Political physics pulls us back to the center

It wasn’t a revolution -- but it just might signify a sea change.

I’m referring to the results of the Nov. 8 off-year elections, which were anxiously scrutinized for possible indicators of public mood. Would that message be a continuation of 2010’s sharp tilt to the Tea Party-driven right -- or a cautionary tale about over-reaching?

The big news in Michigan was the recall -- by a miniscule unofficial 197 votes out of more than 24,000 votes cast -- of State Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc. Scott had been chairman of the House Education Committee, which had enraged teachers’ unions by passing “tenure reform,” making it easier for schools to fire ineffective teachers. The Michigan Education Association badly wanted to oust Scott -- and threw a reported $150,000 into the campaign, plus many volunteer “ground troops.”

And they -- barely -- succeeded. So, was this an overwhelming repudiation of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and his campaign to reform and reinvent Michigan? Hardly. But if the recall election had been held a year ago, you can bet Scott would have survived.

Nationally, the results seemed to suggest a push back against the hard right. In Ohio, voters decisively (by 61 percent) repealed SB5, the bill that Republican Gov. John Kasich rammed through the legislature that essentially eviscerated collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. In Mississippi, voters rejected an anti-abortion measure that would have given a fertilized ovum all the rights of a person, while in Arizona a state senator who had been the leader in the anti-immigrant movement was recalled.

So there are clear signs that the triumphant national march to victory by the Tea Party right in 2010 has, at a minimum, been slowed. When the result was in. Even Ohio’s Kasich said his extreme approach might have been, “too much too soon.”

But what do the Michigan results mean? Are they are a warning for the governor to keep on a basically centrist agenda rather than tilt sharply to the right? In his inauguration speech, Snyder said “We have spent too much time fighting among ourselves and become our own worst enemy. I’ve been hired to represent all of the people of the state of Michigan and to move us all forward together.”

And as controversial as some of his policies have been, Snyder, so far, has avoided the hard-edged agendas of Kasich in Ohio and Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Michigan‘s governor said he had no interest in killing public employee collective bargaining rights. He expresses no interest in ideology, apart from whatever pragmatic approach seems likely to attract jobs and investment.

Earlier this year, the Center for Michigan, the nonpartisan “think-and-do tank” I founded, held a series of community conversations and statewide polls to test public reaction to Snyder’s “reinvent Michigan” agenda. It found a fair amount of public support for business-friendly tax cuts, cutting public employee benefits and reforms in government efficiency.

At the same time, the Center found little public support for some of the more extreme ideas from the far right, including making Michigan into an anti-union shop “right to work” state.

Earlier, the Center’s “Michigan’s Defining Moment” campaign found broad public support for public investment in our state’s distinctive and competitive assets, such as natural resources and universities, in meetings involving more than 10,000 Michiganders.

As a longtime election watcher, my sense is that last week’s vote confirmed, if anything, the wisdom of governing from the center. There are members of the Legislature who differ, some strongly. That means much of our politics over the next year will rotate around whether our governing agenda will be basically centrist or hard right.

One more thought: In mulling over this election, I was drawn to remember from my college physics class two of Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and to try to apply them to the confusions of politics.

One of them says this: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”

This law describes inertia, and it suggests the underlying reason why political movements, once started and, once successful, tend to continue along the same path. In a sense, it is the physical law that underlies the tendency of political movements to over-reach … until brought up sharp by public attitudes.

Finally, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A triumphant movement like the Tea Party tends to call forth a reaction, the beginnings of which just might have been visible in the sketchy returns from last week’s election.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. He is also on the board of the Center’s Business Leaders for Early Education. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.


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Tue, 11/15/2011 - 10:23am
I wish I could be as calm as you about the events that have taken place in Michigan in the past ten months.Thousands of children have been lopped off of welfare benefits due to the new 48 month limit. How centrist is that? The emerging movie industry tax credit, itself a JOB CREATOR, was deeply reduced,thus killing off a wonderful means to showcase our beautiful State and to employ thousands of people.Not centrist here! I share with you a fervent desire to see our State prosper and grow in opportunity for all citizens.But the swing to the conservative agenda has not improved either the short or long-term well-being of Michiganders..Educational resources have been cut deeply or depleted via the charter school hoax, punishing the public school system.Roads and bridges go unrepaired due to idealogical panic from the followers of Grover Norquist, afraid to pass taxes that would keep the roads safe and the tourists flocking in. As a child, I clapped so that Tinkerbell would live in the Peter Pan story.I see that clapping was a fantasy. Today I do not applaud the actions of Snyder and the legislature, since what actions they have taken are a horror show and an impediment to Michigan's future. We deserve better government than what the right wing has offered.
Jeffrey Poling
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 11:25am
T.W.Donnelly, I agree with every thing you have said. The kindest thing I can say about Gov. Snyder and his policies is that he is short sighted and naive. Yes, the current welfare system has resulted in total dependence on the state at the expense of personal achievement and independence. But suddenly eliminating it for those who have depended on it for 48 months or longer is short sighted. These people are to completely unprepared and many, I'm sure, will resort to violent crime just to survive. They have no other skills. Welfare can only be eliminated gradually (perhaps up to 2 years - just a guess) while training them to be self sufficient. My biggest agreement with you concerns Michigan's movie industry. What better way to diversify Michigan's economy, create thousands of highly creative jobs, keep our young, educated people here, show case the beauty of our state and bring millions of dollars into our economy. If it has proven to be too costly, then adjust it - don't kill it as Gov. Snyder has done. I amend my judgement of Gov. Snyder. Killing Michigan's movie industry wasn't just naive and short sighted - it was just plain stupid!
Tue, 11/15/2011 - 1:05pm
I disagree. The Tea Party conservatives represent the mainstream or centrist voters. It all depends on your point of view.
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 6:12pm
The Tea Party has a point of view that values polemics over reality. We have more well-educated unemployed in Michigan and the nation than ever before. There are not lists of positions going unfilled. There are lists of jobs already filled that require posting to meet EEOC requirements. What is being created is a "democracy" being built upon the propaganda that everyone can be successful in America if they get a good education. With very few jobs available of any kind, people of all ages are desperately attending colleges only to find themselves in deeper debt without a job and unable to sell their homes and unable to afford health insurance. When we stop sending jobs overseas in honor of the gods of laissez-faire capitalism, we can begin reversing this trend. The irony is that our economy now depends on loans from a centralized, communist government that is laughing all the way to the bank along with America's 1% unofficial party members. My concern is that we will develop into an India style democracy where the unemployed and underemployed are labeled as unworthy of any respect or benefits while retirees gobble up SSI and produce nothing for 40 years but right-wing politicians. America and the world will never be the same and its time we learned from Canada and Germany about taking care of ALL of our citizens first.
Tue, 11/15/2011 - 3:46pm
Neil, surveys consistently show Tea Party members are more white, more wealthy, and more conservative than even the average Republican voters. One thing I might add, respectfully, is to consider each of our places in that point of view determination. I myself think that I represent the reasonable political center, and that a majority of people would agree with my views if I was given the chance to argue them (i.e. if I was a Tea Partier, that the mainstream would be the Tea Party agenda). I think most people would say the exact same thing, even on the fringes of political thought. Here's the argument I think most people assume without knowing it: 1. I am reasonable and logical and think X 2. Some people are extreme, but the majority are reasonable and logical Therefore: the majority of people think X. I admit that I make that implicit assumption, its almost impossible not to - but it is a flawed argument, as it requires reason and logic to allow for a single conclusion (namely, X), and for you to assume that you are "reasonable and logical" - not an unreasonable assumption - but one that should be made very carefully. Best of luck to you, -Nick
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 8:30am
Reading this editorial reminds me of the Frog story. Put a frog in boiling water and it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in room temperature water and gradually bring it to a boil and you will soon have frog's legs. The Governor may not be visibly supportive of a radical agenda nor is he visibly against it. He is focused on what he believes is the solution to Michigan's economic and social problems - maximizing the profitability of businesses. Badly designed agenda leading to negative outcomes. All the while the legislature is very busy pushing ALEC inspired model legislation which inhibits the ability to vote, interferes with personal life decision making and removes all progress to a more civil society - bending toward concentrations of power in the hands of the few. In a phrase, he who has the gold rules!
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 6:00pm
The Center gets support for "pragmatic" solutions because it has advocated centristm solutions. People who want harder right or harder left policies are not reading the Center--and that is why they find what they find. What actually fixes Michigan is a completely different story--- Power and the Center advocate centrist policies--don't mistake them for being correct or needed though. Power's weak-kneed approach simply prolongs the pain and increases the size and influence of government. Mitt Romney's recent comments on the housing situation illustrate the point. Let the housing market hit bottom--its really painful--but its really short--maybe it takes 9 months of real pain, but you get over quickly. I'd much prefer the tough quick medicine than the slow, painless medicine of government prop-ups. Scott got ousted because he is from a very liberal district--its amazing that he ever won it in the first place--and because of the MEA's money.
Mike R
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 9:25pm
Cy, if left up to Mitt Romney (and apparently you), thousands more "robo-signed" and document-less foreclosures would have destroyed thousands more homes and millions more lives. And GM and Chrysler would have been allowed to go out of business, taking with them the jobs of thousands (perhaps millions) in Michigan and across the country. My guess is that you're not in either of those situations. Scott was ousted because the majority of his constituents woke up from their Tea Party nightmare, regained their senses, and took the first step back on the road to political, moral, and educational sanity.