Politics & Prejudices: Our broken system

The Freep's endorsement of Rick Snyder speaks volumes about our so-called 'democracy'

If you needed proof that our politics, our traditional media, and our political system are screwed up beyond belief, the Detroit Free Press provided it nine days before the election.

"When it comes to education, (Gov. Rick) Snyder just doesn't seem to get it," the newspaper's editorial writers wrote. They were even harsher on his environmental record, calling it "a misguided attempt to placate free market forces at any cost."

When it came to values, the newspaper was harshest of all, saying Snyder was turning the state into "Michissippi."

"Michigan, during Snyder's tenure, has become a less tolerant state, with more restrictions on reproductive rights and fewer labor protections. Worse, Snyder's self-fashioned profile has become a joke ... the state needs a more progressive vision."

Then, having said all that ...

The newspaper told its readers to re-elect him!

You can't get much more cynical than that.

Why did they do it? Well, basically, they said it was "pragmatism." Snyder had sometimes shown "strong, decisive leadership." After all, he made the trains run on time.

Oops; sorry, no, that was Mussolini. (Our trains still don't run on time.) But, in an editorial that looked molded by the heavy hands in the corporate suite, Detroit's allegedly progressive newspaper backed the man who helped ram through some of the worst legislation in decades.

Did anybody forget right-to-work, which Snyder said wasn't on his agenda? Slashing higher education to give businesses a huge tax break that hasn't created jobs?

Signing the law to allow shadowy out-of-town groups to conceal who is spending millions to influence our elections? Attempting to ram bills through that would've cut off benefits for those suffering permanent injuries in car accidents?

The hypocrisy, or utter cynicism, is breathtaking.

Yes, Snyder did do a few good things — the new bridge, for one, and Kevyn Orr was probably the best choice anyone could've made to get Detroit through the bankruptcy.

And it's hard to imagine any other governor getting the legislature to cough up money for the Grand Bargain. But those are all essentially done deals.

To be sure, the newspaper did have some disturbingly legitimate doubts about Mark Schauer, the Democratic candidate. Essentially, he never explained how he was going to get anything done, especially with Republicans controlling at least the state Senate. And he offered no real plan to fix the roads.

But should this be what democracy comes down to?

Preferring a ruthless accountant who shows little or no feeling for people to a guy who does — but may not be able to get the job done? No wonder more than half the people didn't vote.

What's surprising is that so many did.

Yet the real story is far deeper than this race. The real story is that our system no longer really works, except for billionaires. Well, in a few more liberal places, millionaires can play, too. But for the rest of us, forget it. Normal people can't even dream of running for most offices.

Nor do most politicians depend on normal people for anything other than a confused vote. Nor do they have much power themselves. They're owned by the special interests that fund their campaigns and causes. Running for anything, even a little piddly state legislative seat, is out of reach for most people otherwise. Take Ellen Cogen Lipton, my state representative.

She was the one who diligently exposed the failures and corruption at the EAA, the governor's special pet district for failing Detroit schools. Snyder, who seems incapable of learning from mistakes (see prison food scandal) is still bull-headedly trying to expand this disaster to the entire state. Lipton's work may have temporarily stopped that and led to the ouster of the first EAA superintendent, who was seldom even in Michigan.

This year, she had to give up her job because of our state's asinine term limits, and ran in the Democratic primary for the state Senate. She spent more than $210,000 on the effort ... and finished third, way out of the money.

This, for a job that pays $71,685 a year, and won't have much power, since Republicans will once again solidly control that gerrymandered chamber. But she had to spend all that money to have a chance.

It gets worse.

A seat in Congress costs millions. Want to get elected to anything? You have to be certified by the powers that be, and then beg special interests for money. The women who stand along Woodward and Michigan Avenue in the wee hours would understand. They know that the men who give you money expect something in return. Having interviewed prostitutes and politicians, I know which is usually the cleaner transaction.

Politics and government are also run by a network of insiders who don't like their club being crashed. This is not just about conservatives shutting liberals out of the action.

Remember "Krazy Kerry" Bentivolio, the "accidental congressman" from Livonia, who was badly beaten in the GOP primary by David Trott, the mortgage foreclosure king? Bentivolio, who had been lampooned as a reindeer farmer and part-time Santa Claus, shunned the media.

Then, out of the blue, he called me last week. He told me he'd been listening to my radio commentaries and thought I was fair. I talked to him for a long time. Though I strongly disagree with him on most issues, I found him anything but irrational or crazy. He was principled, thoughtful, and witty.

"They set out to make me a one-term congressman from the start," he said. The trouble was, he told me, he had come out of nowhere and won the seat on his own, after the incumbent, Thad McCotter, self-destructed and abandoned his job.

"You're supposed to bow down to them, and kiss the ring" of the Republican establishment, he said. "I don't think that's how the founding fathers saw it."

Bentivolio, a Vietnam veteran who volunteered for the Iraq was war when he in his late 50s, suffered a broken neck over there.

When he saw how shoddy the medical care in the Army was, he wrote to his congressman, who happened to be McCotter. Doing that, he told me, risked his Army career.

But he never got an answer. McCotter had stopped paying attention to his duties and, we know now, was hiding in his garage where he was trying to write a pilot for a TV show.

Incensed, Bentivolio filed to run against him, then won the nomination when McCotter was booted off the ballot for fraudulent signatures. This year, mortgage foreclosure king David Trott spent lavishly to beat Bentivolio.

"I guess it's sort of an honor when a guy spends $4 million to beat you, but they did everything they could to smear me and my reputation," said Bentivolio, who eventually launched a write-in campaign in protest.

What's clear is that the average citizen is today only a pawn in their game. How can we fix this?

Well, start by doing three things: In Michigan, repeal term limits, and the law allowing special interests to hide the sources of the millions in "dark money" they spend to buy elections.

Then crusade for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which essentially said there can be no limit on corporate spending to influence our votes.

Hard? Damn right it will be hard.

So was the American Revolution. But if you want a real democracy, there really is no choice.

Oh yeah — the election results: Just as I expected, all the races turned out exactly as I predicted. I'll be back to tell you What It All Means next week.

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