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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