Michigan Corporations Didn’t Mind Doing Away with Democracy in Detroit

In 2013, democracy was notably less popular with Michigan corporate leaders and Governor Rick Snyder, right.

Last week, the leaders of Michigan’s 30 largest corporations and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement opposing Michigan Republicans’ efforts to make it harder to vote.

“The right to vote is a sacred, inviolable right of American citizens,” they declared. “Our democracy is strongest when we have the greatest level of participation by our citizens in a representative government.”

It was stirring stuff, nearly enough to make you forget that just a few years ago, when it came to the right of the nation’s largest black-majority city to elect its own government, the same people were singing a very different tune.

“Bring it on,” cheered Detroit Regional Chamber president Sandy Baruah in 2013 when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced he was appointing an “emergency financial manager” to take control of the city of Detroit.

Baruah explained to the New York Times that doing away with Detroit’s democratically elected leadership would “send a positive message to business.”

So much for sacred and inviolable.

Only months earlier, in the November 2012 election, Michigan voters had approved a proposal to repeal the law authorizing Snyder to appoint emergency managers. Undaunted, Snyder and the Republican Legislature simply pushed through another emergency manager law, along with an appropriation that made it un-repealable, just in case.

The city of Detroit’s experience with state-imposed dictatorship was arguably somewhat less catastrophic than the experience of the city of Flint, where the state’s cost-cutting measures led to the poisoning of the predominantly African American city’s water supply; or the experience of the Detroit Public Schools, where emergency managers shuttered dozens of schools and presided over the loss of over half the districts’ students.

But the consequences were real enough: the slashing of pensions for city workers and retirees; the privatization of many public services; and the transfer of city assets like Belle Isle and the water system to state or metropolitan control. The long-term effects will take many more years to unfold.

At the end of the day, the question is pretty simple: Is the right to democratic self-government “inviolable,” regardless of race, class or creed, or is it not? And which side are the Regional Chamber and its members really on?

Over at the American Prospect, Robert Kuttner comments, with some understatement, that “the marriage of capitalism and democracy is an uneasy one.”

Indeed, the experience of Detroit and Flint suggests that if democracy in America is to prevail, it won’t be thanks to the likes of General Motors or Quicken Loans.

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