Commentary: Democracy in peril

Apr 27, 2012

Sometimes it seems that everybody in the world is in favor of democracy, just as long as it gives them the result they want.

When that doesn’t happen, well, then they don’t like it so much. We saw two prime examples of this yesterday. The first was a state board of canvassers meeting, where the panel refused to put a repeal of the new emergency manager law on the ballot.

The vote was actually a tie. The two Democrats voted to put the emergency manager repeal before the voters; the two Republicans voted to keep it off the ballot, which means we are in for a long struggle in the courts. For months, people opposed to the emergency manager law worked hard to put a proposed repeal of that law before the voters. The state certified that they clearly collected more than enough signatures. Nor is there any question as to whether the petition language was misleading. This was about whether the size of the type in the headline on the petitions was large enough.

Nobody even charged that it was hard to read, but the Republicans said it didn’t conform to the rules, and so they voted not to put this measure on the ballot. Now if you think that was nitpicky, you are right. The Republicans couldn’t care less about typefaces. They don’t want this on the ballot, because they fear voters will overturn the law. Plus, they fear this would bring an avalanche of Democrats and union members flocking to the polls.

Those on the other side aren’t blameless either. Stand Up for Democracy, the group pushing repeal of the Emergency Manager law, could have prevented this by doing what most other groups do: Bring their petitions to the board to have the language and the type approved before they started to circulate them.

But they didn’t do that, and so we have a mess. Republicans in the legislature don’t much like democracy either. They’ve drawn national notice for blatantly ignoring their own rule that there has to be a two-thirds vote to give a bill immediate effect. They also hate the fact that the voters  decided four years ago to legalize embryonic stem cell research.

The higher education budget sets aside some millions in “performance funding” to be awarded to schools that meet certain targets. That makes some sense, if we are talking graduation rates, for example. But yesterday, they voted to tie the University of Michigan’s funding to reporting specifics on their stem cell research.

That’s not because House Republicans are interested in science. This is about intimidation. What their ideological zealots did to Michigan State is even more outrageous. They want MSU to end its very sensible policy that all students have health insurance, and are holding some of the school’s funding hostage to that.

Coincidentally, one of the greatest men in modern history was in Detroit yesterday, a man who does believe in democracy. Lech Walesa, whose courageous defiance of the authorities in Poland was the beginning of the end of communist dictatorship in Europe.

Yesterday, he told Chrysler workers that this nation had lost its way, somehow; that we needed to get back to being a nation of ideas and moral leadership. I wish I could have asked him where to start.