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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Crisis of Confidence

April 6, 2018

DETROIT – Michigan is, in many ways, a state falling apart. Its infrastructure is failing; it has lost huge amounts of political clout in Washington, and, in a few years, will likely lose more.

Within less than two decades, Michigan has gone from being a relatively rich state to one poorer than average. And those who live in Michigan, surveys show, have little faith in government.

That may be because many of the state’s traditional institutions are letting the citizens down.

“Michigan is in the process of becoming the worst state in the nation when it comes to educating our children.” Phil Power, founder of the nonprofit Center for Michigan, wrote last week in the respected online magazine Bridge.

Few dispute that. No one disputes that the state that put the world on wheels now has the worst roads in the nation.

Even worse, it has an incredibly unresponsive state government. If there’s one thing on which Michiganders agree, it is that government needs to fix the roads.

But that hasn’t happened.

Shortly before leaving office three years ago, former State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) said all he heard from his constituents was “just fix the damn roads.”

Yet the legislature has refused to do that in any meaningful sense, opting to play games instead; cutting the state’s cash-strapped general fund by $600 million a year, for example, to divert an inadequate sum to the roads at the likely expense of education.

Why don’t they just raise money to fix the roads?

The answer seems to lie in a perfect storm created by term-limits, gerrymandering, and a radical anti-tax ideology.

Republicans control every branch of state government. Many of their lawmakers have signed Grover Norquist’s “taxpayer protection pledge” and vowed not to raise taxes for any reason.

Even if they come to clearly see that not fixing the roads is more expensive than raising taxes to fix them, they face two dilemmas:

  1. Most represent one-party districts in which the election is decided in the August primary. If they raise taxes, anti-tax zealots may try to knock them off with a more right-wing challenger.
  2. Term limits mean that, in any event, they can’t serve more than six years in the lower house or eight in the Senate. If they can push problems down the road for a decade, they’ll be home free.

To the extent that ordinary voters understand they are being let down by their leaders, they are unlikely to be surprised.

Surveys show that most of them no longer trust government – any government. “Trust in state government deteriorated badly about a decade ago, and has never recovered,” Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard said two years ago, after MSU’s annual State of the State Survey asked about trust.

“It used to be that a lot more people said they could “mostly” trust the state government than said they could trust it “seldom” or never,” said Ballard. “But now that relationship is reversed.”

Trust in state government began declining about 2005, he said, during a period of gridlock between a Democratic governor and a legislature controlled by the GOP.

Trust fell further during the Great Recession of 2008-09, then recovered “only very slightly” when the economy began to improve.

But then came Flint, and the knowledge that state-appointed emergency managers had poisoned an entire city’s drinking water.

Yet if people are skeptical about state government they like Washington even less. That wasn’t always so. “When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing,” a 2017 Pew Research Center report said.

That was still the case as late as 1964. But soon afterwards came the gradual revelations that the government had lied to the people about both the Vietnam War and Watergate, and Americans’ trust in their federal government gradually collapsed.

As of last December, only 18 percent of Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing at least “most of the time,” according to Pew. That may have been a factor in the stunning upset victory of Donald Trump. It seems self-evident that any democracy that isn’t trusted by four-fifths of its citizens may be facing a crisis.

Michigan’s own crisis of confidence seems driven partly by economics. The state, which was 16th in per capita income in 2000, fell to 40th by 2010. Since then Michigan has rebounded to 30th.

But that still means residents of three-fifths of the states are better off. What clearly is needed, besides good jobs, is government that Michigan residents feel responds to and cares about its people.

This may become even more important in the years ahead. Michigan has lost five seats in Congress since 1980, and is expected to lose another after the next census.

Additionally, its clout in Congress, where seniority counts for a lot, has been further diminished by the retirements of Sen. Carl Levin, and congressmen Sander Levin, John Dingell and John Conyers, who served a combined 184 years on Capitol Hill.

That makes this year’s midterm elections critical.

They were already more important than usual, since every statewide officeholder and a majority of the legislature are leaving, mainly thanks to term limits.

But the most important vote of all may be over the “Voters not Politicians” grassroots amendment that would end gerrymandering in the state. If it survives court challenges and makes it on the ballot, it might go a long way to restore trust in government.

Trust that is badly needed for any democracy to survive.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

April 5, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Fellows // Apr 7, 2018 at 7:21 am

    Public financing of campaigns with time limits on campaigning in return for the end of term limits.

    That’s a good place to start.

    Make voting mandatory with a nominal fine ($50.00 for example) for not voting and restricting the use of those funds to early education (Universal preschool; ROI of 17:1).

    In order for any proposal to succeed people must participate.

    The solutions are there. Is the will to act?

  • 2 Dave // Apr 19, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Mandatory voting must also include ‘no reason’ absentee voting. Indeed, Oregon has online voting. That would be even better.

    Recognize that the current system of voting can create a hardship for the poor given often rigid work schedules and lack of decent transportation.

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