When elites ignore the people, the center cannot hold

When I was growing up, Independence Day was a time for celebration, for red-white-and-blue parades and patriotic speeches by various notables, for family and lemonade and hot dogs. By and large, our July Fourth celebrations were times when Americans could kick back with a certain measure of contentment. That included – to a high degree – a sense of confidence in the workings of our democracy.

These days, not so much.

Our politics are in turmoil these days to a greater extent than I can remember. To a degree, this reflects deteriorating public confidence in the economic and political elites that have managed the country for decades. In this context, it seems unsurprising that the two presumptive nominees for the presidency – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – are the most unpopular candidates in recent history.

Whether folks think Clinton is a long-time crook or think Trump is totally unqualified, the candidates’ miserable standing in the public mind ultimately has got to reinforce a lack of confidence in those who manage our country.

Skepticism bordering on contempt for elites isn’t confined to Americans. Consider the stunning June 23 vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, where both those who normally vote Conservative and those who traditionally side with Labour chose “Brexit.” An English friend took to Churchillian prose to write that, “never have so few so unthinkingly damaged the economic security of so many with such little consideration for the consequences.”

For a country with a deeply ingrained class structure, it’s hardly surprising that grandees in London are calling the Brexit vote a “peasants’ revolt” against a European Union bureaucracy that itself is deeply elitist, largely unaccountable, and tone-deaf to complaints within and outside the EU.

Episodes of tone deafness continue to rile American politics as well: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email server for sensitive public business and last week’s stinging criticism of the practice by the head of the FBI is only one of a series of confidence-sapping episodes. If Trump wasn’t so vulnerable on so many counts himself, her campaign might be doomed.

In another example: We saw in Washington late last month a nearly unprecedented sit-in by Democrats who took over the House of Representatives’ chamber to protest Republican failure to do anything substantive about gun control even after the June 12 Orlando massacre in which a gunman killed 49.

Something like 90 percent of Americans think people who are on the government’s no-fly list shouldn’t be allowed to buy firearms. Yet many political elites, whether National Rifle Association top-siders or GOP House leaders, continue to hold firm against a step overwhelmingly supported by ordinary Americans.

Closer to home, in Flint we see an entire community with thousands of its children poisoned by lead in the drinking water, something brought about by wholesale incompetence and failure to listen by elites in government at all levels. As a result, you have to look hard to find anybody in Flint who trusts any elected representative or governmental official.

Why? Chris Kolb, the co-chair of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force, explained that “Citizens had no ability to influence decision-making” under a series of emergency financial managers. Snyder’s own chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, dispatched to go to Flint in July 2015 to assess the local situation, reported back by email that Flint residents were getting more and more angry that their concerns were basically being “blown off” by Lansing.

Then the state kept blowing them off for another three months, until it could no longer be denied that there was lead in the water.

The basic argument for a democracy as a political system is that it forces elites to listen to ordinary people. When they fail to listen -- or fail to take account of the people’s grievances – such a system is designed to toss elites out of office and replace them with folks who will listen.

But when that doesn’t work, history teaches that frustrated and aroused citizens often take things into their own hands. The English “peasants” who voted to leave the EU revolted against a foreign, unaccountable elite that crammed regulations and immigration policy down countless throats. The dynamics are similar in America, where political parties are complex organizations that in many ways are responsive to powerful interest groups.

But when those interest groups (such as the NRA) stand immobile against a long-time, substantial majority of citizen opinion, history teaches there’s trouble ahead.

Citizens in Flint had decision-making power taken from them by a series of state-imposed emergency managers. Citizens found their repeated valid concerns about poisoned drinking water ignored.
Should we be surprised at citizen discontent and growing lack of trust in “the system?”

Working-class Americans, especially white males without college degrees who have seen their incomes stagnate over recent decades, think the system is rigged against them. Guess which candidates got their support? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both originally scorned as “populists” by the media – and the political elites.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote his terrifying The Second Coming, which included these lines:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

When the center cannot or does not hear what is being said on the ground, things do fall apart.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one outcome of this year’s troubling and deeply flawed politics will be to accelerate wholesale change in the two-party “duopoly” that has run this nation for well over a century.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Bob P
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:05am
Great Insight. But maybe a little soft. Bad things happen when Democratic Institutions are corrupted by special interests. The rigging of a two party system with gerrymandered districts further weakens the ability of a democracy to right itself. The longer it takes to fix, the more difficult the fix will be. My generation deserves no credit for letting things get out of control, and leaving this very tough work to the youngsters. Time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country.
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 1:04pm
Yes. Absolutely. But unfortunately, no one in power cares or is willing to change things.
Harry Bannister
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 11:17am
Last winter, a group of businesspeople and community activists formed the Advocates for Benzie County with the express purpose of exploring the barriers holding back year-'round economic growth. The group has arisen in response to a vacuum in county leadership. We've since held forums on affordable housing, infrastructure, education, and employment and generated much interest. Rather than pointing the blame to elites, as Phil Power has stated, I see government at all levels as corralled by a lack of leadership, responsibility and transparency. Some of the blame can be placed on elected officials stymied by special interests, whether they are structured like the Tea Party, or noisy individuals firing off posts and twitters via social media. Most of the problem is simply a failure to research solutions to the issues impacting their constituents, share the strategies that come from the research, and work to build buy-in across the disparate segments of that constituency. When elected officials--at whatever level of government--fail to provide leadership and a connection with their base, the citizenry eventually rises up to fill that vacuum. Rather than observing the collapse of the two-party system, I think we'll see a rebirth of citizens' groups like the Advocates for Benzie County taking up the reins and formalizing solutions and partnerships to force their elected officials to take action.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 1:35pm
Harry you make some great points. Leadership in the 21st Century requires collaboration to solve the complex issues of the day no one individual or group of individuals can do this. I also agree there is not leadership emerging here in Michigan with these skills. I would also point out there are tremendous "structural issues" that exist in all levels of government, so the tax payers are not getting the benefits of the taxes they pay. Infighting, arrogance of a hierarchical structure of government and all that has created in the last few years, and no accountability are impacting MI to a great degree. Grassroots efforts right now are making a difference and I will check out the advocates for Benzie County. It sounds like it is doing something right.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 3:14pm
I would have been delighted to hear the findings of Mr. Bannister's group. Just what were "the barriers holding back year-’round economic growth"? What were the insights generated by the "forums on affordable housing, infrastructure, education, and employment"?
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 11:49am
Bob I do not have enough time to wait for the tough work to be done by the youngsters. I am making an attempt to provide change in our Township by running for Supervisor in 2016. Many people ask me how can you make a difference. One of the biggest changes I will not sign off to allow the manager to fulfill the duties of a Supervisor. As Supervisor I have control of our bloated budget process. Case in point I preformed a survey of 110 township between 4000-6000 residents. (The list was provided to me the University of Michigan closeup) The survey concluded that of the 110 townships we spent the most per resident at $178.00 or $1,123.000 for l local government operation and $1.00 for parks and recreation. Our township has about 5000 residents. To check my figures click on this treasury link or copy and paste it into your boozer to validate the information. http://f65.mitreasury.msu.edu/Reports/CitizensReport.aspx . At the local level for our township go to my website www.wacousta.org home page and read the information "Campaign Information Watertown Township Taxpayers!!!!" This is just a small township but it is an example of what is going on in our country. I can make a difference in our community!!! Dale Westrick Working to bring accountability and transparency to local government!!!
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 12:47pm
Why did Power's otherwise insightful article omit the historically important factors of race and oppression continuing today in various forms including excessive incarceration and disproportionately poor schooling? He wrote about the importance of class but not contrived white supremacy. He could have observed that the U. S. is in a difficult position in continuing its world leadership where over two-thirds of the world's population is non-white. Does Phil Power believe that the poison in Flint's water could have occurred to such an extent in a well-off white community as it did in Flint with its significant African American population or that Detroit's schools could be so under-resourced during 9 years of state control with state appointed emergency managers, if the students were predominantly white. The fact that there are also under resourced white schools largely in communities with concentrations of the poor does not diminish this concern. Unless one's analysis and exposition includes the major explanatory factors such as racism, the solutions reached will be incomplete. Otherwise, I found Phil Power's remarks cogent and timely.
Tue, 07/12/2016 - 7:28pm
Last year when the LWV was sponsoring informational meetings on Gerrymandering and its effects I noticed the party regulars from both parties were very cold to any change in the current system. After all, the current system protects the incumbents and party regulars from answering to the unaligned electorate. . It is my firm belief that until we make the districts competitive, we will never break the hold of big money and party leaders.The voters need to realize that real change starts at the bottom, not the top and Gerrymandering disenfranchises moderate voices..
John S.
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 12:57pm
If the political system is hobbled, fix it. In this state? Take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature. There are no more than about a dozen competitive House districts. Absurd! Bring an end to term limits. Many legislators don't even know that oversight is one of their responsibilities. What's gained by celebrating legislator inexperience and ignorance? Then there's need for greater transparency with respect to campaign finance and freedom of information. These reforms would be a start.
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 8:15pm
So you want competitive races, (meaning being realistic for incumbents to actually lose and challengers actually win?) but you don't want term limits which actually assure that new voices can enter office? Sounds like you really want something else?
David Richards
Wed, 07/13/2016 - 10:37pm
Changing extreme partisan officeholders for different extreme partisan officeholders does nothing to improve the situation, but throws away institutional knowledge and increases the power of special interests in the process. Having competitive districts, however, forces the office holders in those districts to show some willingness to cooperate with the opposing party. Term limits actually exacerbate the problem, as people do not respect the rights of someone who they will shortly have no contact with compared to someone they may have to work with for years to come. The fact that the minority party and majority party are likely to change positions over the course of a legislator's career encourages fair treatment of the opposition, a factor not present with term limits so the majority can walk all over the minority with little fear of paybacks.
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 10:30am
So not having term limits would lead us to bipartisan paradise as we have in the US house of Reps and Senate?
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 10:58pm
David, It isn't about respect, that should be initially given as a professional curtousy, similar to the respect you would give to new doctor or dentist or other professional. Term limits is to discourage Michigan elected office being a career unto itself. The reality is the longer you are in the same role the more likely you are to see the same issues come around again and the more likely you are to respond in the way you had the last time ]human nature]. If you want new perspectives it is best to change people, forcing in new people ensures at least new perspectives. The only problem is that the current political environment does not offer any support for better informing voters. If you want to change who is elect to need to offer voters a criteria to use in their assessment and then the means for those voters to get the data for each candidate that answers those criteria questions. The current problem is how the candidates and government programs have no accountability, none are held accountable for results, candidates have little loyalty to the Party so there isn't even any secondary accountability through the Party. Consider the current Presidential candidate selection process,the Democrats has a long standing Independent as very strong candidate and the Republicans have a candidate that is selected through public appeal far more than Party activities and connection. Who are they accountable to the Party or to the general public the were/are their base of support. Unless you can show that there is specific knowledge and skills that can only be gained by serving as a State legislative office holder there is no value to removing term limits.
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 1:03pm
David, Thank you for articulating what I have tried to say for years. Term limits are a failed experiment, despite Matt's intransigence on the issue. And gerrymandering, despite the legislature's disavowal, is a major factor in the one sided "solutions" we are forced to absorb. The Legislature and governor are crowing again about a "budget passed on time and balanced." Yet each of the last four years there has suddenly loomed a half billion dollar deficit that was unanticipated. Just getting a budget (or any package of laws) passed because you have a political party monopoly, that does not meet the needs of the citizens is certainly nothing to be proud of.
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 10:38pm
John, If redistricting were the cause of our current political woes then in Mr. Power's youth we would have the same woes and every time new census results were published. The different that is contributing to our frustration is how Party responsibility has changed, the Parties no longer selected their candidates, they have turned it over to the general public and activist factions. If you reflect on the transition of broad based dissatisfaction it follows the shifting of Party selection process. By moving to the selection process based on a primary where anyone can vote for a Parties candidate even though they may be a long standing member of the opposing Party it dissociates the candidate from the Party and its holding them accountable. This change has moved selection from Party 'brand' to individual appeal, personalities and rhetoric became. A real impact of the 'old' approach selection on by Party members provide a degree of accountability, when it is only about the individual there is no accountability [there is no one there to provide it]. Don't believe what the out of power partisans say, consider the history of such things as primaries and gerrymandering. Consider that at least in the 'gerrymandered' district the dominate voting block has an expectation and next primary they can vote for a new candidate while in the none 'gerrymandered' districts it is a free for all and it is more the personality than the Party.
Fri, 07/15/2016 - 9:56am
a very interesting dialogue, I would question Davids's assertion that candidates have little loyalty to the party. Where I live if you stray too far from the Party position on issues, you can find yourself without funding and a party supported candidate running for your job in the next primary. Also if you are term limited, woe betide the person who crossed the party when it comes fundraising time for the next seat..
LuAnn F
Fri, 07/15/2016 - 2:02pm
Thank you Phil for your insights and for educating me on the origins of the term "the center cannot hold". Twenty years of public education including a doctorate degree and I had no idea it was Yeats. But then I never thought to look it up! I think I'll go read more of him now.
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 7:53am
Take the power away from the elitist big government and return it to the Community of Pay it Forward Voluteers.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 12:47pm
Phil, I have thought about Yeats's quote often in relation to politics (he's thinking religion). Another quote for you, from Shakespeare's King Lear: "Tis the time's plague when fools lead the blind." Here's an article along the same lines as yours which refers mostly to Brexit, but also US politics and elites.https://theintercept.com/2016/06/25/brexit-is-only-the-latest-proof-of-t...
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 1:24pm
Well, Phil - how about writing your next column about Snyder's choice for the new director of MiDEQ? A BP lobbyist?! And here I thought that after Flint Snyder couldn't get more tone deaf and blind, but.... She'll be voted in and will protect Snyder and his 'legacy'....watch.
David Werner
Sun, 07/17/2016 - 8:23pm
Well said, Phil! Your words echo what I have benign saying for the last 20 years. What we are currently witnessing has been in the making for many years. If we cannot change this direction our nation will fail.