Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
Last week the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the voters can decide if we will continue to have Emergency Financial Managers (EFM) in our state. This was a long fight. Stand Up for Democracy and the Detroit NAACP overcame unprecedented obstacles in their efforts to move this choice from a petition drive to a ballot question.
Now the forces protecting EFM’s are regrouping. Governor Snyder quickly issued a video and a statement defending the law. He announced he will reappoint the current managers. The Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, argued that the previous law, Public Act 72, comes back into effect. Snyder also said that he will ask the legislature for a “replacement law” immediately.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media are developing their arguments to endorse the EFMs. So far they have failed to understand that people oppose the EFM law because it assaults basic democratic rights and responsibilities.
Nolan Findley of the Detroit News personalized his attack rather than offer any real reasoning. He noted that Councilwoman JoAnn Watson celebrated the decision. So he believes voters should oppose it. He said, “If Watson is for it, voters who support good government should be against it.”? In what has become a characteristically mean spirited way of describing African American and women leaders Finley said, “She and her ilk of big spending unaccountable politicians are why Detroit and so many other cities and school districts around the state are facing insolvency.” For Findley this will either be a referendum on “big unions” or a “bailout for Detroit.”
Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press managed to be more troubling. Acknowledging the “absurd” efforts to prevent this question from coming before the people, Henderson called the EFM law an “unpleasant necessity.” The EFM law, he argues, forces “irresponsible local governments” to make the “difficult decisions” they have been “avoiding.”
Instead of individualizing his attacks, Henderson generalizes, saying, “Critics of the law have been loud and angry, but not persuasive in their ire.” He accuses us of being “quiet when cities and school districts mismanaged themselves” and offering “no alternative.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Henderson claims critics have “ embraced a narrow and halting vision of democracy.” That he describes as a “cynical and destructive view of self-determination.”
He makes this claim based on one of the most improbable statements I have ever read. In a paragraph that defies logical analysis he says, “Emergency management isn’t a suspension of democracy; it’s an instance of a superseding democracy swooping in to protect a larger electorate from the irresponsible actions of a smaller unit of government.”
The idea that “superseding democracy” is acceptable is exactly the issue at hand.
Instead of diminishing the capacity of our citizens to make decisions, we should be expanding it at every opportunity. We should look toward our neighbors in Central and South America, who are using Participatory Budgeting (PB) processes as a way to increase direct democracy.
Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Daniel Altschuler and Josh Lerner explain: “PB gives taxpayers a voice and a vote in how government spends public money. …First developed in Brazil, PB has spread to over 1,200 municipalities around the world. Throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, it has brought people into the political process, taught them civic skills, and encouraged them to work together. Where the state provides sufficient support – through training, facilitation, and expert guidance – PB can reverse dissatisfaction with government and increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency.”
There are alternatives to EFMs. These alternatives deepen democracy, superseding the shallow justifications of those who would use the current crisis to diminish public life.