A chance to hear Michigan’s real voice

Sorry to say it, but our political system rides on lip service.

Our parties supposedly appeal to “patriotic Americans” as a whole. But visit any serious political operation, and you’ll find the generality of Americans sliced and diced into exquisitely refined groups, each structured for focused, efficient, narrow-casted appeal.

By demography: race, gender, geography, income, education, ethnicity, age. By ideology: conservative, liberal, centrist, Tea Party, lefty, libertarian, anarchist. By habit: church-going; martial arts-watching; classical (or hard rock) music-listening, fly fishing, running, couch-sitting.

With these classifications in the back of your mind, it’s pretty easy to look at a political TV spot and work out to which group the appeal is being made.

And the question arises whether all the fragmentation underlying our political discourse makes it impossible to bring people together to express their views as ordinary people.

In today’s Bridge, we set out the ongoing attempt by the Center for Michigan to call forth the collective views of Michigan residents. Contained in the report “Michigan Speaks,” this process has resulted this year in nothing less than a citizens’ agenda for Michigan.

Over the past seven months, the Center has brought citizens together in “community conversations,” small (usually 10-15, but occasionally as large as 50) groups meeting in relaxed settings designed to provide a space for thoughtful and mutually respectful conversation about the issues of the day. More than 5,500 Michiganders participated, roughly 3,700 in community conversations and another 1,200 in two statewide polls designed to provide statistical rigor to the findings.

This process of mutual working through of varying viewpoints is essential to the formation of a broad-based public attitude that should underlay our political process and overcome the lip service we see so much of today.

The Center has been doing this work for the past six years, bringing together over this time a total of more than 30,000 Michiganders whose diverse demography in age, gender, race and geography looks exactly like the face of Michigan – the largest continued public engagement campaign in Michigan history and one of the largest in the country.

It’s not a poll, which is a quick take, an attempt to take a momentary picture of public opinion. Rather, it is a process that might be called “deliberative democracy,” one that cuts through the purposeful lip service of political cut and thrust to reveal the underlying attitudes of our people.

During election years, this work has often served the important purpose of focusing political discourse and debate away from the sensational, the ideological or the merely irrelevant during election years. Four years ago, in a report titled “Michigan’s Defining Moment,” the Center set out the views of 10,000 Michigan citizens. Every single candidate for governor came to our office to probe deeply into our findings, and the report turned out to have a significant influence on Gov. Rick Snyder’s legislative agenda for the first couple of years of his administration.

We hope Michigan Speaks has the same effect this time around.

During this year’s public engagement process, we discovered at least two newsworthy majority attitudes held by Michiganders. No surprise is the importance of fixing the roads and bridges that have deteriorated especially rapidly over the harsh winter. What’s surprising is that a majority of participants are also willing to pay more taxes to do so.

But there is much, much more in the 30-page entire report, which includes both demographic cross tabs and a careful explanation of the methodology used in the public outreach process. You can download the entire report for yourself here.

I hope you find it a useful contribution to the public life of making Michigan a better place.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 05/06/2014 - 2:24pm
Michigan's real voice? … While I enjoy reading (yes often torturing myself) Bridge Newsletter as it appears in my in-box, let's not make this more than it is. At best, I'd say your survey is representative of the kind of people who read this kind of stuff .... (or listen to NPR, watch PBS, or attend school board or city council meetings for fun, protest Walmart store openings), not your typical voter, citizen or guy on the street.
Mike R
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 2:48pm
And your recommendation for the real voice of Michigan is what? Yours?
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 9:12am
No Mike I don't share your and Phil's sense self importance.
Mike S
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 6:06pm
Matt, You more than share that sense of self importance, other wise you would keep your mouth shut. Unless you have something constructive to add, then we'll listen.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 11:26am
I think Matt is right. No reason to get personal. It is just a piece of the puzzle and a certain more engaged piece than the average voter. Still the survey is informative and instructive even for what is left out such as new ideas.
Charles Richards
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 4:08pm
Mr. Power says, "No surprise is the importance of fixing the roads and bridges that have deteriorated especially rapidly over the harsh winter." He then goes on to say, " What’s surprising is that a majority of participants are also willing to pay more taxes to do so." If that is the case why did Governor Snyder's proposal to increase the gas tax and registration receive such a hostile reception? I'm afraid Mr. Power is engaging in wishful thinking while trying to put the voters' attitude in a good light . He outlines how voters are "sliced and diced into exquisitely refined groups, each structured for focused, efficient, narrow-casted appeal." Does he wonder why? Could it be that most voters have a profound interest in their particular, immediate interest as opposed to an interest in the general, long term welfare of the state as a whole? And that politicians, being realists, accept that fact and content themselves with assembling coalitions of special interests?
Tue, 05/06/2014 - 4:48pm
Whenever someone doesn't like the results of a survey they question the methodology used, its the same old same old.... LOL.
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 1:19am
I wonder about what consistutes 'Michigan Speaks.' In my community there was a single session and by all indications it was by invitation only. There was no public announcement/invitation. The group sponsoring the session seemed to fit in one of Mr. Power's special demographic groups. I can understand the pride Mr. Power takes in the 'community conversation' efforts, for it is a significant undertaking. Though I would not habor any belief that it is any more accurate in representinve the views of Michiganders than any other survey, particularly those performed by well established polling orgainzations. Bringi people together is valuable, however as the polling and conversation results suggest that the setting or mechanism for gathering preferences seemed to have an impact. One might ask how were people in the face to face setting influenced by the 'group' opinion. Why were the polling number not in alignement with the conversation numbers if both were considered representive of the broader state views? As good as the effort was, as much honest opinions that were expressed, it appears there was no opporutinty for new ideas, no inclusion of innovative approaches of these long standing problems. It seems to be the same old politics of the same old issues that reinforces the conventional wisdom. There is nothing about change so we are simply repeating history so we should expect the same results.
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 10:40am
The problem with Center for Michigan, their community conversations (and maybe many of their readers) is that it really isn't about or interested in reforming government (or any part of it) in any significant way that would conflict with established interests. As you said money seems to be the only solution to almost every problem identified, (not to say more money isn't often really part of the solution). This leaves Michigan pointed into corners as it looks to turn itself around. Corporations evaluate functions, divsions, and restructure themselves all the time. I too think C of M would be more interesting and serve a more valuble purpose if they broadened the problems and the solutions presented.
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 8:50pm
Matt, I think what is holdong back C of M and the impact it could have is its lack of ability or willingness to change their mindset from conventional wisdom to looking for new perspective, new approaches, innovative ideas. The successes of businesses in Michigan that compete world wide is their willingnesss/ability to change how they think to look for new ways and ideas to problems. They learn from the past they don't try to change results by doing things the same way there were doing them in the past. What was different in the conversations/polls this time then in the past? How have things changed from the last time these conversations where held? If nothing changes then why should we think the results will change?
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 9:46am
Sorry to say it, Phil, but 5,500 out of almost 9.9 million can hardly be called "Michigan's real voice." Maybe the headline should be "A chance to hear what Bridge Readers think.'