Apr 10, 2016

April 7, 2016: Lessons from Michigan, Finding the Party, Myopia Strikes Deep

For years the Ionia Democratic Party has held its annual ‘G. Mennen Williams’ memorial dinner on the infield at the Ionia Free Fair.  One such conclave, in the early 1990’s celebrated as it’s featured guest speaker one Debbie Stabenow, now senior Senator from the State of Michigan but then a State Senator known primarily for giving Rescumlican John Engler his entire first-term agenda by agreeing to shift funding of the public schools from property to income taxes.  Engler parlayed the victory into another two terms as governor continuing a campaign to further erode the well-being of the state.  Stabenow went on to the United States Senate.

I remember her appearance at the dinner, held annually under a tent on the infield next to a permanently constructed stage upon which, over the years, performed Tiny Tim, Jefferson Starship, Alabama, Willie Nelson and a host of other notables.  After her speech, I had occasion to engage in a rather lengthy exchange with the state Senator.

Kevin Phillips had recently published his work “The Politics of Rich and Poor”, declaring in decisive and convincing terms the abject failure of Reaganomics.  I brought up the subject, prefacing the author’s role as the architect of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’.  I could see her eyes glaze over at the mere suggestion of anything of importance being associated with Republicanism this, after all, being a partisan occasion.  Nevertheless, given her willingness to work with even the most abject swine (Engler), I found myself confused.  It was clear, however that no matter the extent to which I tried to drive home the point that ‘trickle-down’ is not, has not, and never will work, the work of ‘rendering the obvious, obvious’ was lost upon our intrepid politician.  Alas, Michigan’s now senior Senator is a part of the ‘generation of swine’ that emerged in the 1980’s and affiliated itself with the Clinton-led Democratic Leadership Council.  She along with former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard, best known for “putting Michigan behind bars” by incarcerating so many of the state’s citizens that for the first time the Department of Corrections became the largest state agency dwarfing even the monies spent on roads and schools, was part of the emerging Democratic Political Elite that did it’s level best to ape the Republicans by not only ratifying the Reagan Reaction but appropriating the Republican agenda itself.  Clearly, I sensed, I was wasting my breath.

But there was more.   During the course of the exchange the conversation included several other members of the local party some expressing gratitude that the senator (albeit at state rather than federal level) had condescended to travel to central and western Michigan.  You see we don’t see much of our elected Democratic office holders here in this part of the state.  Stabenow replied that the visit is a notable exception, that the real effort to win elections in Michigan involve concentrating along the I-75 corridor, from Detroit and Ann Arbor through Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Bay City.  Here, it is held lies the keys to Democratic victory and dominance in the State.

For generations now this has been the prevailing view.  Not since Williams himself and his cohorts Neil Stabler, Phil Hart and Frank Kelly built the modern Michigan Democratic Party in the 1950’s have our Democratic representatives paid much attention to Western Michigan or much of Michigan beyond the I-75 corridor, with disastrous consequences.  

Detroit, once a city of 1.5 million now has less than half that population.  Flint, as recent headlines concerning the state-sponsored water crisis demonstrates, is equally not only in dire straits but likewise has lost much of its population.  The votes, consequently the political power, has shifted elsewhere, primarily to Western Michigan and out of state.  Grand Rapids, the second largest city in the state, has long been Democratic but you would never know it given the level of recognition the city receives from the state’s Democratic elites or, for that matter, the national Democratic Party.  The city is only sporadically recognized by even presidential campaigns as they make their quadrennial sojourn across the nation.   John Kennedy in 1960, Robert Kennedy in 1968, Dukkakis at a rather modest forum at the Meijer center in 1988, John Kerry in 2004.  As a result, the party has never had the support necessary to field an effective organization.  Often, mostly, there isn’t even a Democratic Headquarters except in the waning months of a national campaign.  Not even in the state’s second largest city.  Trying to find the party can sometimes be a daunting task.

The problem is further complicated by the shifting demographics as today cities like Muskegon, which has been a Democratic stronghold since the 1950’s but has not seen a Democratic president or presidential candidate since John Kennedy in 1962, are entirely ignored; but places like Holland—dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church and formerly a bulwark of political conservatism—are now voting Democratic.  In fact, in 2008 rural counties in West Michigan like Oceana and Mason voted for Obama.  Has the party done anything to build on those electoral returns?  Of course not.  Myopia strikes deep.

There was hope, in the run-up to the 2008 election cycle, when the Democrats put Howard Dean in charge.  Dean insisted that the Party abandoned the blue vs. red dichotomy and become a truly national party challenging the Rescumlicans in nearly every congressional district.  This made the opposition defend its territory not only putting more congressional seats in play but tying down resources otherwise free to spend pushing Democrats against the wall in places like Michigan.  With the election of Obama, Dean was pushed out as head of the party and things reverted back to ‘normal’.   We are living with the consequences.  Not only have the Dems lost control of both houses of Congress but literally hundreds of state legislative seats allowing the scums to gerrymander the House into a solid reactionary bloc, with little hope of mounting a successful challenge.

In this context the recent returns in the Democratic Primary are illustrative.  Hillary, following the strategy long adopted by the mossbacks of the party, concentrated her efforts as usual along the I-75 corridor.   Bernie concentrated on the rest of the state, places like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City.  In Muskegon, for instance, campaign workers came to my door, asked who I was supporting, put a Sanders yard sign in my yard, as well as that of my neighbor who was supporting Clinton.  Clinton’s campaign, here in a city that on election day will have no Republicans running for local office on the ballot, was nowhere to be seen.  Accordingly, Bernie handily won the rest of the state, including the former Democratic congressional district comprising the northern lower peninsula and the entire upper peninsula, now held by the Rescumlican Tea baggers.  

What the election demonstrates is a troubling dynamic within the contemporary Democratic Party, a party bereft of imagination not only regarding solutions to the countries myriad problems but in terms of organizing itself and, therefore, its subsequent ability to function as a political party by organizing, in turn, political opinion.  Here Bernie not only defeats the rear-guard apparatchiks representing as they do the remnants of the old DLC and all it stands for, but he does it by organizing in greater numbers a countryside long left fallow by the party regulars.  This should be a wake-up call to those in the party and progressives about the as-yet unrealized potential to fully materialize into a transformative movement.  


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