Residents are giving up hope for a better Michigan

discouraged

If we don’t have public confidence in our system of representative government and in our political leaders to reform and improve, our options are pretty much reduced to chaos or authoritarianism.

For much of last year, the Center for Michigan organized a series of statewide dialogues about public trust in government. In 125 small community conversations and large-sample polling, roughly 4,650 diverse Michigan residents vented loud and clear their feelings about the workings of state government.

The results of our research – “Fractured Trust … Lost faith in state government and how to restore it.”  – are published in today’s issue of Bridge Magazine. The findings are comprehensive. And they are alarming. Participants told us state government is simply not living up to public expectations and that they simply don’t expect government to deliver on many of its key missions. One conclusion is obvious: The public sees urgent need for state government to improve vastly the services that taxpayers fund … and need.

Worse, participants also expressed a shocking distrust that state government has the ability or even the will to carry out any of the reforms the public is calling for, even if they had trouble articulating precisely the kinds of changes they want to see in policy and government programs.

MORE COVERAGE: Michigan residents to Lansing: We don’t trust you to do the basics

MORE COVERAGE: Michiganders say emergency managers wield too much power​

In part, this is not surprising. Last year saw the debacle of Flint’s poisoned drinking water, the continuing dismal performance of Detroit’s public schools, crumbling infrastructure across the state, and the controversial and arbitrary handling of financial emergencies in cities and school district across the state.

One participant summed it up: “It doesn’t matter who we get elected to represent us, because they’re not there to represent us. I find it mind boggling to try to answer these questions in a calm way.  It’s not possible because there is too much sorrow and pain and expense in how we’re operating as a state.”

Lurking behind these surface attitudes, as disturbing as they might be, lies a far more worrisome and pervasive attitude: Michiganders are losing confidence in the very workings of their political and governmental apparatus, the very basic things that enable a civil society and help generate a thriving state. Peter Pratt, CEO of Public Sector Consultants (of which the Center for Michigan is a client), which helped administer the data collection for this study, put it this way: “If this level of distrust continues or worsens, how are we going to have democratic government?”

For years, what has continually amazed foreigners about Americans is our resilience and basic confidence in our future and in ourselves to pull through tough times to better times. Whether in the dark days of the Great Recession (or the Great Depression for that matter) or the volatile ups and downs of Michigan’s durable goods economy, most Michiganders retained a durable faith that we’d get through to the other side.

However, this time around, our research details the extraordinary decay in our expectations for our own system of governance and our widespread skepticism about the capacity of our leaders to step up to the task that is quite new and raises significant questions about our shared commitment to the common ground of life in Michigan.

A large majority of participants told us they had either “low” or “very low” trust in state government’s ability to deliver on all five major areas of public expectation we tested: Oversight of K-12 and higher education; protection of public health; environmental protection; services for low-income residents, and fostering economic growth.  Improving government performance in each of these areas was overwhelmingly judged to be “crucial” or “important.”

Only two consensus public recommendations emerged from our survey: 1) Fixing the emergency manager system that is judged deficient in balancing the competing needs to solve local financial crises, deliver basic public services and provide local and representative government.  2) Increasing transparency in campaign finance that is needed to protect elections from undue influence from special interest groups and the swish of “dark money”.

Notable was the lack of consensus on specifics needed to improve the accountability of our political system, especially in addressing our too-strict term limits for officeholders and reforming the once-in-a-decade process of drawing legislative districts that has resulted in a highly gerrymandered and unrepresentative system.  Participants had opinions – often strongly held – but we could not find overall consensus in approach.

So where does this leave us?

I asked Center for Michigan Outreach Director Amber DeLind, who organized our research and facilitated many conversations for her thoughts.  Her response: “This report makes me feel worried.  I fear that, as a state we are losing hope that life will ever be better here than in the past.  We don’t seem to trust institutions of any kind to have either the will or the ability to improve life.”

My own conclusions are similar:

  1. As a state, we’re in big time trouble. If we don’t have public confidence in our system of representative government and in our political leaders to reform and improve, our options are pretty much reduced to chaos or authoritarianism.

  2. The fundamental thing that binds us together and provides common values for all of us is mutual trust.  That seems to be eroding.

  3. Based on the performance of our political system in last year’s election, there’s not much reason for confidence that the elections of 2018 and 2020 will be much different.

Candidates for political office would be well advised to take notice. But it’s hard to have much confidence they will have the courage to reach across the chasms of partisan conflict to reach common ground for our citizens.

About The Author

Phil Power

Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, non-partisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@hcn.net.

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Comments

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 9:03am

I am sorry you quoted the person who said "It doesn't matter who we get elected to represent us, because they're not there to represent us." This is true only in some instances, like the Republicans playing games with the issue of hunting of wolves. Most of our politicians are good people, and in instances where such is not the case then it DOES matter "who we get elected to represent us...."

Anne M
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 9:10am

Any comment, Phil, on how to improve transparency in campaign finance and other transfers of money to legislators?

LANCE UBRICKE
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 9:25am

Sadly, Phil Power put it well (and raw). Once the sale of my house is final---I am off to VERMONT---
Get out if you can---nothing good here for the next decade!

Kevin Grand
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 9:56am

"Candidates for political office would be well advised to take notice. But it’s hard to have much confidence they will have the courage to reach across the chasms of partisan conflict to reach common ground for our citizens."

I would hypothesize that some political candidates are already taking notice, Mr. Power.

Sure, you have crony capitalists slithering around in the upper house of the Michigan Legislature and in the Governor's Office.

But on the issue of government transparency, just last Thursday, you had a series of bills on this very issue sail through the Michigan House with triple digit numbers in the afirmative.

Now, how that'll play out in the Michigan Senate and whether Gov. Snyder will sign them is anyone's guess.

I might be going out on a limb with this one, but by my observations, someone is paying attention.

Ben Washburn
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:43am

Phil: Get a grip and take heart! In our kind of democracy, politicians do not lead us to greater unity, except by accident. Rather, by the design of our Constitution, they normally exploit the current divisions in public opinion. Severe and real foreign threats can unite us to some extent, as they did during WWII and the Cold War. But, you are already doing one of the best things that can impact public sentiments for the better, and that is by providing candid and in-depth reporting on those matters on which we need to come together more closely. So, no more despair, please.

zooman
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:48am

I recently saw a legislator on our local news who stated his reasons for supporting tax cuts. While I didn't write down his exact words, the gist of what he said was, "I think that our families are in a better position to decide what they want to spend their money on than Lansing is." What a crock. We expect our legislators to deal with the challenges the state faces -- there are many -- and make decisions based on the state's priorities, needs and the facts. I alone cannot decide how to fix our roads, fund our schools, protect our environment, etc., let alone fund them. We need for our legislators to do their job, but we keep electing folks who don't understand what their job is.

PhuCat 67-68
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 12:11pm

I'm just wondering the size of the data base that was analyzed for this article. Seems like we have a conservative legislature and it almost seems like an overly liberal conversation. The other point is that if you don’t like your legislator, then vote him or her out. It's as simple as that, get involved people stop complaining and just sitting on your arses.

Amber DeLind
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 2:53pm

Hi there, thanks for your interest in the Center's public engagement report. I'm Amber DeLind, the Center's public engagement director. In this campaign, we spoke with more than 5,000 Michigan residents. We ask for demographic information from each participant so we can be certain that our participants fully represent the population of our state. For more information about our results, methodology, and demographics, download the full report at http://www.bridgemi.com/sites/default/files/fractured_trust.pdf. Contact me at adelind@thecenterformichigan.net with any additional questions.

mary
Thu, 03/23/2017 - 10:08pm

Districts are so gerrymandered it is almost impossible to vote anybody in from a different party. When we have traveled to other parts of the country, and we say we are from Michigan they react with sympathy.

Jacqueline Coolidge
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 12:42pm

Since there does seem to be a strong consensus in favor of measures to "strengthen transparency" in campaign finance and "toughen reporting requirements to provide better public information about who donates to our state leaders" I would hope and expect that engaged voters from both parties would pressure their representatives to prioritize such reforms. For everyone who cares about improving governance in Michigan I would urge you to start communicating with your representatives and demanding that they support such reforms. Keep on them relentlessly until they get meaningful reforms enacted.

Matt
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:19pm

Why shouldn't this be taken as the typical ignorant/faux cynical voter attitude that since government hasn't solved this or that problem they're bad or crooks or some such thing? Or rather maybe its a sign that the typical voter/citizen has been indoctrinated that the government or this or that politician has the solution or every real or imagined problem and we just need to get the right one in office? Before I'd get too bent up over this poll I'd love to know what percentage of the respondents even know the names of their state rep or senators? Otherwise it's just empty carping and blather.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:54pm

Mr. Power says, " The public sees urgent need for state government to improve vastly the services that taxpayers fund … and need.

Worse, participants also expressed a shocking distrust that state government has the ability or even the will to carry out any of the reforms the public is calling for, even if they had trouble articulating precisely the kinds of changes they want to see in policy and government programs."

If participants do not know what " kinds of changes they want to see in policy and government programs." , how is state government supposed to know what to do? The Community Conversations and polls show that people are unhappy, but shed absolutely no light on what they want. Did any of the participants offer any insights on how "to improve vastly the services that taxpayers fund … and need. "?

He goes on to say, "As a state, we’re in big time trouble. If we don’t have public confidence in our system of representative government and in our political leaders to reform and improve, our options are pretty much reduced to chaos or authoritarianism." Why? Why would authoritarianism improve our governance.? And does he believe chaos would be preferable to our current situation?

He does have a point when he says, "The fundamental thing that binds us together and provides common values for all of us is mutual trust. That seems to be eroding." We don't have confidence in one another's good will. We do not trust one another. Perhaps that is because we have no common values. And it is common values that are the basis for mutual trust. That is the real source of our problems. And there are no institutional fixes for that.

steve perdue
Wed, 03/22/2017 - 1:18pm

Always nice to see hopelessness from the Bridge...those of us with hope and optimism will go on moving Michigan forward.

David W
Wed, 03/22/2017 - 7:59pm

I hope you point out all those things you are doing that is moving Michigan forward. It is not very evident to many of us that our state is on a course of improvement.

Barb OK
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 6:39pm

"The fundamental thing that binds us together and provides common values for all of us is mutual trust." One trusts folks one knows, and one listens to folks one knows. I hereby (and elsewhere) urge all folks thinking of running for office to go on 'listening tours' and to talk to prospective constituents. I particularly urge those thinking of pursuing down-ballot positions, who won't be selected until party conventions, to go around the state--to seek time at meetings that probably have voting majorities of the opposite party--to hear concerns and to share values, both common and divergent.
I'm fortunate to live in the district of Democratic State Rep. Sam Singh. Sam holds regular coffee hours at different times and venues in the district, and BOTH my Democratic and Republican friends TRUST Sam. He may not always vote as preferred by a constituent, but he hears their views and explains why he may differ. And on so many things, we DO agree.
I'd like to see likely candidates for the MSU Board of Trustees appearing all over the state to hear what services they'd like from MSU and explain what's already going on, for example, to help dairy farmers (small and large) be more profitable. I'd like candidates for the UM Board of Regents to travel around the state, hear what health problems are most on folks' minds, and talk about what research and services UM is providing. How about State Board of Ed potential candidates touring to hear parents from all over the state talk about what their children need from the state and discussing what standards would best serve our children?