Giving up on democracy

Aug 16, 2006 at 12:00 am

Michigan had a primary election last week, and the voters evidently found it a real yawner. Eighty-two percent of us didn't even bother to vote.

Yet the election was significant, because it proved something frightening. Traditional democracy isn't working anymore. That's partly because so few of us give a damn about politics these days, or think voting could have any conceivable impact on our lives.

What this has done is allow the parties — especially the Republicans — to be hijacked by extremists. The best, or worst, example of this anywhere happened in Michigan last week. Two years ago, one of the best-educated and smartest politicians in the state managed to get elected to Congress, from a district that stretches from Lansing to Battle Creek.

John "Joe" Schwarz would, once upon a time, have been a dream candidate for the Republican Party. A physician from Battle Creek with an impressive military background, he served in the state Senate for many years, and was widely respected in both parties, especially on higher education.

What I like about him is that he believes in common sense, and that he doesn't come in a slick package — intellectually or otherwise. He's sort of a bear of a man, with a good sense of humor and an occasionally explosive temper.

Schwarz is far more conservative than I am. He's a former CIA agent and a stout supporter of the war in Iraq and always has been, something that baffles and dismays me. However, unlike some in the White House, he actually believes in it, and has integrity. If a pollster came to Schwarz and said, "You'll win the election if you denounce the war," he'd tell them to go screw themselves.

His district is conservative; it voted 54 percent for Bush two years ago. Logically, you'd think Schwarz, now 68, would have a secure seat for as long as he wanted one, unless a future president, like his buddy and fellow Vietnam vet U.S. Sen. John McCain (D-Ariz.), appointed him secretary of the navy or something.

As a matter of fact, when Schwarz ran for renomination in last week's primary, McCain came all the way to Michigan to campaign for him — more than once. President Bush also endorsed him. So did state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, and, as far as I know, every newspaper — including The Detroit News.

His opponent, one Tim Walberg, was a fundamentalist preacher in the tiny town of Tipton, near Adrian, and a former fund-raiser for something called the Moody Bible Institute. He also had been in the lower house of the state Legislature, where he was fervently proud of voting no on any measure designed to raise revenue — taxes — for the common good.

Frankly, this was one of those few elections that should have been unanimous. Former Gov. Jim Blanchard, as partisan a Democrat as they come, recorded an automatic "phone blast" message asking voters to cross over and vote for Joe Schwarz in the Republican primary.

But Schwarz lost. The race wasn't even very close. The right-wing preacher got 53 percent; the statesman, who spent close to $2 million, took only 47 percent. What happened? Simple. Money and apathy.

Having seen the results of back-alley abortions, the congressman-doctor, a practicing Roman Catholic, thinks abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." And while Schwarz thinks same-sex marriage should be illegal, he doesn't think we should pass a constitutional amendment making it a crime.

Those two sincere and sensible opinions earned him the equivalent of a death sentence from the religious fanatics. But they got plenty of help from a shady and scary New York City-based group called "The Club for Growth."

Their definition of growth means preventing the filthy rich from paying taxes, as far as possible. They poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Walberg campaign. TV commercials over and over called Schwarz a "liberal," which is laughable, and said he was "out of touch" with the district.

He was out of touch with the right-wing nuts who show up for primaries, that's for sure. Ironically, perhaps Joe Schwarz's finest hour politically was the 2000 presidential primary campaign for John McCain, in which a huge "crossover vote" from Democrats and independents allowed the independent-minded senator to kick George W. Bush's butt, big-time, in Michigan.

Had there been anything like full turnout, the creepy preacher wouldn't have had a chance. Two years ago, Joe Schwarz was elected with 176,053 votes. His Democratic opponent, an organic farmer named Sharon Renier, got 109,527.

Last week, Schwarz would have won if he'd received only one-third as many votes as the candidate he defeated less than two years ago. Despite spending well over $1 million, Walberg got only 33,244 votes. But only 29,351 turned out for Schwarz, who deserved much better.

Sadly, Renier, who once again won the Democratic nomination, hasn't any money, nor the ghost of a chance.

In another example of how there ain't no hope for moderates, Joe Knollenberg, a fossilized real estate agent who represents most of Oakland County, easily fended off a primary challenge from Pan Godchaux, a former GOP state legislator who is much more mainstream on social and cultural issues.

Godchaux had a little money and made a major effort to win crossover votes. "I am afraid my hand will fall off for voting Republican!" one West Bloomfield woman told me on Election Day. Yet Knollenberg still won, with 70 percent of the vote.

He'll probably breeze to victory in November — though there was one hopeful sign. The number of votes cast for Godchaux and for Nancy Skinner, the unopposed Democratic nominee, equaled Knollenberg's total. Maybe, just maybe.

But those who think there is any glimmer of hope that anyone who is not a right-wing fanatic can win a Republican nomination are delusional. No, the parties are becoming more and more polarized, and less and less willing to cooperate for the good of Michigan. Last week, for example, the Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature abolished the Single Business Tax.

That tax raises as much money as is needed to run the prison system or higher ed. How will they replace that much-needed revenue? Will they replace it with something that will give us enough money to run our state's universities?

Uh, well, they say they'll get back to us after the election. If they told us now, why, we might not like it and might vote against them.

By the way, what did the Democrats do? Did they show us a sensible plan? Why no; they are Democrats, after all. So they just whimpered a little, gulped and clutched their photos of Governor Jenny in their tiny fists. We pay these people $79,500 a year to look after our interests. Makes you proud, eh?


Take that, liberal wimps: The National Rifle Association, the nation's most powerful lobby, is well-known for fighting any form of gun control. Their latest victory came on Detroit's east side last Thursday, where police say Louis Anderson, an off-duty cop, left his loaded Glock automatic lying under the bed, where it was found by a 4-year-old he was baby-sitting.

The baby, who was named Kenneth Thomas, blew his own brains out. Normally, I am opposed to capital punishment, but in this case I think, if this turns out to be the way it was, Anderson should be burned to death in public to attempt to inspire his fellow morons to pay attention to gun safety.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]