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