How many are satisfied with the present state of politics in Michigan?

I’ve been traveling around the state recently, speaking to various community groups and service clubs. As usual, when I get in a room with Michiganders, I learn a ton by asking questions:

How many are satisfied with the present state of politics in Michigan? How about in the country?

(Zero hands go up.)

How many feel you have much influence on either political party or on public policy?

(At most, one or two hands go up.)

How many feel special interests have favored access to the political system, often oiled by big contributions?

(Nearly all hands shoot up.)

How many are troubled by all the “dark money” – large, unreported and anonymous political contributions – sloshing around these days?

(Once again, nearly everybody.)

How many are troubled at very high levels of partisanship, which often results in policy gridlock?


You don’t have to listen to some speech of mine to have strong opinions about public trust in government and politics.

If nothing else, the Flint drinking water debacle offers in the starkest possible terms just why so many voters – on the right, the left, in the center – are angry with government at all levels.

They are disgusted with the bureaucrats who prefer to hide behind “regulatory compliance,” and dismissive of politicians who tolerate such betrayals of common sense – not to mention the regular and disgraceful attempts by all sides to blame somebody, anybody else for wholesale screw-ups.

Maybe the election this fall will cleanse our wounded trust in government, although somehow I doubt it. Before the campaign rhetoric reaches deafening levels, I think it’s enormously important that ordinary citizens have access to an easy, transparent way to express their feelings about our political system so their views can also become part of this year’s election dialogue.

That’s why the Center for Michigan’s public engagement campaign this year is aimed at soliciting citizen feedback about trust in government and the political system.

Starting this week and continuing throughout the year, the Center will be holding “community conversations” all around Michigan aimed at unearthing and expressing citizen attitudes.

Although I expect there will be plenty of griping (to put it mildly), we’re also going to try to tease out citizen ideas about how we can improve our politics and better provide competent government services to people who need and expect them.

“Restoring Trust in Michigan’s State Government” marks the seventh round of statewide conversations facilitated by the Center. This year, we’ll aim at bringing together 3,000 Michigan residents to express their opinions. Since 2007, the Center (a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization) has engaged more than 40,000 Michigan citizens in this continuing outreach campaign, the largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history.

If the history of these conversations is any guide, what people say won’t be just idle chatter, either. The record shows clearly that community conversations over the past several years played a vital role in stimulating state government to more than double state support for the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s pre-K effort aimed at helping poor and vulnerable four year-olds succeed in school. Other achievements include reducing state spending on prisons by $250,000, toughening teacher certification requirements and developing a fair and objective system for schools and parents to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

If democracy is to mean anything at all, it has to mean engaged citizens sharing their ideas in mutually respectful and nonpartisan discussions can have a big role in developing and carrying out public policy. Looked at in this way, the objective of this citizen engagement program is to help bottom-up, citizen-driven democracy overcome an increasingly polarized, ineffective and nonresponsive political system that too often masquerades as “democracy.”

The Center is looking for community leaders who can bring together 20-50 local citizens for these critically important conversations. If anyone who reads this column is interested in learning more about how to host a community conversation, please call the Center for Michigan at 734.926.4285 or email us at

If you are unable to host a conversation but are interested in finding a way to make your views count by participating, I suggest you visit the Center’s Community Conversation calendar on our website to find a gathering near you.

Either way, you’ll be doing your part by starting the process of once again working to make a stand-up case for increasing public trust in an increasingly untrustworthy political system.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 03/22/2016 - 8:37am
- Redistricting reform. Commission IS NOT filled with political lackeys, but Social Scientists, Demographers/Mathematicians, regular citizens and a few judges who are outnumbered by the other members. - Multi-member districts in the House, with proportional representation. - MI Senate and Governor elected using Approval Voting. Eliminate spoilers, empowers 3rd party candidates, voting for your preferred candidate will NEVER help elect your most despised candidate, current voting equipment can handle ballots. - Vote By Mail - Abolish Legislative Term Limits or significantly lengthen them. - Legislature and Executive subject to FOIA - Beef up Ethics Laws. We have nothing to demand disclosure of "conflicts of interest". Full disclosure of Lobbying, membership in ALEC and other influence groups. - Create a Public Campaign Finance System to operate alongside the legal bribery we have today...."Run Clean" - Force Judges to declare party affiliation, then scrutinize and make public their campaign money.
Gene Markel
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 11:35am
due diligence. 1 : the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property. The attitude of "I've got mine you get yours that prevails in government will continue until the voters comply with their duty to vote and use due diligence to make sure who you are voting will due the same for you.
Barbara Sellner
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 7:52pm
Well the state voted unanimously NO to not have our taxes raised. Well the Governor by passed that vote, and got a bill passed to raise the taxes anyway! How is it that we the people of Michigan don't have a voice in this anymore?!
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 11:36am
I second DJM's proposals, though I would argue for lengthening term limits, definitely not removing them. Also there must be limitations placed on lawmaker's ability to add language to existing bills at the last minute to avoid debate.
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 10:35am
You can talk all you want about reform in government, but the truth is that you will always have a few bozos in elected office, those for who the life of a politician is so comfortable that they become more interested in furthering their careers than they have in doing good for those they represent. And even if they intend to represent, they will be bozos to some of the people, as no district is 100% single party, and no group of people think exactly alike. My answer to this problem is to ignore politicians as much as I can, and take care of myself in as many ways as possible.
John Saari
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 10:51am
The smaller governments are not so disliked. They are more transparent. Their decisions are more logical. They are less wasteful.
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 12:19pm
DJM above does set out a lot of important changes/issues that need to be addressed. When Michigan is led by Governor Sndyer who the only thing he has been passionate about was eliminating the state business tax on his personal business, who has never disclosed how much money the tax law saved Snyder personally, who created a tax on retirees, cut public education and looked to save money in other areas like Flint water AND then he unilaterally awards no bid contract using tax payer funds to a high power criminal defense attorney to keep him out of jail---HOW can anyone feel good about Michigan government? Check out Governor Snyder's Campaign Promises that is still available online. Snyder never told us his top goal was personally benefiting his bank account or greatly expanding and deregulating private for profit charter schools or privatizing the state veterans home to the great harm of veterans or sign every piece of DeVos/Koch brother sponsored legislation. Snyder did make claims that he would have transparency, he would not allow special interest money to influence, etc. Yet it sure looks like Snyder played Michigan citizens for chumps with his secret slush fund in his office, no bid contracts awarded to family and friends and for his own personal benefit, a major multi client lobbyist as chief of staff. Snyder is so cynical he even changed the recall law to make it virtually impossible to recall him and if he is recalled now his Lt Gov becomes Governor and he can give Snyder a pardon just like Ford did for Nixon. There are a lot of reasons to trust government in Michigan.
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 1:02pm
Without excess drama, in the broader sense we may be guided by the thoughts of James Madison: Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions. The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.
Stephen Brown
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 2:17pm
I support all of DJM's proposals, and Dennis' about limiting changes to language in bills after final floor debate and window for public comment. Also, term limits are a bad idea in principle, so I agree with DJM that they should be eliminated.
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 7:36pm
If the Center is serious about electing proper acting legislators that truly represent their constituents needs then tell us the voting record of every candidate 5 months before the elections. By that I mean how often did the person actually vote when they should have , did they vote pro or con on Center determined important issues, did they last minute add changes or additions to legislation just before a final vote, how much special interest money was contributed to their election spending. I am sure you can add more that list and should. If we are to dimish
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 7:48pm
Continued: If we are to diminish voter apathy then voters must be armed with the informational prior history of those considered for reelection. Good voter decisions must be predicated on the voter time spent analyzing the fitness of those considered for office. Does the candidate represent the voters needs and interests or is their allegiance to other or special interests.
Tue, 03/22/2016 - 10:37pm
I find it troubling that there is no thought given that maybe we've reached the limits of what any government can do or should do given the nature of it. And maybe the best answer is trimming back on the areas and issues to which it intrudes and services it attempts to offer? Interesting at the time 100 years ago, lead pipes represented the state of the art. Does anyone believe our collective actions won't be questioned likewise? Yogi Berra best summed up predicting the future. Is it possible that we have too many politicians, and elected offices? Do people really understand university regents, judges, drain commissioners? I doubt they have a clue about their state rep, senator or local leaders. I pay a lot of attention and don’t have a clue on many of them. Why is anyone surprised that politicians neglect amortizing costs for long term capital investments? They do the same thing with pensions, social security, Medicare etc etc. Most people don't think further than minutes, hours, and days and are subject to every wind blowing. Politicians just reflect this fact, term limited or not! Could it be that thinking that somehow getting a group of "wise" citizens into a room to tell us how to do it represents a certain hubris of its own?
Sun, 03/27/2016 - 2:58pm
Matt is dead on the money when he says, "Most people don’t think further than minutes, hours, and days and are subject to every wind blowing. Politicians just reflect this fact, term limited or not!" All of the well intentioned suggestions, particularly those designed to provide voters with more information, miss the fundamental problem. The late economist, Mancur Olson, in his book "The Rise and Decline of Nations", points out that voters are "rationally ignorant" of public affairs. Investing the time and energy required to become well informed and then influence public policy does not pay off for the average voter. If, by virtue of becoming informed and involved, the voter does succeed in improving public policy and benefitting the community, the benefit accruing to him personally will be significantly less than the cost of his effort. (Particularly when you consider the low probability of his success.) Everyone else will gain the same benefits as he does, but without expending any effort, time, and money. They are free riders. Public policy (and information about public policy) is what is known as a "public good". Once a public good like parks, roads, public safety, or national defense is provided, everyone benefits from it whether they contributed to its cost or not. Everyone can be compelled to pay taxes for most public goods, but it is not possible to compel anyone to become informed about public policy or attempt to influence it. So the vast majority of people are content to be free riders. If you believe that most people are more civic minded than that, then consider the fact that only six percent of Michigan Radio listeners make a contribution to support a service they use. Matt makes an excellent point when he says, " Why is anyone surprised that politicians neglect amortizing costs for long term capital investments? They do the same thing with pensions, social security, Medicare etc etc." Rather than asking Mr. Power's trivial questions at the Community Conversations, why not ask about the local infrastructure and pension funding? Ask how many attendees have pressured their local elected officials to properly fund both of those. Ask how many attendees know the condition of either or both.
Duane 2
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 9:24am
If Mr. Power truly wants to see a change in how our governments perform he needs to let go of his ideas about government from his youth and needs to let go of the idea that numbers are the only way to express the ideas of the public. The 'community conversation' survey is structured so all the responses are forced into a fixed answer counting format. It does nothing to encourage or explore ideas even ideas that are simple improvements on existing practices or innovative ideas that will change current practices. If you want to develop public trust you ust start with engagement, get the public involved in achieving the results we all want. As simple example could be where government wants better performance from private companies and the use regulations to control how employers act, those agencies could draw in knowledgeable people [volunteers] from the public to providing coaching, training, local seminars on the topics. In truth it is the exception when a compliance officer arrives at an employer's facility that they have a working knowledge of how the operation works, how the regulation applies, and what is the most effective way to use what is in the regulation to improve performance. That public participation becomes a way for people to learn how to use the regulations to their benefit, for government employees to learn the practical and beneficial side of regulations, and it allows both the public and the government staff to put a face to the other side, and it would leverage knowledge and skills to improve delivered results. This approach with appropriate modification could be developed for each agency, it could even work for the legislators by providing a structured way for them to be better informed about their constituents and the constituents could become better informed about the legislature. This is something that could only be offered here and possibly discussed, the structure of the 'community conversation' is not designed to encourage or even accept a conversation on such an idea.
Sun, 03/27/2016 - 8:38am
The instant distribution of news by the MSM to the Internet allows for gotcha sound bytes to factual reporting. The latter then is subject the talking heads screaming their persuasion to feed their pack sheep. Thus town hall meeting reflect such reactions. Sorry like the negative press resulting in the blaming all police we have the same now with elected and government officials. Thus Trump/Sanders feed on the public distrust. Thus the Flint crisis lead to a willingness to pin the tail of donkey on the state administration to fit the narrative of acceptable political view and not those we accept were incompentent so hang those who were compentent and did not act