Well, as you undoubtedly know, Proposal 1, the complicated ballot proposal that was supposed to provide money to fix our roads (and for a lot of other things besides) got absolutely crushed May 5.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if that vote signifies something significant about what’s going on at the core of our political system.
I see a set of things coming together:
First, people increasingly don’t trust politicians ‒ and were angry at what the system offered up this time around. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading reader comments on Proposal 1 in last week’s Bridge Magazine: “Pile of dung” was among the mildest. The usual manipulations carried out by the political system seem to be at the heart of much of the anger. One reader called it “legislative sausage,” while another pointed out “Our system of government is a representative democracy, which means we elect people to go to Lansing and represent us, the people. When our elected officials can’t, or won’t, come up with a plan to solve a problem that has been in the making for many years, they are failing in their jobs.”
The legislative insiders who cooked up the elements of Proposal 1 in the waning hours of last December’s “Lame Duck” session focused on the standard insider political problem: How do you get something through the legislature? Answer: You load up the “Christmas tree” so everybody gets bought off with something. But that’s a terrible way to design a proposal that’s going to have to meet the needs and expectations of ordinary citizens. Many people felt they were being played for suckers in a political shell game.
My second thought was well put by a reader who pointed out “how out of touch the legislature is with their constituents.” Many political leaders around the state urged a “Yes” vote because the measure was the “best the legislature could put together.”
Well, the best the legislature could do wound up getting less than 20 percent of the votes. Not exactly a rousing endorsement ‒ especially coupled with the pervasive feeling that gutless lawmakers ducked their responsibilities by punting the decision to the voters.
One thing this brilliantly highlights is that old school political leadership mechanisms don’t work well anymore. Leadership support for Proposal A was virtually unanimous. The governor donned a hard hat and brandished chunks of concrete from bad roads, while Democratic and Republican leaders alike supported the proposal. So did numerous business organizations, labor unions and police and fire leaders. Only one newspaper in the state urged a “No” vote, while both Detroit newspapers (one liberal and one conservative) endorsed it.
But it was all to no avail.
How come? Clearly, in addition to a lack of trust in society’s elites, as a number of readers pointed out, newspapers have less clout. One comment noted, “Studies have shown that the influence of traditional newspaper endorsements has greatly diminished over the years in influencing the public. With so many options to get information on a subject these days, that’s not too surprising.” Readers also pointed out that many, many people get their information these days ‒ not from newspapers ‒ but from social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
This is undoubtedly so, although I confess this worries me no end. For one thing, it’s pretty hard to get a thoughtful understanding of a complicated policy issue (let alone Proposal 1) in a 140-character Twitter post. Moreover, nearly everybody who has access to a computer, iPad or cell phone can be a “publisher” if they want, posting their opinions/rants as they please …without any seasoned editor to make corrections of fact or for balance.
Indeed, as the saying goes, while everybody is entitled to their own opinions, people are not entitled to their own facts.
The real question, and problem, is this: Who’s going to correct factual inaccuracies propagated over millions of posts?
The rise of social media is an established fact of our times. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and a few articulate and committed comments or snips of video can go viral to millions. An old friend with loads of policy and political experience told me last week that he worries the country is in the process of becoming ungovernable. “When you can create an uninformed but passionate mob in just a few days, you have the preconditions for a direct democracy that will destroy the core of the Republic.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I do believe that last week’s election signified that something very serious is going on at the core of our political system ‒ and that both politicians and ordinary citizens need to shape up and pay close attention.