If you were standing on the Lake Michigan’s eastern shores late this February, on a day unusually warm and clear for that bitter month, you would have seen the Chicago skyline, distorted and strange, rising up over the far horizon. Nearly 60 miles of lake separate these two shorelines, and visibility is essentially impossible. But due to a temperature inversion that caused a bending of light and water, the skyline rose up from the depths, grotesque and squat, but still visible, in a place where it manifestly should not be.
If you were to stand in the same place today and turn your gaze southward, you might see a similar, though distinctly more frightening illusion: that of the country folding in on itself, bending at some Mason/Dixon line of the national soul, and falling forward, imposing a grim Mississippi on Michigan. It isn’t just that the two states have primaries today. It’s that the vision of one of the parties is to create a deracinated owner’s paradise, the kind found in the south, and impose it on America’s working heartland.
There’s a lot on the line today, both in terms of absolute vote totals and in terms of narrative. A few of them include:
- Can Bernie Sanders channel anger at the kind of big money interests who turned Michigan into their plaything into votes?
- Can Cruz continue to pick off more than evangelicals, making a move in Mississippi and a play for Michigan?
- Do Kasich’s Rust Belt roots really matter?
- Can Rubio do anything right?
Of course, there will be a million stories coming out of this: the race within the race, who should drop out; will there be a brokered convention; will the party consolidate around Cruz to stop Trump, etc. These are horse race questions, and one that do matter (since we are in a horse race), but the fundamental questions underlying the Michigan election, especially on the Republican side, is that of Flint, responsibility, and reaction.
It’s true that Marco Rubio was the only one who touched Flint in the last debate, and did so very poorly, but in a very telling way. What happened was business as usual, an unfortunate event which we somehow shouldn’t politicize. But it was politics of course, that led to it, a series of undemocratic maneuver, top-level indifference, and a rush toward deregulation and privatization. It was, in short, the result of an attempt to make Michigan more like the south.
By this we mean a fetish for deregulation, an abhorrence of workers rights, allergy to taxes, an aversion to any environmental regulation, and the denuding of basic services for the poor. Southern Republican politicians have been doing this for years: attracting companies by creating little libertarian paradises, where workers should be grateful they get to home at night. For an example of how this works out in practice, look at Lousiana, where Bobby Jindal abandoned his house of cards for a life of deserved obscurity right before it collapsed. The current governor, no shrinking violet liberal, is talking about not having money for child abuse prevention, hospice care, and even the LSU football team (oh neaux!).
That’s what Republican politicians are trying to bring up north, most notably in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker never met a grift he didn’t like, Michigan, where Snyder has worked hard to remove the influence of pesky voters and their anti-business “don’t poison our children” soft-headedness, and even Ohio, where, to his credit, Kasich backed off his union-busting when he saw his voters revolt.
That’s what hangs over Michigan today leading to the vote. Ted Cruz (and Marco Rubio, but so what) is a state dominion absolutist, believing that states should have the power to do essentially whatever they want, with no federal environmental, health, or workers regulation. That means that statehouses, which are very easy to buy, can make Michigans of us all. Trump is more of a vague populist, who doesn’t have a plan, but also thinks at some level it is wrong for people to die in the streets, and his government will fix that. However, he’s also the face of white backlash.
So in today’s vote, Republicans have a choice: the squeaky and self-righteous evangelist who thinks that what happened in Flint is literally the price of doing business, or the know-nothing billionaire who probably doesn’t want everyone to get lead poisoning, but who will also tell the whiners in Flint to shut up. The third choice is John Kasich, who isn’t exactly a big government liberal, but who does seem to be responsive to the idea that citizens shouldn’t be poisoned just because.
So basically: will white blue-collar voters turn out for Trump because he “protects” them, in more ways than one, or will that be overmatched by richer, suburban and exurban types for Cruz, promising fewer taxes and less government (which means more chances to screw the poor). Trump will almost certainly win, but if Cruz can narrow the gap and get a close delegate split, he can position himself as the true candidate to continue the Great Bending, where northern traditions of workers’ protections are crushed, drowned under a Mississippi flowing inexorably backward.
Of course, this is countered on the Democratic side, where the only question is which outlet of populist anger is more viable: Bernie Sanders, who has spent a lifetime fighting against the kind of interests that led to Flint (and, less directly, the cratering of Detroit and the state’s working base) or Hillary Clinton, fairly new to the populist game but extremely popular in the African American community, and who is seen as someone who can get stuff done? Spoiler: it’s Hillary.
More important is turnout. In 2008, the Michigan primary was skewed by their “jumping the line”, so Hillary won with a small turnout and Barack Obama not on the ballot (behind Hillary was “uncommitted”, “undecided”, and “Dennis Kucinich.” Mike Gravel finished fifth). So we don’t have any real recent numbers for uncontested primaries on the Democratic side. On the GOP side, in 2012, Romney came in first with a little under a million Michigan GOPers casting votes. The narrative has been that the Trump vision is bringing out new voters. Michigan is a real test case for this. Will his angry nativist populism turn out voters? Or will the competing constructive populism of the Democrats bring out the voters in a beaten state?