More Flints to Come

FLINT, MI - FEBRUARY 7:  The Flint River with downtown behind is shown on February 7, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Months ago the
FLINT, MI - FEBRUARY 7: The Flint River with downtown behind is shown on February 7, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Months ago the city told citizens they could use tap water if they boiled it first, but now say it must be filtered to remove lead. (Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

The unfolding water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a sign of things to come. Flint was one of a number of Michigan cities run by an emergency economic manager appointed by the Republican governor, Rick Snyder. It was an emergency economic manager who oversaw Flint's switching of its water supply to the badly polluted Flint River in 2014. An emergency economic manager was in charge when Michigan state public health officials suppressed scientific evidence and ignored local residents' complaints about the dangers of Flint water. Snyder (like his Democratic predecessors) rationalized his use of managers by arguing that the economic and fiscal woes of Flint, Detroit, Benton Harbor, and other cities and school districts were unsolvable without extraordinary measures. But his unspoken rationale was darker and more damaging--and revealing of what the future holds.

Like his counterpart Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Snyder is unremittingly ideological and beholden to business interests. One of his signal accomplishments was to have so-called right-to-work legislation passed in 2012, making him a favorite of extreme right-wing business groups throughout the country. (Walker managed the same feat in Wisconsin, once the heartland of Midwestern progressivism, in 2015). Although he, like Walker, portrays himself as a pragmatist, his brand of conservative Republicanism is deeply suspicious of democratic decision-making and committed to undoing a liberal social contract between the American people and government that has been built up over decades.

Make no mistake about the common-sense ambience of this type of Republicanism. Snyder's commitment to "relentless positive action," a phrase he has used to describe his let's-get-something-done approach to all things political, is both brutal and entirely negative for all but the minority of well-to-do Michiganders who have benefited from his policies. In the guise of business-friendly, rational economic management (made possible by Republican-dominated state legislatures), the new Republican conservatism aims for destruction of democratic checks and balances and replacement of rule by the many with rule by the few. Replace "positive" with "oligarchic" in Snyder's catchphrase, and you get a fair approximation of what this Republican brand means for most Americans.

The Flint water crisis is one example of (I shudder to use the term) collateral damage from this push toward oligarchy. Clean water, clean air, safe food--none of this comes naturally. It has required the work of dedicated public servants, critical scientists, muckraking journalists, politicians, labor activists, churches, and many others.

What has transpired in a devastated rustbelt city in Michigan is one tragic consequence of the Republican party's decades-long pushback against such popular efforts. It is a consequence of Republicans' wish to turn government over to businessmen (like the Koch brothers) or to public servants (Republican and Democrat) who think like businessmen. They believe that democracy's messiness is much too costly and inefficient to satisfy the single calculus that determines every decision they make: the calculus of profit. They put money over people because money is what their system of governance--not to mention their patriotism--comes down to.

There will be more disasters of this sort in the future. Perhaps in Wisconsin or Ohio or any state where Tea Party-flavored Republicans rule. If not water, then something else. The crumbling of public health safeguards in Flint is linked to a larger hollowing out of the country's infrastructure and democratic achievements, from voting rights to women's reproductive rights. Failed bridges and toxic drinking water are of a piece with a new Republican normal in which austerity refers not only to eviscerated government budgets but also reduced chances for ordinary people to gain control over their lives.