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Constructing a new democracy

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The anti-democratic efforts by the right-wing Republican legislature in Lansing are putting Michigan in the national spotlight. One national commentator, Jim Hightower, is now referring to our state as “Michiganistan” because of what he called the rule of “iron fist-democracy, rule-of-law, fairness and the people be damned.” He described the lame duck session as “dumbfounding, anti-democratic zealotry.” Others talked about the governor and legislature pulling a “fast-one” by “introducing and then ramming through legislation … designed so it cannot be repealed by popular referendum.”

In the last days of 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the new emergency manager law, flaunting the clear rejection by voters state-wide of such legislation.

In a remarkable effort at reshaping reality, the governor issued a statement saying the new law “demonstrates that we clearly heard, recognized and respected the will of the voters.” He claimed the new law “builds in local control and options while also ensuring the tools to protect … residents, students and taxpayers.”

The new law includes a $770,000 state appropriation to cover managers’ salaries, a provision that shields it from another statewide vote because spending bills are immune to referendums. Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, accused Republicans of going to “extreme lengths” with that provision.

Snyder further insults voters by claiming this law is substantially different from the one just repealed by referendum because if a review team finds that a financial emergency exists, communities can choose their remedy. The choices are to request an emergency manager, ask for a mediator, apply for bankruptcy or introduce a reform plan.

The Detroit City Council also rejected the will of the people by a slim 5-4 majority. They supported a massive sale of public land to Hantz Farms/Woodlands after an outpouring of public objections and approved the Miller Canfield agreement demanded by the governor.

These actions have made it clear that fundamental change is needed in Michigan. At a time when the authority of nation-states over the lives of citizens is decreasing around the world, a small group of well-financed, right-wing ideologues are stripping away all pretense of democratic responsibility. Representative democracy now means representing the interests of a corporate power structure over the will of the majority of citizens. It is providing a legal mechanism for immoral actions, allowing the looting of the public realm and the wholesale transfer of public wealth into private hands.

It is no longer enough to petition against these actions or to protest their implementation. We need to create new political forms that enable us to create new centers of public responsibility.

We are fortunate to be living in a time when many before us have faced similar conditions and found new and imaginative ways to organize for better lives. We should be especially grateful to our brothers and sisters throughout Central and South America who have been expanding ideas of direct democracy. They have much to offer us.

For example, for more than three decades communities have been using participatory budgeting to determine local needs and to strengthen democratic processes. Recently, New York joined Chicago and Vallejo, Calif., in using this process.

Advocates argue that such a process enables communities to improve their quality of life while having a “direct and meaningful say in what government does.” Such a process creates “new spaces for groups to engage with the public in positive and constructive ways.”

This coming year the challenge for us in Michigan and Detroit is to move toward meaningful democracy. Over the last few months, we have been developing a new language of policies that can move us closer to more equitable ways of living. Community benefit agreements, land trusts and participatory budgeting are not new ideas, but they are ideas sorely needed in our city and state as we construct a new democracy.

Contact Shea Howell at howell@oakland.edu.

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