Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Anger, Bitterness, and Noise Leave Michigan "In The Dust"

Anger, Bitterness, and Noise Leave Michigan "In The Dust"

Bill Milliken, Michigan's great statesman, warns of a state in peril

June 7, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


"We have seen a growth of meanness, of bitterness, and of excessive partisanship that can only work to the detriment of the region, the state, and the nation," former Governor William G. Milliken  told the Mackinac Policy Conference last Saturday, prompting a prolonged standing ovation.

Last Saturday, former Governor William G. Milliken addressed the Mackinac Regional Conference, a gathering of political, civic, and cultural leaders produced annually on Mackinac Island by the Detroit Regional Chamber. Mr. Milliken, who addressed the very first such conference a quarter of a century ago, when he was still in office, drew a long, passionate, standing ovation from conference attendees with his heartfelt, frank address. Following is a complete transcript of his speech:

Though 24 years have passed since the Detroit Chamber of Commerce first met here on the island, some of the issues that we confront have not changed. It was 20 years ago that the Big Four agreed to reorganize what was then the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority. Nineteen years ago they agreed that transportation is a key concern for the region. It still is.

And transportation has been a major concern for the region far longer than that. Some of you may remember that, in 1976, Transportation Secretary William Coleman committed $600 million toward a regional transportation system if Detroit and its neighbors could reach an agreement on a system. $600 million was real money back in 1976. Construction of a truly regional transportation system would have put Detroit and its neighbors light years ahead of where we are today.

But there was never an agreement. Politics, in the worst sense of the kind of divisive politics that have Balkanized southeast Michigan for so long, took precedence over good public policy. And, if anything, the political climate — whether in the Detroit area, in Lansing, or in Washington — has deteriorated over the past 25 years. We have seen a growth of meanness, of bitterness, and of excessive partisanship that can only work to the detriment of the region, the state, and the nation. The focus has turned to winning elections rather than to developing responsible public policy. Too often that focus on winning boils down to just raising the most money and appealing to the worst instead of the best in people.

Political discourse these days too often is focused on "spin" and "staying on message" rather than involving a genuine exchange of ideas and concepts. I think the term "spin" is particularly appropriate for so much of what passes as public debate these days. When your wheels are spinning, you aren’t going anywhere. Too often in our public discourse we aren't going anywhere. We're just yelling at each other.

Tone, Turf, and Tolerance
In a Feb. 13 New York Times column by Frank Rich, actor and producer Clint Eastwood lamented the tone of the debate that had erupted over his latest movie, "Million Dollar Baby."

"People are so angry now," he said. "You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot — both on the right and the left."

One thing I learned long ago is that raising the level of your voice does not raise the level of the discussion. Sadly, too many have lost sight of the fact that, in the end, we're all in this together. This is Michigan we are talking about, a great state that helped build a nation, served as the arsenal of democracy, and is home to some of the most magnificent natural resources on the planet. This is Detroit we are talking about, whether we refer to the city itself or the region that surrounds it. We go up or down together.

Yet you would think from the tone of the public debate that it's a win-lose game between people in Michigan. We ought to be focused on identifying the strategy that would be a win for all of Michigan or for all of Detroit. If we don't, the rest of the nation and world will leave us all in the dust.

Former state House Speaker and Detroit Renaissance President Paul Hillegonds relates the story of a Chicago developer who came to Detroit and made an interesting observation about the dynamic he observed. In Chicago, he said, progress is more important than turf. In Michigan, too often turf is more important than progress. We need to develop a dynamic where progress is more important than turf and where developing responsible public policy is more important than scoring "spin" points.

That does not mean you don't have differences. When I was in Lansing we had our differences, to be sure. They could be intense at times. But we were able to resolve them in a climate that maintained a sense of civility and mutual respect. It wasn't that there was a shortage of strong-willed people or people who felt passionately about the issues with which they were dealing. People like Coleman Young, Dan Murphy, Bill Ryan, and Bob VanderLaan had very firmly held views that didn't always coincide.

But they were able to disagree one day on one issue and agree the next day on another. They knew disagreeing on an issue does not make a person an enemy. They were able to take each issue, each day, each vote as an important event and not allow personality to enter into it. They were able to sense when the time had come to compromise, to blend their ideas with those of others, to settle for what they could get, and live to fight another day. They knew that 20 years after they left office people would remember not the political fights they were in, but rather the sum total of what they did to move the state or the region forward.

They exemplified the spirit of moderation described by Judge Learned Hand in these words: "It is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens — real and not the fictitious product of propaganda — which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations; in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual."

Building a legacy should be the primary objective of everyone serving in public office. We remember the legacy of Lincoln, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt not for the elections they won but what they did for the country. We remember G. Mennen Williams for the bridge he built connecting our peninsulas. We remember George Romney for the new state Constitution and improved government he left us.

Ideological Prisoners
This change in the tone of the political debate has led to some very unwise public policy decisions. For example, look at the money we are spending on our prison system in Michigan. The current corrections budget is almost $1.9 billion. We have some 60,000 people in prison in Michigan. We are spending an average of $30,000 per person to incarcerate them. All of this money is being spent in the face of a state budget that is in deficit and getting worse and in the face of sharp cuts that are being made in essential services such as higher education, secondary education, and cultural services.

But no one is willing to step out and point out what terrible public policy this enormous spending on prisons is. Too many people in public life are so obsessed with being re-elected that they are paralyzed on this issue. They fear that attempting to deal constructively with this issue will bring a charge of being soft on crime.

In 1979 I sent a special message to the Legislature on corrections noting that our prison population was approaching 15,000 — one fourth of what it is today. I don't think we were any less safe in those days than we are today. I believe we have more people in prison today who are nonviolent and could be released with proper supervision, making a contribution to society rather than being a drain. I believe we need programs in our prisons that prepare these men and women for release, prepare them to become participating members of society.

I'm not alone in this belief. State Corrections Director Patricia Caruso made the point to the Detroit Free Press recently that developing a more effective re-entry program for prisoners would be good economic policy. Greater investments in public education, in early childhood education, and in educational programs for prisoners and parolees would make much more sense economically and socially. But someone has to take the first step. And in today's climate, even those who might want to do that know the political firestorm that would greet them.

So once again, politics trumps good public policy.

Trouble with Term Limits
Another factor that has added to this dynamic is the advent of term limits.

I was never a fan of term limits. I know of no other line of work where inexperience is considered an asset. If you are looking for an accountant, an attorney, a doctor, a plumber, or an auto mechanic, you look for people who have experience. When you are going to a meeting with the IRS, you don't require that you attorney or accountant have no more than six years experience. When you are looking for a doctor to perform open-heart surgery, your first choice isn't someone who has no experience.

Yet somehow the idea took hold that when it came to the development of public policy related to sometimes highly complex issues at the end of the 20th century, the less experience the better. Term limits have turned into a disaster for this state. They were supposed to be a panacea. But we all know they aren't working. What they are doing is making it impossible for dedicated public servants like the Bill Ryans or Bob VanderLaans or Harry Gasts or Tom Andersons to gain needed experience and background and stay on to make huge contributions to this state.

I think the Legislature ought to take the initiative in presenting to the public for its consideration a Constitutional amendment to lengthen terms for senators and representatives. They ought to step up and make a case that it's necessary for people who write our laws to put in the time necessary to build the kind of judgment, experience, and institutional memory that are so important to sound decision making on often complex issues.

Special Interest Damages State
In addition to term limits, another area that cries out for correction is the growing role money is playing in our election process, both partisan elections and non-partisan. The cost of elections has become almost obscene, requiring candidates to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars just to seek a legislative seat. The only ready sources for money in those quantities are special interest groups. They, of course, have a very direct stake in issues that come before our legislative and executive branches. That is why they make contributions in the amounts they make them.

The impact of the money that is raised and the influence that follows that money poses a very real threat to our democratic institutions and our society. We must find a way as a nation and a state to directly confront this issue of the cost of elections. That includes taking a very serious look at the partial public funding of elections so as to take off the pressure on candidates of raising money. That is true for both partisan and nonpartisan elections.

Rich Robinson, Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, reports that in the last three state Supreme Court elections there has been more money spent by independent committees that did not report than by candidate committees that did report.

In the process, our elections have grown nastier, nosier, and ever more expensive. If you look back at the ads that ran in the 2000 Supreme Court contests, we had two kinds of ads paid for with unreported money. Ads backing the Republican candidates claimed that Democratic candidates were sympathetic to common criminals. Ads backing Democratic candidates claimed that Republicans were sympathetic to corporate criminals. You can't go through this kind of political food fight and not damage the public image of the office being sought.

And that's not to mention the continuing absurdity in this state of having Supreme Court candidates nominated at partisan political conventions, but then running on a non-partisan ballot.

All of this divisiveness and take-no-prisoners approach to politics does great damage to our state and to the southeast Michigan area. Rather than breaking down barriers between people, it tends to reinforce and harden those barriers. And people become so preoccupied with battling for local turf that they lose sight of the common problems that cry out for a unified approach.

History’s Warning
Those of you who have been around for a while know that one of my good friends in public life was Coleman Young. That didn't mean things always went smoothly between us. I remember some heated discussions we had. I even remember an occasion when he assured me that a particular word he used in reference to me which showed up in both Detroit papers should be considered a term of friendship. I took his word on that.

Despite the fact that we came from such different backgrounds, we formed a strong partnership built on the knowledge that Michigan's future and Detroit’s future are inextricably tied together. If Detroit does not succeed, Michigan will not succeed. Those who believe that they can prosper adjacent to a failing Detroit are wrong.

Unfortunately, Detroit bashing was a part of the political dialogue when I was in politics. And it still rears its ugly head in today's political debate. It is still easier to make Detroit the villain than to put the same time and effort into making hard decisions and developing good public policy that serves all. How else do you explain the continued attempts to grab control of the city's water system, a system that serves its customers well at prices that compare very favorably with the rest of the nation and that has never forced any other city to tie into it? How much better off we all would be if that time and energy was spent on more productive pursuits dealing with the issues that confront a region whose 20th century economy was based on heavy industry but that needs to adjust to compete effectively in the 21st century?

A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column from Kaifeng, an ancient Chinese city along the mud-clogged Yellow River. Kristof wrote that, in the year 1000 A.D., Kaifeng was by far the most important city in the world. At that time, it was the capital of the Song Dynasty, with a thriving, bustling economy and a population of one million at a time when London had only 15,000 residents and Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages.

Today he describes it as "grimy and poor, not even the provincial capital, and so minor it lacks even an airport.”

Kristof wrote that that decline resulted from failure to sustain a technological edge, a failure to pursue sound economic policies, and a hubris that refused to learn from the rest of the world. The headline for the article, written in Chinese, was an old Chinese saying: "Glory is as ephemeral as smoke and clouds."

Pandering Threatens Michigan
A recent column by Free Press columnist Tom Walsh relates that former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt, in a preliminary draft from his Michigan Roadmap project, sounded a warning that a similar fate could befall Michigan.

"Ironically," the draft said, "at a time when the rest of the world has recognized that investing in education and knowledge creation is the key to not only prosperity but, indeed, survival, too many of Michigan's citizens and leaders have come to view such investments as a low priority, expendable during hard times."

It continues, "The aging baby boomer population that dominates public policy in our state demands, instead, expensive health care, ubiquitous prisons, homeland security, reduced tax burdens — and to hell with the kids and the future."

We have developed a culture in our society in which some politicians pander endlessly and shamelessly to cut taxes. Then, when we run into a budget crunch, we start cutting the absolutely vital and essential services this state needs to compete effectively in the 21st century world. We think it would be political suicide to suggest the need for additional resources to preserve the level of excellence that we have known in the past and that we must have for the future. All you have to do is look at the educational product of the rest of the world, most especially now India, China, and many European countries, to see that we are falling behind.

If we are to have a growing, expanding, and prosperous economy in the new, sophisticated world in which we live, we must have a highly educated citizenry.

A similar note was struck by the Michigan League of Women Voters in the most recent of a series of report cards they have been issuing on Michigan.

"Government," they concluded, "is becoming increasingly irrelevant as it shrinks due to reductions in tax rates and revenues. Essential services are being cut and citizens are losing hope in the prospect that government will protect and support opportunities for people to improve their lives. This trend erodes citizen access to government more than any development we have observed since we began this series of reports."

At this time in Michigan's history, those in positions of responsibility must speak up before it is too late.

A Time for Courage
I do not believe that advocating responsible public policy inevitably leads to political ruin. When I first ran for the Michigan Senate, I ran against an incumbent who was part of what was then known as the old guard in the Senate. A key issue in that campaign was the state's over-reliance on property taxes.

In that campaign, I publicly called for a state income tax. It wasn't very popular in that district at the time. I'm sure if I had taken a poll, that poll would have told me not to go near that proposal. But I did. My opponent opposed a state income tax. In the end, he was seen as an equivocator who was pandering to what he considered the popular will. People respected the idea I was willing to get out front on a difficult issue. I won that election by a 2-1/2-to-one margin.

The 20th century was a great century for Detroit and Michigan. We put the world on wheels. We served as the arsenal of democracy in a war that saved the world from unspeakable tyranny. But we have lost ground. Detroit, which in 1950 was the fourth largest city in America, is now 10th. Our key industry is struggling.

If we do not put aside our surface differences and work together in common cause, the story of Kaifeng can be the story of Michigan and Detroit.

We will not turn around our future if we waste our time and energy turning back the clock on policies that foster diversity at a time when the world is becoming more diverse. We will not turn around our future if we adopt an "I've got mine" attitude that ignores the fact that if a part of this state is in trouble, in the end we all are in trouble. We will not turn around our future if those who would lead us waste our time and energy trying to score political points and win elections rather than focusing on developing sound, effective public policy. We will not turn around our future if we refuse to invest adequately in educating our citizenry in an increasingly sophisticated world.

If Michigan is to thrive in the 21st century, good public policy has to start trumping shortsighted, self-serving politics.

When an election is over, it is over. There is nothing in the U.S. or state constitutions that call upon elected officials to be total partisans. Instead, those documents implore us to recognize that if we hold public office we should be about the people's business, and not personal partisan agendas.

150 years ago Lincoln told a nation that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." In the 21st century, a Michigan divided against itself likewise cannot stand.

Thank you.

William G. Milliken served as Michigan’s governor from 1969 to 1983. He co-chaired Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council in 2003. Along with his wife and former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, he remains active in public interest issues from his home in Traverse City. Mrs. Milliken is a member of the Michigan Land Use Institute's board of directors.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org