The Sounds of Conservative Silence

As the news about the ongoing water crisis took hold in my hometown of Flint, I saw a number of articles about the issue in the mainstream press and left-leaning media.  Most of these articles focus on the Emergency Manager law and talk about the switch from water provided by Detroit to the Flint River as a move “to save money.”

There are a lot of things left out of that story and I expected that some of the more conservative and libertarian media would look at this.

I had high expectations that weren’t met.

I checked some of the sites that I frequent: the Federalist?  Nope. National Review? Uh-uh. Reason Magazine? No.

I also wondered if the state’s conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center would say something.  Nada.

While pop stars are suggesting the governor of Michigan should be executed by firing squad, many on the center-right have remained strangely silent.

Or maybe it’s not so strange.  Since this deals with urban areas it might not be considered as important to conservatives.  In 2013, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser wrote an article for City Journal on the importance for Republicans to focus on cities.  In the 2012 presidential election, Glaeser notes GOP nominee Mitt Romney only got 29 percent of the urban vote. Over the last few elections, the GOP has focused on suburbs and rural areas instead of cities. Glaeser recalls a time when the GOP thought cities mattered:

The GOP wasn’t always so dismissive of cities. Almost at the front of its 1968 platform was a section called “Crisis of the Cities,” which declared that “for today and tomorrow, there must be—and we pledge—a vigorous effort, nation-wide, to transform the blighted areas of cities.” The platform advocated “greater involvement of vast private enterprise resources in the improvement of urban life, induced by tax and other incentives,” as well as “new technological and administrative approaches through flexible federal programs enabling and encouraging communities to solve their own problems.” After Richard Nixon won the election that year, he sought to deliver on those promises. Aided by his HUD secretary, George Romney (Mitt’s father), he moved federal policy away from subsidizing disastrous public-housing projects and toward a system of housing vouchers. Nixon also championed block grants, which gave cities flexibility in distributing federal aid, allowing them to target their greatest needs.

However in 2012, cities seemed to disappear from the GOP platform:

The 2012 party platform, by contrast, had no city-oriented policies whatsoever and used the word “urban” just twice—once to decry the current administration’s allegedly “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” (The Obama administration’s urban policy has actually been rather timid. It has done little to reduce one of the federal government’s largest real social-engineering efforts, one that favors suburbs over cities: promoting homeownership with the mortgage-interest tax deduction and with subsidized mortgages from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That policy amounts to bribing people to leave rented urban apartments and buy suburban houses.)

When cities are mentioned by right of center writers, it seems to be only to prove how bad Democrats are at governing cities.  Detroit was held up as textbook case number 1.  But the writers had little if anything to offer.

It’s not that there aren’t ideas out there. But I think conservatives have come to see cities as a lost cause.

Which is why it’s frustrating that conservative writers are not focusing on Flint.  As I’ve said in my previous article, there are a lot of factors that led to the current crisis. Conservative writers would look into this.  Conservatives would also note that Governor Rick Snyder’s use of the Emergency Manager law was focused on helping urban areas. While some saw this as an attack on democracy, it was actually a way to help right the fiscal ship of distressed cities and help them become vital areas again.  No it wasn’t a magic pill. Yes, the law failed in this instance.  But the EM law was a way to insure that financially healthy cities were key to Michigan’s revival.

It has been interesting to see a white Republican governor involved in urban areas the way the governor has.  It has not been perfect and yes, the state did drop the ball.  But in a time when most GOP leaders are not focused on urban issues, Snyder’s attempt, however imperfect it maybe (and it was very imperfect) is noteworthy.

I just wish right-of-center media thought so too.


Staff Writer

Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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42 thoughts on “The Sounds of Conservative Silence

  1. Frankly, I see this as a generalized, local issue. I’m not sure how “national” news it is. Don’t get me wrong, I share some of your concerns. I’d have thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight the issue of the gov’s actions and such while at the same time zinging the democratic admins that helped put the city in the crisis in the first place.

    Given all the other “local” new: freddy grey, etc. in the new, the stuff going on overseas, perhaps it’s just not been on the radar?

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  2. How much of the “ragging on Detroit” is simply conservative media carrying water for their employers and Wall Street in general? It’s easy enough to get a steal of a deal on buying up a whole town when everyone is saying how horrible it is and that there’s no end in sight. Of course this theory goes with Rick Snyder getting elected by Wall Street to “right the ship” (naturally, after wall street is finished with its buying spree).

    I’d appreciate Republicans being a bit more honest about who’s running the show, and how they’re bringing investment back into the Rust Belt. I know, everyone hates wall street, but if you at least say “here’s what we’re going to do”, well, that’s a plan to run on. (and if your plan comes with significant interest from commercial/financial ventures, that’s worth considering when I cast a vote).

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    • Would “buying up a whole town” really be so bad if large swathes of it were abandoned and carrying the fiscal weight of an infrastructure built for a much, much larger population?

      What are the alternatives? A few hipsters who want to open up bicycle shops and bespoke woodworking incubators? Community gardens?

      If Wall Street wants to pump money into a city*, I’d rather it be a place where it’s not already exorbitantly expensive to live.

      *with a hive mind, as always

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  3. I’m surprised reason hasn’t covered this. Beside the large bore police reform (started when Balko worked there), small ball urban stuff is a lot of what they have done in the Gillespie/Welch era. (e.g. the classic hairdresser licensing battles)

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  4. It has been interesting to see a white Republican governor involved in urban areas the way the governor has. It has not been perfect and yes, the state did drop the ball. But in a time when most GOP leaders are not focused on urban issues, Snyder’s attempt, however imperfect it maybe (and it was very imperfect) is noteworthy.

    Well, his noteworthy attempt ended in disaster. Conservatives are left with either engaging critically with the way a Snyder tried to address Flint’s fiscal problems with disastrous results, figuring out some way the whole thing was actually the fault of some Democrats somewhere, or just ignoring the whole thing. Every incentive in partisan politics is going to push someone towards either shifting the blame or just not talking about it, especially if the problem falls affects a constituency the GOP has basically given up on anyway.

    As for why they gave up on it, well, Republicans can continue to do extremely well at the state level and hold onto the House indefinitely without voters from urban centers supporting them, and, well, it seems like the EM law is the best they had to offer in the first place. No matter what you think of the EM law, it seems like it would be a tough sell for the voters who are actually having their votes overridden.

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    • Conservatives are left with either engaging critically with the way a Snyder tried to address Flint’s fiscal problems with disastrous results, figuring out some way the whole thing was actually the fault of some Democrats somewhere, or just ignoring the whole thing. Every incentive in partisan politics is going to push someone towards either shifting the blame or just not talking about it, especially if the problem falls affects a constituency the GOP has basically given up on anyway.

      Yeah, and that sucks.

      This would have been a great opportunity to set a precedent of how government workers guilty of sufficient criminality be tarred and feathered.

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  5. Dennis asks in the OP why right-of-center media is uninterested in Flint. Certainly it’s a newsworthy sequence of events. I see one of two things at play here.

    One, right-of-center media perceives that its principal audience are rural, exurban, or suburban dwellers. In their eyes, their audience thinks that a city might be a place to go to work occasionally, but it’s not a place to live and especially not a place to raise children. Consequently, for those media decision-makers, stories about particularly urban issues are not going to be a high priority compared to news that is either of immediately national scope or which touches an emotional vibe of the target demographic.

    Magazines, newspapers, and broadcast media exist to sell themselves, after all.

    Two, right-of-center opinion leaders (possibly but not necessarily politicians) believe that problems in urban areas, like those described in Flint with respect to water supply, are solvable only invisibly and by non-political subject matter experts — or not solvable at all. Moreover, a significant cadre of conservatives (not all conservatives, let me disclaim) find the task of actually governing to be uninteresting and not politically advantageous, and at least flirt with the idea that governing is contrary to ideology (e.g., “that government governs best which governs least” is a conservative refrain, not a liberal one). So rolling up one’s sleeves and solving an infrastructure problem is 1) an unappealing task, 2) not a job likely to result in gains if it succeeds but likely to result in taking a political hit if it fails, 3) dependent on a higher level of subject matter expertise than these leaders likely actually possess, and 4) difficult, these opinion leaders prefer to leave them alone, and the media responds accordingly. Since you can’t really take the position of “nuke the whole site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure” as an actual means of dealing with a problem like this, a position somewhere between “silence” and “just go away and let the experts do their job” is the safe way to go.

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    • This is all correct i would say but misses one thing. A key part of the issue in Flint is pollution and the environment. Many in the R’s, especially in gov, don’t seem to treat either as an issue at all or side with industry. Environmentalists are a butt of R’s jokes and their concerns are opposed. Taking the Flint issue seriously also means accepting that polluting the environment can have serious and long term problems and might be really bad idea now.

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      • Was the issue one of pollution? The lead was coming from old pipes, not the water itself, and the water had a high salt or acid content, that was causing the lead to leech from the pipes. Was the high salt/acid a result of pollution, or just the natural state of the river?

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        • Per Dennis’s first piece on this he said “Anyone who lived in Flint knew that the river was suspect because of all the auto plants that probably leached chemicals into the river. ”

          Clean water and environment is an issue conservatives sadly seem to have ceded to D’s and liberals. There are plenty of faults with the environmental movement but at least they are focused on keeping the enviro clean. R’s seem to always side with industry even when long term bad results seem easy to predict.

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        • Oscar if I have the facts straight the water was mildly acidic but not enough to have been any more a problem than the original source. The addition of chlorine to kill the nasties created a higher level of acid in the system than ‘normal’. And to be fair it wasn’t the chlorine itself but the by products after the residuals did their job that created the increase.

          Now there was a secondary problem of a sewer leak upstream that created more nasties than probably anticipated. Of course the operators probably kept adding the chlorine until the residuals were at a level to make sure people didn’t get sick (thems’ the rules right?), but at that level pipes were eroding lead, iron, whatever the acid could attack.

          If I lived in that city, I would be gung-ho for replacing those lead pipes, with the iron ones close behind. But that means projects, which means money, which means surplus of capital that these folks probably don’t have because capital formation is a thing of the past…..etc.etc.etc..

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        • Any skilled water operator knows that any (ANY!) significant change in water supply can result in pipes leaching. In fact, any competent chemistry student knows this.

          All together now, the word of the day is “equilibrium”.

          I haven’t followed the Flint case all that closely. Frankly it’s just too depressing. So I don’t know exactly who was advising the EM about the risks associated with changing the water supply source. But it would not surprise me to learn that the EM had cut out the water department managers. After all, the whole point of the EM is to eliminate the dysfunctional city officials, wasn’t it? Bold new solutions needed, and all that.

          A standard liberal slur about conservatives is that conservatives believe that government is incompetent, and when in power they do their very best to prove the point.

          Snyder’s attempt is noteworthy, all right. He did a bang-up job of proving liberals right.

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      • The issue was not pollution. It was standing idly by as the governor and local officials received credible evidence that the citizens were posioned. This isn’t some abstract “failure of government.” This involves failure to protect families and children from a well-known posion. This could have easily be solved, but that would have involved actually caring about the welfare of the people of Flint. Like Republicans all over, these officials just didn’t care, consequences be dammed.

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        • This.

          The problem wasn’t that a switch in the water supply caused lead in the water, or how that happened.

          We can try tracking that acidity back to pollution, but that’s a whole different story…in reality, *any* change could have done this. Or hell, it could have happened by itself!

          The actual story is *the complete lack of response after a lot of evidence started showing up*

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    • significant cadre of conservatives (not all conservatives, let me disclaim) find the task of actually governing to be uninteresting and not politically advantageous, and at least flirt with the idea that governing is contrary to ideology

      My take on it as well. The “significant cadres” in my opinion are the ones in charge now, the ones setting the agenda and garnering attention and votes. And geographically, their power is in the suburbs and exurbs.

      Its hostility, more than just neglect of the cities.

      What vision is there from the right? The “right” being the GOP candidates, Federalist, NRO, the pundits and shotcallers- when they dream, what do they dream of? I don’t hear anything hopeful or positive.

      Its all fear, indignation, outrage. I’m not talking about the trench warfare of campaigns- we expect that, and its always been that way.

      I mean the big picture of where the conservative movement would like America to go, their idea of what we as a society would look like if they had their way.

      The unspoken answer for the cities seems to be, if not “nuke them from orbit”, or at least treat the cities like some occupied, hostile foreign vassal state.

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      • “What vision is there from the right? The “right” being the GOP candidates, Federalist, NRO, the pundits and shotcallers- when they dream, what do they dream of? I don’t hear anything hopeful or positive.”

        I agree. Listening to the establishment talk about the future of America, you would think it begins and ends with tax cuts. I am surprised they haven’t brought up this example in Flint through that guise. “What are we paying for with our taxes? We might as well have them lower if our water is going to still suck!”

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        • Going up a level of abstraction, there is a positive and hopeful aspect to every political philosophy and religious theology, and a negative corrosive one. Sometimes the positive vision leads, other times the negative one does.

          Right now, honestly, I think the negative one is leading the charge for both, but the liberal vision still has its core mission intact, a vision of a cooperative society where everyone gets a fair shot.

          Depressingly, the split right now on the Right is between those whose vision begins and ends with tax cuts, and the ethnic nationalists.

          Given that the mantra of the former is “every man for himself!” and the dream of the latter is revanchism, to “take back our country”, the only hope I would have is that the mile long train of cattle cars that Trump dreams of would be too expensive for Wall Street to bear.

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    • Related to your second point is that it is an article of faith for the national GOP that urban problems, particularly in the northeast quarter of the country and California, are all due to Democrats’ mismanagement. For all sorts of reasons, right-of-center media are going to tend to support that dynamic. If the Rs do well, it will get lots of coverage. For example, back in the 1990s, CATO was pushing the pension plans for the City of San Diego and San Diego County as miracles of applying conservative principles to city and county government. When it turned out that the rosy numbers were all due to cooking the books, the CATO articles disappeared from their web site. TTBOMK, no formal retractions or apologies for getting the story entirely wrong were ever issued.

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    • Something you did’t touch on, unless I missed it since I scanned your post, is that “they just don’t give a damn. The position of “the other side caused that mess, let them rot/fix it themselves” wouldn’t be that hard to envision.

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  6. This is a useful challenge. I am with the writer here in that I would like to see (and read) more conservatives taking up the issues of cities in general. It’s an important topic as the country continues to urbanize, and an unwillingness to discuss these issues–and the specifics of governance–alienates potential voters and makes conservatives look out of touch. Arguments against centralization sort of need to be followed through to their lived implications, and that implies greater engagement with the local.

    (For my own part: I haven’t written about it for the simple reason that I haven’t done enough research on the specifics to have anything worth writing on it.)

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    • I don’t know how well that conversation would go. Cities typically have a first order problem of lacking the capacity to be self-sustainable. The subject of a partial sustainable suburbish type layout is typically trounced in short order.

      Add to that, probably less than 15% of urban folk would wish to do the type of work to move towards a more sustainable model.

      Further on, there exist regulation problems. Even if a community identified lead pipes to be replaced, some of those lines ‘belong’ to the city. So even if the community hired a contractor or ‘free traded’ solutions, they would still be funneled through various regulation regimes.

      Not that regulation is inherently a problem, but it can (and often does) create multiple barriers to direct action solutions. If the regulatory/inspection regime is in the back pocket of consultants and contractors, your looking at another set of barriers.

      It’s a hell of a lot more comfortable to keep switching out politicians that say they can fix these problems. Unless those politicians have boots in the fray experience with multiple utility systems, they will be clueless, doesn’t matter which party they come from.

      Of course this doesn’t even touch the slow march out of a financialized economy and getting back to some basic tangible capitalism economy.

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