President's Perspective

The De-Democratization of America

Denise Fairchild

The pain and anger are palpable. But so is the resolve. Spending a day with Flint residents recently was revealing. The residents want accountability. They want clean water. They want better lead testing standards and protocols. They want to understand the psychological, physiological, educational, developmental and other long-term effects of poisoning. They want Medicare for all residents poisoned by toxic water. They want federal disaster designation to access funds that have failed to materialize to date.

But, more than anything, they want their democracy back. Flint is one blatant example of how we are making a mockery of democracy, as more and more states erode local autonomy and voter rights. That is, we are witnessing the de-democratization of America.

“Poison by Policy” is the mantra of Flint residents. Residents are traumatized by and want remedy to the health affects of the water flowing into their homes from the Flint River. But they see that the source of the problem is less about dirty water, or the aging infrastructure, or the inaction of the Department of Environmental Quality, as suggested by Michigan Gov. Rick Synder’s task force report. Clearly, these factors and others converged into what is variously being called a man-made “disaster,” “crises” and  “criminal act.” 

Residents, however, put the problem squarely on the Michigan Emergency Managers Law, which they say replaced local control, voting rights and decision making with a state-appointed dictator. Flint’s emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, switched Flint’s water from the Michigan River to the poisoned Flint River to save money, dismissing the concerns of both residents and local elected officials about the water’s toxicity. Residents complained of undrinkable water in April 2014 but didn’t get a potable supply, in bottles, until January. They point to endless examples that illustrate the core problem: the emergency manager is unelected, unresponsive and unaccountable.  

Flint is only one flagrant example of a growing national assault against our democracy.   Emergency manager laws punish financially distressed communities by taking away their rights to local governance. They can be used to sell off/transfer public assets to private interests, revoke union contracts, fire elected officials and keep the electorate from overruling these laws.   

On the other hand – and ironically – local governments are also being punished for trying to strengthen their economies. As noted elsewhere in this newsletter, Gov. John Kasich recently signed Ohio House Bill 180 prohibiting local governments from requiring public contractors to hire local residents on construction jobs. Such a law is also trying to make its way through the Louisiana legislator. 

And of course let’s not forget the plethora of voting rights laws that seek to suppress voting altogether. These efforts range from undermining the Voting Rights Act to changing the length of time for voting and requirements to vote.

Besides making a mockery of democracy, the common denominator on these various laws is that they: 1) hurt low-income communities of color most, and 2) are being perpetrated at the state level by Republican legislators.   

The implications of these de-democratization laws are most dire for low-income communities of color. Nearly 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American population no longer has elected officials calling the shots in their cities or school districts. The precedent is being set for financially distressed communities of color across this country that are still reeling from decades of public and private divestment. At the same time, dismantling voter-approved local-hire provisions hurts communities of color that have historically been locked out of the benefits of economic development. And, of course, the only ones being targeted by the voter suppression rulings are communities of color who now make up the new majority.  

All of these de-democratization efforts are emerging in states with Republican governors and state legislators. Rather than representing their constituents or the interests of the state, Republican legislators have a playbook of rules graciously provided by ALEC to accelerate a conservative policy agenda.

When Snyder took office, one of the first bills he signed in 2011 was Public Act 4, giving him control over local jurisdictions. Michigan voters rejected this act by referendum in 2012, but Snyder made an alarming end-run around democracy a month later, introducing and achieving passage of a new bill, PA 436, with a controversial provision that the public could not repeal it.

We have an uphill battle. The NAACP is suing the state of Michigan, indicating that the emergency managers law violated voter rights. But we have 31 Republican governors out of 50. The battle is within every state and at every turn. What this means is that, as always, the fight for democracy is largely born by communities most deprived of those rights. It also means that the fight for democracy is an electoral battle.

I’m not telling you whom to vote for. I’m saying that it is election season. Both national and state (or what is called “down-ballot”) elections are in play. So get out to vote, and educate yourself on what is at stake.

And if you don’t know, I’ll give you a hint: it’s our democracy and all that goes with it. Thank you, Flint, for showing us the way.


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