surprisingly, they have defied the facts which undermine their political decisions and have attacked those who tell the truth.
Federal and state Republican officials know that knowledge is power and that those with truth speak to power. Accordingly, they hinder or oppose government agencies which, as a requirement of their work, collect information: among federal departments or agencies, EPA, Education, Justice, FBI, and ATF. The information which such agencies collect tends to support efforts contrary to Republican positions. They also serve as the basis for and justification of regulations to mitigate or prevent problems of health and safety. The Republican opposition to these agencies means to prevent informed discussion of their purposes, policies, and regulations; to weaken or eliminate them; and to make their regulations few, unenforceable, or ineffective. The purpose behind their attacks on “too many regulations” is to enable corporations to operate without legal accountability or economic penalty for any harm done to people’s health or wealth.
Like Michigan Governor Snyder, Republican politicians (in my congressional district, “Freedom Caucus” member Steve Pearce) are indifferent to the deleterious consequences of their ideology except to conceal them with assurances to the contrary or by attacks on critics. When they speak of “job-killing regulations,” they talk economic nonsense; they also advocate the “people-killing” absence of regulations which minimize the risks of diseases, disorders, disabilities, and deaths to thousands or millions. Their opposition to regulations promoting clear air, clean water, and clean soil means to encourage or enable profiteering by permitting corporations to put biological and chemical poisons into what we breathe, drink, and eat. For Republicans, Flint is an embarrassment about which they are silent. Otherwise, they would be hard to put explain this disaster as anything other than a failure of national Republican ideology, not of “freedom” and “opportunity,” but of fraud and force.
Republican rule in Michigan is a portent of Republican rule in the United States. For Republicans nationally show the same tendencies to autocratic rule, ideological rigidity, and fact-denial or fiction-creation to advance otherwise untenable positions. Thus, in states under their monopolistic control, Republicans are impeding voters or restricting the franchise by reliance on fabricated claims of voter fraud. At the federal level, Republicans are fabricating facts about immigrant invasions when more Hispanics have been leaving the country than entering it; accepting phony documentation and acting on its allegations to defund Planned Parenthood; and denying science and attacking scientists about man-made pollution causing climate change. Given their ideological commitment to autocratic oligarchy, unfettered capitalism, political and religious intolerance (xenophobia, homophobia), and anti-scientific ideologies, Republicans are a clear and present danger to America’s survival as a democracy. Michigan’s Republican government is a warning example to Americans everywhere who believe in democracy.