During and after the 2016 presidential campaign, it became increasingly clear that voters in Michigan were rapidly sorting themselves into various distinct tribes: Trump versus Clinton voters, urban minorities and new immigrants. Rural voters in the northern lower peninsula and the UP versus progressives in university towns like Ann Arbor.
What was disturbing about this self-sorting is that no tribe was willing to talk in any serious way to others. They were "mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive" as my old philosophy professor used to say.
To test this impression, the Center for Michigan held a series of focus groups last year, bringing together groups of Clinton voters and Trump voters, split between Southeastern and West Michigan. And, indeed, as the conversations developed, no Clinton voters were willing to explore how they might even join in discussions with Trump voters, and vice versa.
The only values on which they seemed to join was the idea that Michigan was a great place to live and raise a family, especially because of our amazing natural resources. The West Michigan groups displayed interest in the idea that collective "community" could bring citizens together, but not in Southeastern Michigan.
Concerned that we simply cannot accept a deeply fragmented state that cannot talk with itself, we built on the focus groups and hired a videographer to make a documentary about Michigan citizens and to explore what might bring us together. That involved finding families that were willing to trust our reporting and editing ‒ no small matter. But thanks to the work of Bridge Magazine's senior writer, Ron French, we uncovered six families willing to talk candidly and openly, even with the camera rolling.
After months of filming, we finally brought these families together for a weekend to see if we could find a route to joint citizenship through human conversation. It wasn't easy, but the power of joint humanity finally expressed itself, and people started to open up in remarkable ways and talk with each other instead of at each other.
The film is a powerful testimony to our profound political differences and our togetherness as Michigan citizens. Our citizenship van will be making 100 stops in communities all over Michigan between now and November. The idea is to provide residents with a toolkit to increase their capability as citizens to be informed about the political process now underway.
As part of this process, we'll have a mobile newsroom with reporters fanning out into Michigan communities, asking citizens about their main concerns. Facilitating all this will be two publications ‒ the Michigan Facts and Issues Guide containing 100 carefully researched and unquestionable facts about our state and another guide helping citizens identify and challenge fake news.
We're particularly concerned about the issue of fake news because we believe that an informed public is the iron core of a functioning democracy. If our citizens are uninformed or, worse, led astray by fake news and propaganda, they'll find the promise of a democracy a cruel illusion.
The Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit "think-and-do tank" designed to help Michigan citizens understand and become more effective citizens of our state. We're hoping the 2018 Truth Tour adds texture to this effort. If you'd like to sign up to have the Truth Van come to your community, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.