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What happened to democracy in Flint, MI could happen after COVID-19

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

COVID-19 has killed tens of thousands of Americans and will likely continue to infect large parts of the country in the foreseeable future. It’s also wreaking havoc with local government, stretching thin municipal services and hollowing out local taxes.

Many localities will soon face the same type of bankruptcy, economic contagions, and credit downgrades that contributed to the devastating Flint, MI public health crisis five years ago. Just as COVID-19 has exposed the frail conditions of public services, Flint’s water catastrophe — 90 residents fell ill and 12 died in 2014 and 2015 — showed how localities remain subject to the whims and disregard of federal and state officials (Genesee County, the home of Flint, has had 213 COVID-10 deaths as of May 6).

A new book by Kent State political scientist, Dr. Ashley Nickels, provides a worrisome road map of what’s to come. She shows that when state government takes over a municipality — often because of a short-term financial emergency — democracy soon crumbles. In applying allegedly non-political solutions to local problems, vital civic institutions and public input are frequently tossed aside, impediments to quick decision making, efficiency, and supposed fiscal prudence.

While Flint is the focus of Nickels book, there’s a long history of local subservience to state control in the US, and 19 states have laws that allow state takeovers, including New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Michigan just happens to have one of the strongest laws, permitting state officials to intervene for a host of reasons with little local recourse.

What Nickels’ book shows most clearly is that when the state of Michigan took over Flint’s local government, installing an emergency manager, fixing city finances was not the only goal. After initiating a money-saving change in the source of local water that precipitated the health crisis, the emergency manager later eliminated two democratic checks on power, abolishing the city’s ombudsman and citizen councils.

Local residents then turned to the ballot box as their only political recourse. But when a majority voted to reinstate the ombudsman and councils, the emergency manager refused, a power granted that position by Michigan’s law.

These anti-democratic measures in Flint are especially concerning because state takeovers in the rest of Michigan have been concentrated in several other majority black localities, like Flint. In 2013, Benton Harbor, Detroit, and Pontiac — each with large African-American populations — were all under emergency manager control.

Thankfully, here’s where a glimmer of hope appears in Nickels’ story about Flint. In spite of historic disenfranchisement and recent anti-democratic measures, Flint fought back. Community groups, many led by members of the black community, mobilized opposition to the state takeover, empowering residents to protest the emergency manager and quickly deteriorating water situation.

Though just a case study of a single city in Michigan — and not a terribly large one at that — there are clear lessons from Flint for what may come for other communities devastated by COVID-19. Fiscal and health emergencies undermine local capacity first, the very level of the government most closely connected to local communities and vulnerable to losing control. Then, when state and federal authorities are needed to step in, little prevents them from dismantling the democratic institutions equipped to defend marginalized communities. Finally, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, it is these very same communities that are so often the hardest hit by pandemics, further demobilizing them from fighting back.

The experience of Flint shows that a community must remain vigilant, united, and organized, even when a pandemic is tearing it apart.

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3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.

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Heath Brown

Heath Brown

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, written for The Atlantic, American Prospect, The Hill

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