The truth about Flint: Kids drank poisoned water because of the GOP's radical, anti-democratic "reforms"

This nightmare happened because of deeply undemocratic steps taken after the GOP gerrymandered a blue state

Published January 23, 2016 2:30PM (EST)

Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow

As I noted in an earlier story, the third week in December brought two startling stories highlighting the ongoing Dixiefication of the Midwest, a key ingredient in how the GOP, with its aging white male demographic base is nonetheless strategically outmaneuvering the Democratic Party on multiple fronts.

That story dealt with what happened in Wisconsin, the signing of two laws that combined to decimate state-level democracy. 

The story from Michigan, the lead poisoning of Flint through its water supply, which brought the mayor to declare a state of emergency, is much more viscerally horrifying, and has finally exploded nationally after Christmas. On Dec. 29, the state's top environmental officer resigned; on Jan. 5, the U.S. Attorney announced an investigation, the same day that Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency. Four days later, FEMA officials arrived, but chaos still reigned as crowds of Flint protesters called for Snyder to resign and/or face criminal charges. On Jan. 13, Snyder announced Flint had experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease, with 10 fatalities, which could be linked as well. After that, Bernie Sanders called for Snyder to resign, and Hillary Clinton blasted him in her closing statement of the Democratic debate, and every day brings additional heat and light to bear on the story.

But behind the upfront horror and outrage being felt, behind all the tragedy and drama now unfolding in Flint, what's happening now is rooted in a state-level attack on democracy. Indeed Rachel Maddow—who first brought the story to national attention—made this very point herself, calling the law that made it all possible “the single most radical policy” in recent American history—an “emergency manager” law that essentially invalidates local self-governance.

The common theme of attacks on democracy in Wisconsin and Michigan is not an accident. The two stories are connected by virtue of being parts of a broader process—the aforementioned Dixiefication of the Midwest, without which neither of them can be fully understood, or responded to. Dixiefication is a process that's economically regressive, culturally anti-modernist, and politically authoritarian/anti-democratic, and in that first story, I traced how Walker's early aggressive pushing of Dixiefied anti-union agenda eventually led to a wide-ranging dismantling of the state's good government framework of laws and regulations.

However, the Dixiefication of the Midwest itself is taking place in the context of two much wider processes—the Dixiefication of the nation as a whole, and global process of neoliberalizing economies in various different ways across very different societies. All three of these large-scale processes have been shaping regional politics as well as everyday life in the Midwest with increased ferocity since the the beginning of the Great Recession. What's striking about the lead poising of Flint is not just how morally outrageous the story itself is, but also how it can serve to illuminate the much wider framework of corrosive harm these three social processes have produced.

Lead Poisoning Flint's Kids

The story itself wasn't new. On Sept. 2,  researchers from Virginia Tech University led by Marc Edwards reported that Flint's water was "very corrosive" and "causing lead contamination in homes," but commensurate attention and action have yet to come.  So, on Dec. 14, Flint's newly elected mayor, Karen Weaver, fought back. She declared a state of emergency regarding the citywide lead poisoning that resulted from a change in the source of city drinking water, a “cost-saving” move ordered by the city's appointed emergency manager. Water from the Flint river corroded Flint's water pipes, leaching lead into the water even after Flint switched back to getting its water from Detroit in October.

“The City of Flint has experienced a Manmade disaster by switching to the use of the Flint River,” Weaver's declaration said.  "This damage to children is irreversible and can cause effects to a child's IQ, which will result in learning disabilities and the need for special education and mental health services and an increase in the juvenile justice system.”

"We know that Flint is not in a position to bear this burden alone,” Weaver explained on "The Rachel Maddow Show" the next day. “We are asking and looking for state and federal assistance, and the only way we were going to have this happen was to declare a state of emergency, and hopefully that gets it to the county, which will get it to the state, where the governor can make it federal." Getting outside assistance was not a new idea. "We have been trying to get federal attention for a while,” Weaver said.

Lead poisoning was just the last straw, however. Earlier tests had detected E. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, and Flint's water was found in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for high levels of total trihalomethanes, which according to the EPA can lead to “Liver, kidney or central nervous system problems; increased risk of cancer.”  Flint residents had reported an ongoing litany of health problems—hair loss, vomiting, diarrhea to the point of dangerous dehydration—in addition to foul, discolored drinking water. Environmental activist Erin Brockovitch lent her support, calling broader attention to the problems. Eventually, this past March, the city council voted 7-1 to "do all things necessary" to reconnect Flint's water system to Detroit's, a move that emergency manager Jerry Ambrose dismissed as “incomprehensible” in a statement issued the next day.

So the news about the lead poisoning came in the context of more than a year of widespread public suffering and official obfuscation, resistance and denial. Backing up the state-appointed emergency manager, and local water officials, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to insist there was nothing wrong. After Edwards said that the city's findings that lead levels were safe amounted to "smoke and mirrors," the MDEQ’s Communications Director Brad Wurfel wrote to the Flint Journal’s Ronald Fonger, saying, “[T]his group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it is done.”

But the tide was rapidly turning. It quickly came out that the city's own water testing showed that “lead levels have been rising since the city began using the Flint River for water 16 months ago.” By mid-October, the switch back to Detroit water was announced.  But irreparable damage had already been done—particularly to thousands of children under 6, who are the most vulnerable.

Michigan's Racist Emergency Manager Law

This shocking attack on the health and welfare of young children is only the most outrageous example of how Michigan's “emergency manager” law has robbed more than half of Michigan's blacks of the protections of democratic self-government, putting their lives in the hands of local dictators unilaterally appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.  “While the cities under emergency management together contain just nine percent of Michigan's population, they contain, notably, about half of the state's African-American residents,” the Atlantic reported in May 2013. Looked at another way, while Michigan's population is 14.2 percent black, Flint is 56.6 percent black, Detroit 82.7 percent, Benton Harbor 89.2 percent, Highland Part 93.5 percent, Pontiac 52.1 percent (Hispanic 16.5 percent), and Ecorse 46.4 percent (Hispanic 13.4 percent).  Crushing black political power goes to the heart of what Dixiefication is all about.

Rachel Maddow first reported about the emergency manager law in April 2011, shortly after its passage, when it was first applied full-force in Benton Harbor (video/transcript); the next day she described the story of what happened there as “the single-most telling thing in American politics right now about the difference between the two parties.”  Michigan had had an emergency manager law before, as have other states, but the powers of emergency managers were limited, their purpose to restore a city's finances to fiscal health in cases of extreme emergency.“The original Public Act 72, which had bipartisan support, was much more about creating a process to intervene when there was criminal or corrupt activity,” Flint's previous mayor, Dayne Walling, told Eclectablog, Michigan's leading progressive blog. “But, when you broaden it to say we’re going to use emergency managers’ tools and rhetoric to try to address long-term, structural financial problems, it doesn’t work.” he said.

Or perhaps it does work: to force the long-term costs and consequences onto those least able to pay or to resist—the very essence of Dixiefication as political economy—because the new law conferred almost unlimited power. Benton Harbor's emergency manager, Joseph Harris, didn't abolish the city government—he just took away all its power, with an order that said:

"[N]o City Board, Commission or Authority shall take any action for or on behalf of the City whatsoever other than:

i) Call a meeting to order.

ii) Approve of meeting minutes.

iii) Adjourn a meeting.

As Maddow described it:

The state says we can dissolve your town now. We can wipe you off the map, give your land and assets to the next town over if we want to, just roll up the whole deal and deed it over. Your town doesn‘t get a say in the matter.

Attacks on poor black children are consistent theme in this story: In Flint, they were poisoned with lead. In Benton Harbor, they were robbed of a magnificent park, a true field of dreams. In her first report, Maddow explained the details: Benton Harbor, population just under 11,000, is almost 90 percent African-American, with a per-capita income of just $10,000, just next door to St. Joseph, population 8,500, 90 percent white with a per-capita income of $33,000.  Benton Harbor—once the manufacturing center for Whirlpool appliances—has been decimated by decades of deindustrialization, but it did have one prize civic possession left: the 70-acre Jean Klock Park, abutting Lake Michigan and willed to the city in perpetuity in 1917 by former Mayor John Nellis Klock. But in recent years, a private-public partnership Whirlpool created hatched the idea of building a $500 million, 530-acre golf course and residential development, gobbling up 22 acres from the park's center in the process. 

After years of fighting Benton Harbor residents' opposition, the local state representative, Al Pscholka, authored the new emergency manager law with its dictatorial powers. As Maddow explained:

[H]e happens to be a former vice president for one of the major entities involved in building the luxury golf development that is set to remake Benton Harbor.

Until last year, he served as a member of the nonprofit‘s board of directors—the same one behind the golf course. And now, the first town in Michigan to feel the teeth of the Pscholka emergency manager financial martial law/Rick Snyder bill is Benton Harbor—very poor, almost entirely African-American, in his district, right where they‘re building the golf development that he himself has personally spent years bringing into existence.

Slamming the Overton Window Shut on Democracy

If that sounds sleazy, it's only because it is.  But it's part of a much, much bigger picture. At the time the bill was signed into law, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones wrote about its back story: the state think tank that largely shaped the law, and the funders behind it:

Since 2005, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has urged reforms to Michigan law giving more power and protection to emergency financial managers.... In January, the free-market-loving center published four recommendations, including granting emergency managers the power to override elected officials (such as a mayor or school board member) and toss out union contracts. All four ended up in Snyder's legislation.

Kroll went on to identify some of Mackinac's backers, including the foundations of Charles Koch, the Walton and DeVos families, and the parents of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, among others. He also noted that Mackinac is part of network of state-level think tanks  associated with the Heritage Foundation.

What he didn't note was that Mackinac was where the idea of the “Overton Window” comes from—a simplified model for organizing people to consistently shift the framework of policy debate in a given ideological direction. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci first developed the broad conceptual notion of hegemonic warfare—the struggle of ideologies to establish themselves as “common sense.” Despite decades of discussion, the American left—for a variety of reasons—has never managed to seriously assimilate his insight, and organize around it. But coming out of Mackinac, a sizable portion of the right has done just that, conceiving the struggle as a long-term process of shifting the framework of “reasonable” ideas so that crazy ideas they love become acceptable, while normal, time-tested ideas they hate become crazy.  Whether a given “solution” actually works or not is immaterial in this model. In practice, failure is a feature, not a bug: it can be seized on to urge an even further shift in their preferred direction.

Which is a pretty good description of what's been happening with emergency managers and their schemes in Michigan.  They've been failing in terms of poor preparation of emergency managers and abuse of power, as Chris Savage, owner of Eclectablog described for the Nation in early 2012. or in terms of how badly things actually turn out on the ground, as Laura Gottesdiener described here at Salon last June (“Something is rotten in Michigan”), providing a tour of five of the state's major emergency manager disasters. One could add to her list the Detroit Public School system, which Eclectablog recently noted had seen its deficits rise under state-appointed managers from $137.1 million in 2009 to $238.2 million today. But the most basic failure is the one alluded to by Flint's former Mayor Dayne Walling—the failure of trying to fix long-term systemic problems by treating them as if they were episodic local ones, the results of mismanagement and bad policy.  “The laws right now are written to mete out punishment to local officials,” Walling said, “but there need to be clear partnership requirements for the state to address fiscal stress.” 

There's a fundamental clash of worldviews going on here, between a cooperative, reality-based problem-solving approach on the one hand—all aspects of America's pragmatic tradition—and a moralistic crusade against designated culprits singled out for their supposed roles in causing trouble for everyone else, a hallmark of how Dixiefied politics works.

Walling presented this chart showing steady state revenues and falling local police services from 2003 through 2013. Eclectablog explained, "The number of police officers was chosen as a local metric because cutting police and fire fighters is the last resort local municipalities turn to when cutting their budgets." Obviously, if local police were being cut statewide it made zero sense to accuse individual cities of fiscal irresponsibility, and deprive of them of self-government as a solution. A chart using census bureau data showed similar trends.

The trends stretch back at least a decade earlier, but intensified noticeably after the Great Recession hit. “Starting with the great recession, when the federal government was investing in state general funds through the Stimulus, the state was cutting revenue sharing for local government. So, the state gets over a billion dollars in flexible funds and they cut the amount that’s coming down to us,” Walling said. “Local governments are still in a recession. Our budgets are getting smaller every year.”

There's also a need for coordinated burden-sharing across local entities, and for coordinated long-term planning.  “I think we need to have a common framework — city, county, state, township — there needs to be a joint or shared accountability for the quality of life in our communities,” he said. “The state of Michigan needs to commit to reforms. There need to be new ways for cities and counties and other municipalities to work together.”

What Walling was talking about makes eminent good sense in terms of how things used to be done throughout the Midwest and most of America outside of the South—a pragmatic realist tradition of cooperative governance and planning dating back to the Progressive Era and the New Deal. But that tradition has been under sustained attack since the 1970s, first brought to a head by the elections of Reagan and Thatcher, followed by the emergence of similarly minded neoliberals like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama.  This is where another harmful social process previously mentioned enters the picture: the worldwide process of neoliberalization that has taken hold over these last several decades.

The Role of Neoliberalization: Blame Shifting and Pillaging

Jamie Peck, a geography professor from the University of British Columbia, invoked that broader historical framework in a presentation titled “Framing Detroit,” sponsored by the Detroit School of Urban Studies in January 2014. “The way neoliberalism as a political project works is that it tends to lean in to its crises, it fails in a forward direction, and as free market privatization fails, the next move chosen within a neoliberal frame is to explore public-private partnerships, and so on.... This is how the process roles forward, constantly generating  crisis which are addressed in neoliberal terms, but those terms are constantly adjusting, as the problems evolve.” 

Indeed, Peck expressed a preference for talking about “neoliberalization” as an ongoing process, taking different forms over time and in different situations around the globe. “It's not like the neoliberal program is driving us to any system that could ever work,” he added. “It's a stark utopia.... It's not going to get us to that destination. So what does it do instead? It repeatedly drives us into various crises.” In this manner, “The Wall Street crash was an occasion for the reconstruction and intensification of the neoliberal program,” Pike said. “ What started off as a banking crisis has been translated into a crisis of the social state.... So we've seen this translation from a financial into a state crisis, and from a state crisis to a municipal state crisis, and from a municipal state crisis into a crisis of Detroit.” The same applied to Flint and Benton Harbor, as well.

Taking a step back, one sees a twisted morality woven into neoliberalism, the morality of austerity,which dictates an assessment of who's worthy and who's not that overrides everything else. The financial sector that actually caused the financial crises, triggering the Great Recession, was let off the hook. Instead, blame shifted to government deficits, even though they were the inevitable and necessary response, in order to avoid much worse—a recurrence of the Great Depression. It was soon argued that it was fatal to let debt levels get too high—bolstered largely by a paper that's since been debunked, largely because of a simple Excel error. But that paper was part of a larger literature, which was ably critiqued in Mark Blyth's book "Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea" (my review here), which Peck also cites approvingly.

The fact that austerity is built on such shaky foundations—and yet continues undaunted—only goes to show this is not a rational/empirical debate.  It's a delusional moral argument: markets good (even if they destroy the economy), government spending bad (even if it saves the day). An earlier paper  by Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson, “A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession,” not only poked holes in the austerity argument, but added another vitally important critique of the broader moral argument—namely about who is actually responsible for driving up government debt. It argued “that not entitlement spending or Social Security but the excessive costs of oligopoly in health care, defense spending, and another possible financial crises are the major threats to the budgetary position.”

This is the most unspeakable heresy: that those responsible for high government debt burdens are the rich, not the poor, based on anti-competitive, state-sponsored oligopoly capitalism, even as they mouth off constantly about the magic and glory of the “free market.” Such truths, however, make little or no difference politically, as they are drowned out by chorus after chorus of lies. Worse still, as those lies are believed and acted on at the national level, their consequences trickle down to the states and localities below. And eventually, those lies poison the young children of Flint. That is the back story of how their poisoning came to be.

The Dixiefication of American Politics

But how does global process of neoliberalization relate to the Dixiefication of the Midwest? One answer lies in the broader Dixiefication of American politics as a whole. One of the best explications of what Dixiefication means come from the 2001 book by Augustus Cochrane III, "Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie." I've written about the book before, after the 2012 elections for Al Jazeeraa English, and here at Salon in 2014. Here's the introductory gist from the latter story:   

Cochrane describes America’s political dysfunction circa 2000 as mirroring that of the South fifty years earlier, as described in V.O. Key’s classic work, Southern Politics in State And Nation. Both polities were ill-prepared to face, much less master the challenges facing them—the transition from an agricultural to a more diversified, more outward-facing industrial and commercial economy and society, for the South in 1950; the transition from an industrial to a more globally-integrated post-industrial economy and society for America as a whole in 2000. The root cause of the problem in both cases was the same—a dysfunctional political party system, incapable of developing coherent policies adequate to the changed circumstances facing the respective societies.

Although formally quite different, they were functionally quite similar, Cochrane argued, much as gills and lungs are.

In particular, Cochrane argued that our money- and media-driven politics foster a sort of entrepreneurial politics—unmoored from traditional political frameworks of trust, accountability and negotiation—which is strikingly similar to the way Southern politics functioned around 1950.

The South's dysfunctional party system was a one-party system which often seemed more like a no-party one, degenerating into cliques or one-man entrepreneurial shows à la Huey Long. Ours derives from an historical anomaly—the 1968 election which threw our country into a dealigned state, with no clearly dominant political party capable of shaping a coherent politics, which in turn tends to favor the same sorts of short-sighted political gamesmanship. Nixon's politics of blame and resentment, epitomized by his Southern Strategy, but not limited to it, effectively ushered in a prolonged state of fragmented and divided government. Most of our history has been defined by a few “realigning [wave] elections” which set the tone for three decades or so to follow—typically identified as the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896 and 1932. One party wins decisively, defining the basic framework in which politics is done, nationally, until the next realigning election comes around.

The 1968 election disrupted that history, and threw us into a prolonged de-aligned state, where divided government was the norm, with one party in the White House, the other controlling at least one house of Congress. In 2008, we could have snapped out of this state, and begun shaping coherent long-term policy again, as opposed to policies based on a successive series of shifting backroom deals.  Obama's 2008 victory had seemed to portend a Democratic reclaiming of the South—winning Virginia for the first time since 1964, North Carolina for the second time and Florida for the third, with record turnouts from historically infrequent voters. This could and should have been the start of a decades-long period of Democratic dominance, with the process of winning back the South well under way. GOP ideas had failed spectacularly—in national security (9/11, the ill-conceived Iraq War), fundamental competence (Katrina) and the economy (the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression). Both the need and the mandate for change were clear.

But Obama—despite what many of his supporters were moved to feel—ran expressly on a bipartisan message, and more than that, tried to govern that way, despite the fact that Republicans kept walking away from his efforts to work with them. He was, in effect, trying to make the existing rotten Dixiefied system work, rather than engaging in the hard work of replacing it with a better, more coherent alternative, reflective of what his voters actually wanted and expected from him. And so, as I wrote in my 2012 story:

For two long years, the substantial progressive majority that showed up at the polls in November 2008 had almost no representation in Washington, because the top Democrat elected in that wave election decreed that they should hold their tongues, in order to achieve a bipartisan unity that only existed as a political myth.

The result was the low-turnout 2010 midterms which completely reversed the 2008 Democratic gains in Dixie, and three Midwestern states were key to dramatic shift in fortunes: Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. In each, the GOP took complete control of state government, setting the stage for intensely partisan gerrymandering for the coming decade. Although Obama won all six states just named in 2008, along with Pennsylvania, these seven states alone preserved GOP control in the House in 2012 due to intense gerrymandering, as pointed out by Mother Jones. Although Obama still won six of those states, losing North Carolina only narrowly, they sent more than a 2-1 GOP majority to the House. Without these highly gerrymandered states, Obama would have regained a Democratic Congress to work with in 2012. Which is why these states were crucial in perpetuating the Dixiefication of the nation at large.

At the same time, the state legislatures gerrymandered themselves as well. As I wrote shortly after the election:

In Michigan, only the lower house was up for election this past November, and although Democrats outpolled Republicans in these elections by a solid 9-point margin -- 54.7 percent to 45.3 percent -- Republicans easily kept control of the body by a 59-51 margin: 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent the other way. It would have taken another 2.7 percent shift -meaning a total margin of over 10 points - for Democrats merely to have broken even in the lower house.

This brings us to another key aspect of Dixiefication, the fetishization of state-level power. States are sovereign in Confederate ideology, the federal government merely a contract between them (even though it existed before most of them did). State sovereignty is not just an assertion against federal power, it trumps local power as well—as it must, confronting local level concentrations of black power. And that's precisely what the emergency manager law did.

But state sovereignty is a funny thing, as it resides in the institutions of power—most notably the governor and the state legislature.  Soon after Michigan's new emergency manager law was signed, citizens began organizing to repeal it at the ballot box, which Michigan's voters did in November 2012.  The lame duck legislature then sprang into action, passing a new emergency manager law, which Snyder signed just after Christmas, claiming ironically, “This legislation demonstrates that we clearly heard, recognized and respected the will of the voters.”  In case anyone might have believed him, the new law was not subject to a vote of the people, as Huffington Post explained, “[T]hanks to a mechanism for the state of Michigan to finance emergency manager salaries created by inserting a $770,000 appropriation to the legislation, this newly revised law will not be subject to voter referendum.”

This action was not an aberration, it was a logical consequence of how Dixiefication unfolds—as was the lead poisoning of Flint's children. Snyder and his allies have a very good idea of what they're doing. But the vast majority of the American people do not. And neither does the Democratic Party, most of which continues trying to make bipartisan neoliberal consensus work—even though that consensus is precisely what produced the lead poisoning of the children of Flint, the theft of the Benton Harbor children's park, and all manner of other suffering for the children of Detroit, as well.

Make no mistake, the lead poisoning of Flint is a major story, and it will continue to unfold in the months ahead. After Christmas, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality resigned, and  Gov. Rick Snyder issued a statement saying, “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened.”

No doubt there will be even more scrambling to come. But the root causes behind Flint's lead poisoning, the gutting of democracy, open government and accountability, will likely remain untouched. After all, disabling the power of the people to secure and promote the general welfare is and always has been, the very heart of Dixie, and Dixiefication.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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