Why Ingrid LaFleur Matters

Ingrid LaFleur was a candidate for Mayor of Detroit in the 2017 primary.

There’s an old saying from the Gospels that a prophet is never appreciated in his hometown. Seers are very rarely understood because they live in the world of visions and dreams. Yet these select few usher the way forward for the rest of us by embodying and pointing the way to our highest future selves. Visionaries are the quintessence of what it means to lead. In this way, Ingrid LaFleur’s candidacy for Mayor of Detroit was a bright, lonely light.

It was an uphill battle from the beginning.

When we look out across the broad political landscape of the United States, the current scene is dominated by two camps devoid of vision.

The first camp is wild nostalgia. This is the politics of the fire breathers. The politics of Leave it to Beaver as documentary. The camp of people who believe in identity dominance for whiteness, MAGA, and crass nationalism. Who would prefer the crimes of the past remain unacknowledged. Who refuse to accept the very real challenges of our times — from climate change to income inequality — and prefer to live in a fantasy world of the War on Christmas. This approach is typified by the President of the United States, and by his supporters, but largely remains an insurgent aspect of our politics.

The second camp is political professionalism. This is the politics of paper pushers. The politics of political pull. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch your back. The politics of backrooms and whispers. The politics of cubicles and fluorescent lights. Suit and ties and American flag lapel pins. This is the politics of most major politicians, left and right, federal and local. It is a politics not grounded in any set of principles except power. And it is a power that asserts itself as a first order, and a power that serves as a last resort. Bull rush and clean up later. Bullies with squeaky-clean smiles and slick hair.

But the politics of bullying is not a leadership strategy, it is the last ditch effort of lesser minds.

Thus is the case throughout the United States, but here in Detroit — this black city of dreamers and misfits and perpetual decline — the politics of professionalism and nostalgia are all the more troubling. For this is a city that views its population as a cross to be cast off, rather than the source of its power. This is a city that has blurred the line between political professionalism and corruption so thoroughly that it can be hard to distinguish the difference. Backroom deals happen because “that’s just the way we get things done”. Community-led plans are sidelined because they don’t have the right access code to the corridors of institutional power.

We forget that the radicalism of the American Revolution was that it asserted, thrillingly, that the people were sovereign, not the state. This revolution has been ongoing since our inception, for we have never fully established a country based on the principles of our founding. It is the job of the citizenry to achieve America for ourselves and for everybody.

In Detroit, the powers that be pat themselves on the back for sliding back into a round of real estate development, though Detroit still lags behind the rest of the urban world by losing population as cities around the world grow faster than ever before. What this new Detroit development means, how it will impact our culture or our environment, are not questions for us to ask apparently. The politics of professionalism is persistent in its insistence that we focus only on the immediate issues of the present. Look at the new arena! We will get to the things you care about later.

It is not, and should not, be a praise-worthy accomplishment to provide basic services to your citizens. Basic services are just that: basic.

While the lights have turned on, our minds have grown dim. We are willing to accept the scraps of services, and then applaud any development without regard for it’s long-term impact on the city.

This is the politics of hoodwink and look the other way.

What is lacking from our American discourse, which is lacking from Detroit as well, is a visionary politics embodied by Ingrid LaFleur’s primary campaign for mayor. A politics of aspiration.

The politics of professionalism posits that what we’ve got is all we’ll get or maybe a little better, but visionary politics looks to the stars and demands that we bring heaven down to Earth.

From a pragmatic point of view, when the two poles are between nostalgia and professionalism, the arc of change will bend backwards. Without visionaries who can point the way, who live in the future and bring it back for us, we will regress rather than progress. It requires a leap of faith, a bit of imagination, and a group of people committed to taking one small step into the fuzzy vapor that is the future to fully harness our collective human power.

For we are a powerful people. The great lie is that the power rests in city hall or downtown offices, the White House or Wall Street. The real power, as enshrined in our founding documents, is in our hands. It is the power of the streets, of kitchen tables across the broad sweep of our city and country.

Politics is merely the ratification of existing cultural changes. To hack politics you must hack culture first. For politicians are not risk-takers by nature, nor are they incentivized to be so. Yet culture pushes forward despite political delay, and the human spirit thrusts ever upward toward its source, setting the terrain upon which the game of politics gets played. And when the bills are signed or the park gets built, the politics of professionalism will suddenly suffer from a bout and amnesia and claim they stood with us all along. They will forget that when we looked to the future with boldness all those many years back, they put stumbling block after stumbling block before us.

In the primary for Mayor of Detroit we had only one candidate who was willing to grapple with the future with hope. That was Ingrid LaFleur. Let us never forget that. She was the only candidate who saw the world that is emerging and put forward concrete plans to make it better for the people. Was her candidacy perfect? No, no one’s is. But on the general themes, she was the only one who even came close to the mark of where we need to be.

Going forward, it should be unacceptable for politicians to have no point of view on automation, or block chains, or universal basic income, or the climate crisis. Having a grasp of emergent trends and of the long-term impacts of present-day decision-making needs to be a prerequisite for political power. Full stop.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaping the future as we speak, but we are doing it unthinkingly. It is entirely within our power to shape the future we want today. But by focusing solely on the manufactured crises of the present moment, we pass the tough decisions and societal costs onto the future, with interest accruing.

Though Ingrid LaFleur’s campaign did not proceed to the general, her candidacy represented a new type of politics that must be replicated in this city and throughout the country. It was the politics of the future, it was citizen-led, it was conversational, it understood the importance of distributed power in a networked age through co-creation, and it was the only campaign looking clear-eyed into the future.

Ingrid LaFleur matters because the future matters, because we all matter. And without more leaders like her, I fear we will face the future blindly.