Phil Power | Reflections on a rainy Michigan Election Day

I'm writing this at 2:20 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day. Obviously, I have no idea how the election will turn out. But I do think a part of the fundamental story of American political institutions is being written today.

My thought was suggested by a piece by David Brooks, a consistently thoughtful columnist for the New York Times. "Here's the central challenge of our age," Brooks wrote. "Over the next few decades, America will become a minority-majority country. It is hard to think of other nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together."

After a couple decades of dabbling with multiculturalism, a lesson from this election is that the emotional appeal of ethnic solidarity still snaps at the ties of our national solidarity. The big question that has lurked behind all the windy campaign rhetoric this year is how the nation will manage to execute this transition without making a mess of it.

Republicans had a chance to build an emotionally solid nationalist coalition but wound up instead with a version of white identity politics. Their relatively homogeneous demographic makeup - mostly white, male, conservative (whatever that means) - made that a likely outcome.

The Democrats have spent lots of energy celebrating diversity but so far have muffed the chance to show how out of our differences we can forge a spirit of national unity. E pluribus unum - out of many, one - reads the national pledge on the great seal on our greenbacks. But the Democrats have failed to develop a compelling, emotionally satisfying narrative of our distinctive history and diverse national make-up.

After all, the Democratic Party is an uneasy coalition of working-class whites, minorities and miscellaneous liberals (whatever that means). It's a lot to expect a coherent narrative emerging from such a diverse demography.

So the unanswered question remains how are we going to manage the transition of our national demographic reality?

This won't be easy.  

We'll need a politics and a set of policies that don't just celebrate diversity but work to meld differing groups into one coherent nation with shared priorities, a distinctive common culture, clear borders and a sense of how we all fit together.  In this context, Identity politics, while beguiling, is at the end of the day self-defeating.

Both parties should have succeeded in developing reciprocal narratives that tell the story of how we hold together as a nation. The GOP version, so far, essentially ignores the demographic transition that is sure to come. The Democratic version of happy talk ignores the profound power of emotional differences built on differing racial and historic identities.

Both versions are self-limiting and therefore inadequate to the purpose.

At the end of the day, we must erect a national narrative that emerges naturally from our national history: Our culture arises from the pluralistic American dream that if we all work hard, play by the rules and respect our fellow countrymen (and women), we'll have the opportunity to create something truly magnificent in human history. This is a unifying narrative, one that has plenty of room for the poor, the minority, the dispossessed.

And it's the only thing I can think of that has any chance of erasing the partisanship, rage and narcissism of today's excuse for a system of democratic governance.

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Bob Maxfield
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 9:43am

Bravo, Phil.
Hopefully this is read (and understood) by those about to take their seats in Washington and Lansing.

Eugene A Jenneman
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:01am

As per usual you hit the nail on the head! Every large migration in our past history eventually lost its primary cultural identity and became American while enriching American culture with the best of its original identity. We must continue to invite all cultures to come here and do the same. Peoples who immigrate here do so because of what American means to them and what it can offer. Wherever immigrants come from we should welcome and encourage them to what used to be called the "melting pot," to become American while sharing the best of their traditional culture with us. Anything else contributes to keeping us too separated as the people of one nation.

Jean Howard
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:34am

Well said as usual, Phil. I don't know if I will see this type of unity in my lifetime but I hope it comes to fruition for my children and grandchildren!

Ann Farnell
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:59am

That we all work hard , play by the rules and respect others has been a theme of the Democratic Party since forever. It was iterated by President Barack Obama repeatedly. It is not fair to, obviously in the so called interests of fair and balanced journalism, couple Democrats with Republicans in this instance, period!

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 12:46pm

And ... there we have our perfect picture of the problem partisanship we face today, Democrats good Republicans evil! A simple minded view that voting for any candidate means that you agree with 100% of what they do and think on every issue!! Rather than allowing that someone may agree with one candidate 50% and another 10% so therefore vote for the 50%. Likewise one can not believe believe that America has a unique culture and existence worth preserving which would be eliminated if we were to allow entry to the billion or so poverty stricken people across the globe who would love to be here if given the chance, without making you a racist?

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 11:36am

Thanks, Phil, in providing a relevant thought-provoking musing on our "democratic destiny" (notice, the absence of a capital D for democratic):)! This would provide a wonderful post-election assignment "prompt" for students in their civics classes -- either in debate or essay-proof formats. Moreover, you've, once-again, honored Bridge's (and your foundational) commitment in offering balanced insight (despite what the inevitable/frequent-posting, anti-Bridge trolls will posit).

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 1:18pm

I'm sorry, but I honestly have no idea what this article is about. It seems to be written in a code for which I have not received my secret decoder ring. Or maybe it's a 300-level course and I skipped all the 100 and 200 classes.

You use the word "narrative" 5 times but never explain what it means. You want someone to write a book or something? There's lots of books in the library. Lots of narratives.

You talk about "identity politics" and a "minority majority country" which are phrases I've only ever seen in the context of white nationalist alarmism about immigrants somehow displacing white people. But I'm fairly sure you're not intentionally advocating a white nationalist position.

As far as I can tell (please correct me) your position is that there's soon going to be more brown people than white people in America and that's somehow a huge problem (the nature of the problem is left unstated). To solve the problem of brown people, we have to somehow (mechanisms unstated) convince everyone in the country to think the same way (unifying "national narrative"). If we do, things will (somehow) be better. If we don't, things will (somehow) be worse.

Am I in the ballpark?

Kevin Grand
Fri, 11/09/2018 - 8:39am

Yes, you are.

Don't worry, this isn't the first time readers were left perplexed with where Mr. Power is going with his pieces.

There nothing wrong with wanting things to be successful in the future.

But like all good things in life, that takes individual hard work to see it come to pass.

Ben W. Washburn
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 9:01pm


I'm what you might call a left-leaning college-educated independent. I don't worry too much about whether the two established parties manifest a coherent vision of our American future. I'm more concerned about whether the mass of us left and/or right leaning college-educated independents have managed to develop such a vision, because I think that we, and not them, are actually the key to that future. I would guesstimate that such folks make-up more than 90% of your financial supporters and readers. That is why I am making a $50 monthly contribution to your cause; that's about 1% of my annual income, and I feel that that is a reasonable investment to make in our common future.

As I remember something that Henry Commager Steel once said in an American history lecture that I attended at the University of Michigan, the main reason that the Roman Empire endured for almost a thousand years, was that it actively and generously engaged all of the nations that it had conquered into it's fold, contrary to the prevailing practices of that time. There's a lesson in that.

We do, however, need to get real and much less emotional about immigration reform. I live in Detroit, where there are maybe 200,000 poor folks who have dismal prospects in this emerging high-tech economy. We definitely do not need to have a large-scale wave of even poorer immigrants coming-in to compete with them and to exacerbate their ability to sustain themselves. (And we do need someone to get really serious about re-training these folks to fill some of these higher tech needs. For example: check Stephen Brill's analysis of the deficits of the Training Adjustment Act in his recent book: Tailspin.) To the extent that we can economically do so, we need to close our borders and only accept folks who have some kind of highly needed skills. But, we have roughly 10,000 miles of borders and seacoast to police 24/7/365. I don't think there is a single American who is willing to bankroll that kind of intensive border defense. What's the next drop-back? To require every person to carry a national ID document at all times, and to present it immediately when requested by any law officer? That's worked as an effective control in most despotic countries. But are Americans ready to submit to that kind of governmental control in order to keep our borders more tightly controlled? I doubt it. So, more effective border control comes down to a pragmatic understanding of what is practicable. It is not solved by raising fears that immigrants might be rapists, gang members and/or religious terrorists.

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 8:47am

Ben you are obviously a thoughtful person. How do you think we address our desperate need not for computer programmers and other highly desirable occupations (the kind everyone wants their kid to become!), but the just as critical but far less desirable occupations, such as roofers, hotel housekeepers, nursing home, restaurant, agricultural and service workers etc etc? It is these jobs with can't be outsourced virtually or otherwise yet no one gives much thought to how we fill them.

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 9:38am

Matt, I often both observe and take part in similar discussions with colleagues about how certain occupations have a supposed "shortage" as many might refer to them. But in any field with a seeming shortage of workers, as the demand for workers increases, this will necessitate that the wages offered go up. If the wages don't go up, then the job will go undone, and that will reveal the demand (and shortage) to be not as dire as thought. My point is that people will put money towards things they value. If they don't value it enough, then in the end, it must not be worth that much after all.

In any case, I think we shouldn't try to answer the shortage with people who jump the line and are working in America without a valid work visa or green card. Essentially, we shouldn't look towards illegal immigration as a seeming "answer" to the so-called shortage.

I'm opposed to illegal immigration, but I fully support no decrease in legal immigration, and in fact, I think legal immigration should be increased a bit (not too much). Current law has an annual limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants. I'd be in favor of raising that to 750k or even 800k. In this regard at least, I'm a moderate, as many conservatives wish to decrease both illegal AND legal immigration.

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 11:56am

James, I figured I'd hear the wage issue. As one that has experienced many of the jobs falling in this category, I can guarantee that wages only carry us so far. I think about a Turkey processing plant I visited. !00% Latin American workforce. When I asked about this I was told to do this would mean paying twice the rate and getting 1/2 the productivity. And they still wouldn't be able to keep employees. I've seen and heard similar in many other jobs performed by immigrant labor and believe this is reality So I ask you, do you want your kid to aspire to work at a turkey processing plant even for $30 per hour? And do you want to pay $8 a pound for your Thanks Giving Turkey?

Ben W. Washburn
Fri, 11/09/2018 - 9:15pm

Your response suggests to me that you too are a more thoughtful person than many of your past posts would seem to indicate.
I am often disappointed that few folks seem to want to discuss these kinds of issues in a thoughtful and pragmatic way. So, your response gives me some hope.
Hopefully, you are right-leaning independent thinker, and I really have no issue with that.

It is my take on immigration "controversies" that neither major party has made a serious effort to resolve and stabilize the issue. Both have made it a football game, and that only prolongs the mess.

In a nutshell, I grew-up on a Kentucky tobacco farm (We also raised sheep.) I went from that to becoming a steeplejack apprentice, and then a milk plant worker. I then did 5 years in the Air Force to get the GI Bill, and finished my BA at UofM in History/Sociology, and got my law degree at the Wayne State night school. I've worked for the City of Detroit first as a personnel examiner, then as head grantsman, and for 13 years as deputy director of the Justice Coordinating Council. That was followed by 25 years as chief counsel and policy advisor to the Wayne County Commission. In between, I also represented the far northwest corner of Detroit for four terms on the Detroit Public Schools Board.

But, don't feel outgunned. I've been a lot of places and I have a lot of useful insight. Maybe, together, we can help focus this public discussion to the place that it needs to go.

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 11:26am

Phil - it's interesting how you've overlooked a huge differentiator between the Republican and Democratic parties: Lies as the truth. The Republican Party has gone increasingly off the rails with misinformation, half truths and, more recently, outright lies. The media, including The Bridge, continue to act like there are two 'opinions' and do not call lies, well, lies.
Until the media stops the 'both sides do it' and try to 'balance' lies with the truth people will vote based on outright lies and we'll continue to slide downward.
One need look no further than the White House this week for perfect examples of what is happening.

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 12:01pm

As usual Rick you got it! Republicans are evil and always Lie! Democrats only tell the truth and are always right! Only problem is Trump, who you refer, wasn't even a Republican until he decided to run for President!

John Q. Public
Sat, 11/10/2018 - 1:10am

"At the end of the day, we must erect a national narrative that emerges naturally from our national history."

Huh? If it emerges naturally, there's no need to erect it.

Besides, we already have that. Our national history is one of new cultures coming in and displacing the theretofore dominant culture, using all the force and violence necessary to do so. Doesn't that sound and look familiar today? See, e.g., the goings on whenever a right-wing speaker is scheduled to appear on a college campus.

Diversity breeds conflict. That's just the very nature of tribalist homo sapiens. New cultures want to dominate. Existing ones don't sacrifice dominance without a fight. This isn't a matter of whether the new culture will assert itself; it will. The question is one of how much the existing one is willing to resist. It's politically incorrect for white males to seek to retain the privileges they built for themselves, but power is seldom ceded; it has to be taken.

Trying to establish and enforce some artificial "narrative" contradictory to those forces natural to humankind is an act of (spitt)ing into the wind.

Ben W. Washburn
Sat, 11/10/2018 - 9:46pm

Might makes right.... But, thankfully, not always. That's another significant thread in American history. With first access to atomic bomb technology, your thesis would be that American's would immediately have undertaken world-wide conquest. But, they didn't. They instead supported the organization of the United Nations, and in part to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, precisely because they recognized the proclivity to which you have referred.
We really are better than that.

Dennis Muchmore
Tue, 11/13/2018 - 2:08pm

Interesting Phil, and on point.

As the country has done many times in the past, it lurches first this way and then back the other way. The nature of the democracy is that it evolves and its representative parties do not necessarily follow. That is causing a fractionalization creating splinters. We seem to be devolving into a parliamentary form of representation with an occasional sprinkling of Town Hall government embodied physically in the Initiative. I'm not sure a parliamentary form will be enticing, and I'm not sure reliance solely on the Initiative will be positive.

Seldom do we have a series of initiatives pass that are as encompassing as the three this year. Whether they ultimately have their intended consequence is unclear. One of my Democratic party friends mentioned with a grin and some irony that the advent of Prop 2 actually screwed up the ability of the party to put their mark on reapportionment that they would have had with the election of the democratic candidates at the top of the ticket . I caught the irony in that comment.

For most of the time in the 70's and 80's, the Dems controlled redistricting and then starting in the 90's lost that control to the R's. Sometimes that desired control didn't result in what the parties expected it to be. As Sam Fishman once said; " We're not getting what we paid for". I'm sure I can find an R with similar sentiments.

Neither party's control of redistricting made the process more fair or less fair, it was just the way it happened. I liked and respected the line drawers. Bernie Apol was a brilliant and thoughtful man who drew lines that could pass muster but today with technology we'll see no shortage of realignments, many of which may not be the panacea the Prop 2 advocates expected. Jocelyn Benson is clearly a Democrat, but she has a streak of fairness which coupled with her extensive knowledge may pave a pathway that the advocates didn't expect.

Let's all just keep an open mind toward the other person's opinion. the pendulum will probably swing back in a short while and we'll be staring at another restart.