I’m not sure how many people realize it yet, but …
This year is clearly shaping up to be one of the most fiercely partisan in Michigan political history -- and I’m not even talking about any of the races involving candidates.
Completely apart from the personalities, it seems likely that there will be two enormously consequential and venomously divisive issues on the November ballot. Plus, a third issue -- what to do about Detroit’s financial mess -- is bound to preoccupy us all.
Here’s a preview of the landscape ahead:
- Michigan Forward, a coalition of labor unions, Democrats and progressives, this month submitted nearly 227,000 signatures aimed at putting the new Emergency Manager law (Public Act 4 of 2011) to an up-or-down vote in November. The law, passed last year, gave governor-appointed emergency managers unprecedented powers to make drastic changes, including overturning labor contracts.
If the signatures pass muster and the referendum is certified for the ballot, the vote will pit Republicans and those whose biggest concern is local financial stability against most Democrats, organized labor and minorities, who point out that all cities and school districts currently under EMs are majority African American.
- Nor is that likely to be the only major issue on the ballot. A broad coalition of unions last week announced a petition drive aimed at embedding in Michigan’s Constitution a measure guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for all workers -- public sector as well as private. Led by the United Auto Workers, the group We Are The People was formed in response to persistent agitation among some Republicans to pass a right-to-work measure that would not require workers in unionized companies to be union members.
Zack Pohl, spokesman for We The People, says the unions are willing to spend whatever is needed to get the constitutional amendment certified and passed. It’s absolutely certain they will have opponents who will do their best to fight them.
Imagine what the economic development folks from Indiana -- a state which just passed Right to Work -- will say about that when competing with Michigan to attract employers.
Gov. Rick Snyder can’t be happy about any of this. He and some of his sensible allies have been urging Right to Work advocates to back off, arguing that they were risking “World War III.”
Well, now they seem to have gotten precisely that.
Detroit bailout will enflame state
The final crisis doesn’t revolve around a ballot measure, but is equally crucial. Best estimates are that the city of Detroit will run out of cash to make payroll sometime this spring or summer.
Mayor Dave Bing has hinted he needs $150 million or so to tide the city over until a financial plan is put in place. Legislators, who only grudgingly agreed to put $4 million into a rescue of Highland Park School District students recently, are showing virtually no enthusiasm for putting up money to keep Detroit from financial collapse.
Book details shift to 'win-lose'
The scariest thing in all these crises may be that there is so little willingness to seek bipartisan compromise to reach solutions.
Plus, there are deep structural roots underlying the venomous partisanship we’re now seeing. Clearly, the economic consequences of mounting deficits, two very expensive wars and the continuing fallout from the crash of 2008 are shaping a very different America than we’ve known, according to "The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics," Thomas Byrne Edsall’s new book.
Edsall, who covered politics for 25 years for the Washington Post, argues that most economic and political conflicts in American history were resolved by compromises on both sides. In most cases, the parties could afford to compromise because the economy as a whole was growing and solutions could be “win-win.”
But in the new structure of the economy, solutions may tend to be “zero-sum games,” in which one side wins and the other side loses. “A brutish future stands before us,” Edsall concludes, with Republicans and Democrats “enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases” -- a “dog-eat-dog political competition over diminishing resources.”
What about calls for sensible compromise and bipartisanship? Wishful thinking, according to Edsall, because “incentives to sustain partisan warfare far outweigh the rewards of bipartisan cooperation” because “both parties have found that fear and anger are the best motivators to boost voter turnout.”
Grimly, there are signs that despite the best efforts of the well-intentioned, he may be right. On the left, the labor movement, faced with policies it believes would emasculate workers, has decided to go for broke. Conservatives, thinking the results of the 2010 election gave them a rare chance to alter the playing field, have been pressing heatedly about Right to Work.
This may be especially acute in Michigan. The Great Recession so damaged the finances of cities and schools that Emergency Managers were seen as the only remedy to feckless and incompetent local management. And in a state still struggling to overcome years of structurally unbalanced budgets, a call for money to save Detroit after decades of mismanagement is doomed to provoke conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
To some observers, win-win outcomes seem unlikely. Michigan’s long history of relatively sane joint approaches to problem-solving -- unions call it “collective bargaining,” others, “common sense” -- doesn’t seem to offer solutions anymore.
Indeed, these conflicts are at heart based in today’s remorseless realities of economics of scarcity and of necessity.
They’re not pretty, but then neither is Armageddon. We have to hope that, somehow, we can find the path to a better way.
Editor’s note: 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, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also 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 via email.