The Push against Cush
Detroit politics, the greatest show on earth
By D. Alexander Bullock
Amid freezing temperatures, persistent unemployment and a historic bankruptcy, Detroit news media has provided a front row seat to the greatest show on earth — local Detroit political characters. There has been an unprecedented shift in political reporting. It is less about the problems and proposed policy solutions and now more about the political characters.
Whatever the cause, this is the trend in Detroit and in other urban areas in Michigan. In Flint, the top story is about Councilman Eric Mays. In Detroit, Councilman George Cushingberry has trumped Kwame Kilpatrick and Charles Pugh as the defining issue in Detroit politics. Whatever the intent, this trend is bad for the body politic. It creates a political climate that favors elitism over populism. It fosters an anemic political discussion. It promotes the value of political disengagement.
Emergency Manager Keyvn Orr has city worker pension benefits in his sights and the new public lighting authority has a plan to take almost 50 percent of the lights out of the city of Detroit, but there is little in-depth reporting on these matters.
Gov. Rick Snyder has ushered in Right To Work, erased the Earned Income Tax Credit and ignored the need for public safety in Flint and Detroit, but there is little in–depth reporting on these matters either. Education reform has led to the EAA. In Lansing, it means a choice for improving education and distressed school districts. In reality, it means mere experimentation with a vulnerable poor, Black and urban constituency. However, the media doesn’t provide the necessary conversational CliffsNotes so citizens can make a reasonable choice about what is best for themselves and their community.
Instead there is a blatant and blind heroification of new mayor Mike Duggan and a cheap chipping away at the last strands of dignity locally-elected officials can muster. Nolan Finley’s attack on Brenda Jones is typical. Still, the media coverage and public exposé of Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry is instructive of the kind of shallow political reporting that has come to characterize the culture of Detroit media.
Did Councilman George Cushingberry smoke a joint and drive his car while drunken on the night of Jan. 7? Time will tell. Is this an event we expect to be reported? Of course! However, details about political characters should not be the defining character of political reporting in a democracy. A democracy needs informed citizens. The news is valuable primarily as an immediate and accurate source of information upon which citizens can base their reasonable policy decisions. Fortunately, or unfortunately, citizens are really expected to make decisions in a democracy. These are decisions beyond merely voting for a representative, but they are also decisions about policies.
The prevailing trend is bad for democracy:
- It creates a political climate that favors elitism over populism.
A certain kind of republican, a traditional conservative, has always believed more in the notion of a republic rather than a democracy. The republic is a noble idea, rule of the virtuous, the landed aristocrat, the elite, and the educated. Democracy is a messy myth — it means rule by the regular people, all of them. America has combined the two ideas, but they remain in tension.
Detroit, and the rest of Michigan, has been ground zero for the property owning democracy for years. The wealth of the automotive industry allowed citizens of all classes and creeds to buy a home and engage in political agitation. The trade union and the church provided an opportunity for citizens to be trained in the political arts and get involved not only through electing experts, but also by proposing, shaping and advocating for policy positions.
The key to fostering genuine engagement is shaping the conversation and disseminating useful information. A genuine democracy also requires an unspoken faith in the ability of ordinary people to be effective in politics and for the will of the people to get it right. Overemphasizing the faults of ordinary citizens and questioning the legitimacy of duly-elected public officials are key ways to undermine a strong body politic.
- It fosters an anemic political discussion.
The barbershops in Flint are talking about Councilman Eric Mays. The beauty shops in Detroit are full of opinions about Council President Brenda Jones. The streets and suites are talking about Councilman Cushingberry. Our political discussion is a shallow one. It is a reality TV political conversation. It is talk about the characters in the political drama or rather their character. It is not talk about solutions to distressed public schools, rising crime and economic growth forgotten urban enclaves. It is an anemic conversation about the topics that affect our lives the least.
- It promotes the value of political disengagement.
Anemic political conversations are a turn off. Citizens are wrestling with personal lives and trying to figure out how to promote public goods. Undermining faith in the political process, attacking the character of locally grown leadership and obscuring the real problems and proposed solutions tends to promote the value of not being engaged at all.
Whatever the intention of journalists like Nolan Finley, the continued trend in political reporting will ultimately impede the creation of a cohesive and constructive body politic. It will only add to cynicism and apathy. It will only amplify an “us versus them” social atmosphere. Who knows? This may be the goal. If so, it is both anti-democracy and un-American.
D. Alexander Bullock is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church and the founder and national spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium (actioncac.org).