John Buell

Flint, Crises and Democratic Politics

Much of recent politics has been characterized as an effort to deal with an emergency, whether that be dangerous communicable diseases, immigration, terrorist violence, catastrophic weather events, or financial collapse. Emergencies are portrayed as dangerous in their own right, but they are also celebrated or feared as an occasion to suspend civil liberties and strangle democratic governments. In circumstances deemed as emergencies leaders often strive to reassert conventional values and impose those values by force if necessary. What is less often recognized is that emergency politics begins with the definition of an emergency and the designation of a particular event or set of events as an emergency. Today it is the health of democracy itself that constitutes an emergency.

The declaration of an emergency often reflects the power of media and political elites. Thus today the city of Flint faces a public health crisis over lead-poisoned water. This is now deemed an emergency. City residents, however, have been drinking this water for months. The coup d’état by Michigan’s governor that installed the emergency manager received very little national media attention. Corporate media have failed to point out that the law under which Gov. Snyder imposed an emergency manager on Flint was rejected in a referendum, only to be reimposed by the governor and state legislature via a technicality in the Michigan constitution.

This is banana republic stuff. Wasn’t that an emergency? The larger background questions also remain unasked. What role did the neoliberal political economy—including the attack on unions, the deindustrialization of Detroit, corporate globalization and trade agreements like NAFTA play in Flint’s fiscal crisis? And did that fiscal crisis really necessitate sourcing the Flint River or was that merely an excuse to privatize another municipal service, a favorite goal of neoliberals?

Finally, where is it written that a democratic government, accountable to its citizens, wouldn’t be both more legitimate and better able to cope with the city’s fiscal crisis? And if Flint had not been majority African American, would the governor and state legislature have staged a coup and changed the water supply? Imagine the public and media reaction if New York City’s mayor had suggested that Manhattan residents drink water from the Hudson had the city’s water source had been cut off. As CNBC puts it, Wall Street is the “beating heart” of American business while Flint, once esteemed aide to the arsenal of democracy, is today a footnote. What happens in Flint stays in Flint until the bodies start piling up. Democracy is a luxury for the affluent.

Consider a larger context. While children in Flint suffer from lead poisoning clinics that provide reproductive services to women face periodic instances of intimidation. Inordinate numbers of Black churches have been set ablaze. Internationally, a European “Troika” undermines democratic governments and imposes harsh austerity.

One could construct from these events a broad social emergency. Some might see it as a tightly knit international right wing conspiracy to destroy democracy, pluralism, and welfare state. I would not endorse that view, in part because the purported protagonists do not strike me as so clearly united, at least behind such blatantly violent means. (Corporate conservatives use but don’t fully control the Tea Party.) My larger point, however, is that current media frames would never translate such events into a broad scenario but they were quick to portray 911 not merely as a crime but as part of a whole radical Islam attack on us for our freedoms.

Emergencies, whether defined and often engineered by established elites and their business as usual or true acts of God, such as earthquakes, are likely to be a recurrent feature of our collective lives and an occasion to further limit our freedoms.

Civil libertarians have responded to proclamations of emergency by insisting that traditional police work subject to the classic procedural safeguards is a more adequate defense against various forms of mass surveillance, infiltration, and profiling. They make a persuasive case.

Nonetheless, the proliferation of emergencies requires a political as well as a juridical response. The aim of much of such emergency measures as the so- called Patriot Act is less our physical security than it is to limit political dialogue and the range of possible responses to the crisis at hand. Politics must play a central role in responding to these incursions. What shape such a politics might take is the subject of my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2016

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