Michigan Seems Like a Dream to Me Now

I write from Great Britain, where I am holed up in Bristol pondering the size, shape, and character of a great mercantile city that Edmund Burke once represented in Parliament. When, however, I am not speaking to a conference about ancient and modern constitutionalism or admiring the beauty of this metropolis and its surroundings, I am thinking about Michigan — where, last week, the Republicans in the legislature passed right-to-work legislation, which Governor Rick Snyder is poised to sign into law this week.

I live in an obscure, impoverished corner of Michigan — in a county with the highest unemployment in a state that has had very high unemployment now for nearly a decade — but I am not a Michigander born and bred. I can describe the political geography of the state, using a broad brush. But I do not know its nooks and crannies, and I am very much puzzled by what I see.

In November, Barack Obama won the state handily, and Debbie Stabenow was reelected to the Senate without any difficulty at all. In the same election, two conservative justices on the Michigan Supreme Court were reelected, and a third conservative very nearly won a seat on the court that was being vacated by a liberal Democrat. Moreover, the left made a valiant attempt to secure the passage of a series of referenda designed to entrench union privilege in the state constitution, and they lost on each and every measure. What is one to make of this?

Michigan was once a union stronghold — the capital of an empire controlled by the United Auto Workers. The private-sector unions are now, however, no longer what they were. They have strangled industry. Wherever I have gone in Michigan, I have heard stories of plants closing and of jobs disappearing. The collapse of the auto industry was merely the final coup de grace. Other industries — and there were many of them — withdrew or simply disappeared long before the arrival of the Great Recession. The unions and the Democratic machine associated with them have also destroyed Detroit. It was once the fourth largest city in the United States; it was once the nation’s wealthiest city per capita. Now the median price of a house is $10,000, and, where there were once two million residents, there are now fewer than 700,000. The state is changing character. In the last decade, it has lost 10-15% of its population.

What I do not know is whether Michigan is ready to be a right-to-work state. Its becoming one would give one hope that it might have a future. Absent a major turn-around, it will continue on a path that will lead it to look like West Virginia in 1955. But what is needed is not always possible, and I find myself wondering whether — in a state that firmly backed Barack Obama and Debbie Stabenow — there will not be a ferocious reaction to what Rick Snyder and the Republicans are now doing. John Kasich and the Republicans in Ohio got a comeuppance not long ago when they passed a far less radical piece of legislation aimed at curbing public-sector union power (and that alone). Will Michigan explode? Will the unions strike back with powerful effect?

I do not know. But this I do know: If Snyder and the Republicans succeed — if they are as successful with their endeavor as Scott Walker and the Republicans in Wisconsin have been with theirs — it will shift the national balance. The unions may be entrenched in California, Illinois, and New York. Those states may be lost. They may have to face bankruptcy before they can make a comeback. But if Michigan can free itself from this albatross by its own efforts in the current environment, then, there is hope almost everywhere else. Things are going to get hot in Michigan. It is a state that bears close watching.

It could also be the case that — with Washington deadlocked — the real action over the next four years will be at the state level. In 2012, the Republicans lost the national election. But, at the same time, they garnered in 2010 and 2012 a strength at the state and local level that they have not seen as a party since the 1920s. The fact that the Republicans in Michigan have just passed right-to-work legislation is proof that the Tea-Party impulse is by no means dead. The year 2012 may be remembered not as the year in which the latest wave of Progressivism triumphed. It may be remembered as a year in which the Republican resurgence hit a minor bump in the road. Stay tuned.

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  1. Western Chauvinist

    It could also be the case that — with Washington deadlocked — the real action over the next four years will be at the state level.

    Gives me an idea for a new GOP campaign slogan.

    “Vote Republican. Otherwise, who will President Obama and the Democrats in Washington have left to blame?”

  2. paulebe

    It is a curious thing, is it not Paul, how this issue is being managed since the election? Snyder (current R Gov.) has avoided this issue after seeing the Ohio debacle and likely being more than a little unsure he could stand the type of pressue Walker faced in WI. Yet, for whatever reason, our “nerd” of a gov has decided to charge right into the machine gun nest and take on the pudgy, not really affected by the downturn, union thugocracy with real-live right to work legislation. Gives me a greater respect for the guy! The thugs will, of course, attempt to occupy Lansing on Tuesday. That’ll be fine theater.

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    paulebe, I agree with your entirely. I was ready to write off Snyder as a wuss. Now he seems to be prepared to inherit the wind. At the very least, things will be interesting. They may even matter nationally — a lot.

  4. Adam Koslin

    This may be completely erroneous, but Occam’s Razor suggests a simple answer to your question, Prof. Rahe; people tend to like conservatives when they are neighbors, friends, aldermen, mayors, etc., but can’t stand them when they have to stand on abstract policy, media techniques, and stereotypes.  Or perhaps in Michigan the Dems have just made themselves obnoxious?

  5. BrentB67

    I think you make a very good point. The action is going to be in the states because they have to balance their budgets in some form.

    The ability of the states to manage their affairs in their best interest is the way forward for limited government conservatives. Federalism and the 10th Amendment should be powerful planks going forward.

    This also raises the issue that if we are going to ensure states have the right to manage their affairs and keep more of what their residents earn at home we are going to have to be tolerant of some social choices in certain states including SSM, abortion, and marijuana legalization.

    I believe over time the success and failure of diverse cultural choices made at the state level will shift our culture to more traditional values and away from the experiments mentioned in the previous paragraph.

  6. Foxman

    ” the left made a valiant attempt to secure the passage of a series of referenda designed to entrench union privilege in the state constitution”

    As I understand it, Gov. Snyder agreed to back off on right to work if the unions would back off on proposal 2.  The unions did not back off and this is what they get.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Foxman: ” the left made a valiant attempt to secure the passage of a series of referenda designed to entrench union privilege in the state constitution”

    As I understand it, Gov. Snyder agreed to back off on right to work if the unions would back off on proposal 2.  The unions did not back off and this is what they get. · 0 minutes ago

    Yes, I think that you are right on this. It is the revenge of the nerd.

  8. liberal jim

    Either the state will change or productive people will continue to vote with their feet.  People who believe in limited government free market principles and who are willing to invest in them have been leaving liberal enclaves like MI for decades.  

    Except for a few exceptions the national Republican party no longer is identified with any principles let alone conservative ones.  When an individual who is truly conservative runs in a local race the fact that he is a Republican is overlooked by some and he wins.    

    If your going to support a career politician you might as well vote for the one who is best suited to bring home the bacon.  There is little reason to vote for a Republican in more liberal states unless you are convinced doing so will radically change things.  That is the case in many local races, but is at best only a remote possibility in most federal elections.

  9. Scott R

    Does anyone know what recourse unions would have to overturn the law? Did they already shoot their wad with the preemptive attempt to amend the constitution? Would it now require their electing a Dem statehouse and a Dem governor to undo this? Or could they attempt to recall Snyder, as in WI, or put the law to a referendum, as in OH?

    Likely union success will depend on such practical matters. If overturning the legislation requires an entire years-long reversal of party control in MI, then I’d think the positive effects of the law and the inertia of this “new MI” would prevent a return to the old days.

  10. Scarlet Pimpernel

    It took me four days to hitch hike from Stabenow . . .

    I thought I read a couple of weeks ago that the GOP legislature pushed Right to Work, but Snyder was opposed.  It looks like he’ll sign the bill now.

    It might also be worth noting that supporting liberty of contract is not the same thing as being anti-Union.  In the 19th century, the questino in the U.S. was whether Unions were legal at all. That’s the sense in which Lincoln expressed his support for unions, if memory serves.   Right to Work v. Union monopoly is a different debate.

  11. Pilli

    Paul,  How does this new measure, when enacted, effect government unions in Michigan?

    Have you noticed a trend in union leadership toward emphasizing public sector unions more and private sector unions less?   Possibly because they killed the private sector jobs (Hostess)  but they know that the public sector won’t go bankrupt?

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Scott Reusser: Does anyone know what recourse unions would have to overturn the law? Did they already shoot their wad with the preemptive attempt to amend the constitution? Would it now require their electing a Dem statehouse and a Dem governor to undo this? Or could they attempt to recall Snyder, as in WI, or put the law to a referendum, as in OH?

    Likely union success will depend on such practical matters. If overturning the legislation requires an entire years-long reversal of party control in MI, then I’d think the positive effects of the law and the inertia of this “new MI” would prevent a return to the old days. · 9 minutes ago

    I am no expert — so do not trust what I say on this. But I believe that the laws are structured in such a way as to rule out referenda. To overturn them, the unions must take both houses of the legislature and the governorship. That is what I have read. It means that in Michigan 2014 will be a big deal. This may give these laws the time to have an effect on the funding of election campaigns.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Pilli: Paul,  How does this new measure, when enacted, effect government unions in Michigan?

    Have you noticed a trend in union leadership toward emphasizing public sector unions more and private sector unions less?   Possibly because they killed the private sector jobs (Hostess)  but they knowthat the public sector won’t go bankrupt? · 4 minutes ago

    My sense is that in Michigan private-sector unions are on the decline. The jobs have gone elsewhere. Public-sector unions are now more of a force. There are two laws — one for private-sector unions, the other for public-sector unions. They have the same result: the open shop. Being a union member and paying dues is not a condition for employment.

  14. Donald Todd

    Paul A. Rahe:  with Washington deadlocked

    Watching Boehner et al and his disenfranchisement of the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the House, the Washington deadlock may be ephemeral. 

  15. Foxman
    Pilli: Paul,  How does this new measure, when enacted, effect government unions in Michigan?

    Have you noticed a trend in union leadership toward emphasizing public sector unions more and private sector unions less?   Possibly because they killed the private sector jobs (Hostess)  but they knowthat the public sector won’t go bankrupt? · 33 minutes ago

    Detroit

  16. Schrodinger

    Both police and fire fighter unions are exempt from the law.

    Also, it does NOT apply to existing contracts. (Snyder’s a half wuss)

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/07/us-usa-unions-michigan-idUSBRE8B616H20121207

    It is not subject to a referendum as it is being passed on a budgetary bill.

  17. Mark
    Adam Koslin: This may be completely erroneous, but Occam’s Razor suggests a simple answer to your question, Prof. Rahe; people tend to like conservatives when they are neighbors, friends, aldermen, mayors, etc., but can’t stand them when they have to stand on abstract policy, media techniques, and stereotypes.  Or perhaps in Michigan the Dems have just made themselves obnoxious? · 2 hours ago

    I agree with much of this comment.  At a national level Republicans have a branding problem (along with prez and senate candidate problems) and these are the races easiest to nationalize.  State political races are harder to nationalize which is why you have R governors in D states like Michigan, NJ, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Mexico and why Michigan voters can vote down union backed referendums while the R prez and Senate candidates are massacred by the same voters.

  18. Duane Oyen

    Two things.

    1) This is less significant on the down side than was Ohio, because Michigan has not been a swing state for years.

    2) I wonder if a better strategy regarding private work force unions might not have been the set up an empty auto plant as an irreversibly right-to-work enterprise zone where Kia could get a good deal on a US assembly plant without being destroyed by the UAW featherbedding work rules.  A successful demonstration  project would open the door to full RTW.

    That said, the bigger problem is probably public unions, and the public service officer exemption discretion is not ideal, but is also the better part of valor.  And the time is now to address RTW for government unions, returning to the FDR standards.

  19. ConservativeWanderer

    Well, it looks like this has he big unions upset, because apparently they’ve called in Teh Won to pay them back for their support last month.

    President Obama on Monday weighed in on the fight over changing Michigan into a right-to-work state, saying the move was all about politics and about your “rights to bargain for better wages.”

    During a visit to a Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Michigan, Obama signaled the White House will be more active in this labor fight than it was during a similar fight in Wisconsin in 2011. He described the proposed changes in Michigan as being part of a “race to the bottom” that won’t help the economy.

    “What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages,” Obama told a small crowd at the plant. “We don’t want a race to the bottom. We want a race to the top.”

    Obama said the laws “don’t have to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics.”

  20. Chris O.

    Paul, I probably have less cause to speculate, though I’ve spent a significant part of my life in “Michiana” on the south side of Lake George, IN/MI, not very far at all from Hillsdale. You have a standing invitation if so inclined.

    As I see it, Michigan is in the process of re-culturizing. Where there was once an elite that looked east for inspiration, now there are the remnant recipients of those policies.

    I almost look at this as a “vote how you shot” phenomenon. The Michigan of today is willing to try out new ideas. They have to. But they are still stuck in the political affiliation of yesterday. Old habits die hard.

    Mark rightly pointed out that it is easier to present those ideas in a statewide election away from the ad blitzes of presidential campaigns. That is why Michigan is able to elect a Republican governor and legislature. I’ve seen in this state Republicans win in heavy Democrat districts because they spent months going door-to-door.

    Local matters; individuals matter; ideas matter. The problem in 2012 was key people thought not being Democrat was enough to win.

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