“We happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led. We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power.”
- David Brooks, in the New York Times
I don’t know of a more succinct or accurate diagnosis of our present malady than this. Governing is not easy, especially since not governing is as simple as falling down. Governing well takes knowledge, experience, patience and the ability to work with other folks involved in the process.
I’ve been mulling about this ever since I had a long conversation with Congressman John Dingell last week. At 59 years in office, Dingell is simply the longest serving member of Congress in American history.
More to the point, over these years he has built an unrivaled record of national achievement: The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, much of the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few. At home Dingell was instrumental in cleaning up the Rouge River, establishing the first International Wildlife Refuge along the Detroit River and protecting the River Raisin National Battlefield in Monroe County.
We talked about how he did it. “I did my homework,” he began. “I worked day in and day out with my colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, both Democrats and Republicans. Legislation enacting public policy isn’t just one tough guy imposing his will on the others. It’s the result of working together, of understanding what’s in people’s interest, and recognizing that at the end of the day the art of governance is all about bringing people together. It’s absolutely critical.”
Dingell will retire from the Congress – a body, he points out, whose title means a collective assembly – at the end of this year. Those of us who have been lucky enough to know him recognize that he is truly a giant in his own time. And his personification of the art of governance will be a standard against which future Michigan politicians should be measured.
And to start with, consider what’s going on in the city of Detroit, right at this moment. It now looks as though the city will emerge from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in record time, with its finances restructured and a viable plan for future progress and growth. All this has come about by members of the city’s elite coming together to make Detroit a better place for all.
Consider the cast of characters who have come together in far-sighted leadership and good governance: Newly elected Mayor Mike Duggan. Gov. Rick Snyder. Emergency Financial Manager Keyvn Orr. The entire Detroit City Council, led by President Brenda Jones. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. The mediators, federal judge Gerald Rosen and lawyer Eugene Driker. Much of the Southeast Michigan foundation community. And on and on.
A more diverse group of folks with sharply differing interests could not be imagined.
Yet they’ve all worked together for months and months to bring Michigan’s largest city through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. Sure, they had disagreements, even fights; the council met behind closed doors for 16 hours last week to hash out the terms and conditions for Keyvn Orr’s departure. But at the end of the day they came together to get things done.
Their work – so much resembling John Dingell’s entire career – represents a collaborative use of power in governing that stands in sharp contrast to the far more common and widespread nonuse of power. And it’s a demonstration that even during these days of self-absorbed politicians, bored billionaires, grasping special interests and out-and-out ideologues, it’s possible to get things – important things – done.
It isn’t easy. It takes a long time. It doesn’t tolerate grandstanding or a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. And it requires those involved to recognize their collective responsibility to the people on whose behalf they are exercising the art of governance.
God love ‘em!