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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

The Partisan Monoculture

Early in the week, Phil Power had an interesting column on Reform Michigan Government Now (RMGN) , in part reacting to the Chamber’s counter survey (more on that later), and in part looking at the impact of redistricting. With approximately three quarters of all seats defined as strongly favoring one party (“gerrymandered” would be the less polite term) the proposal would create political monocultures. Several problems arise in such cultures for both the majority and the minority parties.

Power highlight the difficulties:

So in both Democratic- and Republican-leaning districts, the real election takes place in the August primary.

That shift, as Power points out, has implications both for election mechanics and policy. To see the electoral mechanics, take a look at a local race I’ve been following, Michigan House District 72 (70/30 R).

Michigan 72: A Case of Political Monoculture

Lesson 1: Engage Early. When the August primary decides, campaigns need to engage early. This rewards veterans. School board member Ken Yonker was organizing and fundraising in July 2007. Linda Steil, wife of the sitting State Rep, began raising money in November. Both campaigns have already spent significant sums on campaign literature before the start of 2008.

By contrast, Justin Amash, the brash challenger didn’t really begin his fundraising or making expenditures until June.

Lesson 2: Money = Time.The late start brings up a second point, the smaller official campaign season places newcomers like Amash at a disadvantage. Their only solution is more money, in Amash’s case, that has meant raising  nearly $80,000, including tapping the deep pockets of the Amway corporation.

Lesson 3: Parochialism Rules. In political monocultures such as the Michigan 72 push the policy discussion away from the center. With no penalty for the sectarian viewpoint, monocultures simply produce answers that don’t work for the state as a whole. So in the 72nd we have seen anti-global warming pledges, an all too casual libertarianism, and an entertaining of taxation nostrums like Fair Tax.

Power may be right to call this shift partisan – some of it surely is – but much is probably better understood as a kind of parochialism. If nobody will challenge your assumptions, you will be content with your own culture, no matter what it is – this is as true of Ann Arbor as it is of Caledonia.

The larger districts created by RMGN will do nothing to alleviate these tendencies, if anything, they only add to the problem

A more insidious problem

Political mono-cultures not only reward partisanship, they dampen participation. A mono-culture linked to Lansing pulls civic leadership into its orbit. This not only cuts into the minority party’s ability to find leadership, or the economic support necessary to find a voice. So the social space for the minority party shrinks. Instead of speaking out, there is a natural tendency to silence. Our communities are poorer for this loss of voice.

Nowhere is this his loss of confidence and voice more dramatically seen than in the failure to put up candidates for office.

In Barry County, home of four of the original petitioners for RMGN, nly one Democrat is standing for a county office: Rose Anger, Drain Commissioner (an open seat). There are no other Democrats running for any of the other County offices, including all eight seats on the County Commission.

I’m sympathetic to this reaction though. Even in Kent County, we’re leaving 3 County Commission seats vacant. It’s not that we don’t have Dems in Cascade or Rockford, but they are reluctant to invest the time or stand out from their neighbor. We have not made it worth their time.

This culture of the beaten down is the principle barrier for renewing our state. Again, RMGN does not relieve us of this culture, rather it feeds the problem. How does Michigan acquire a voice if half its residents are afraid to speak?

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