Detroit: Portrait of a failure and an opportunity
Often when I write here, I start with a story from my personal experiences in the world of politics. That is usually to help illustrate the point I wish to make. This time, there is nothing to compare or contrast. This is new territory, but it is still something that I feel very strongly about.
The vast majority of the time, as conservatives we find ourselves pointing out what is going wrong in this country. There is no shortage of opportunities to do that, since there are many mistakes being made on a daily basis. But, at this point I am starting to think that the largest mistake isn’t being made by liberals, or the Obama administration, or anyone from the left. This time, the colossal mistake is coming from conservatives.
Detroit is a city that achieved great things in spite of itself. It’s history has always been rife with struggles, whether it was to simply maintain some degree of affluence while shifting from one primary product to the next, or to keep from slipping into utter chaos in the face of racial tensions – a problem that remains today, with roots that go deep into the pre-and post-Civil War eras. It is a city that built itself on the auto industry that changed the world, but then failed to move with the times when the rest of the industry moved into a new wave of innovation.
Conservatives have known this story for a long time, and are generally of the opinion that Detroit’s decision to file for bankruptcy is not only right, but should have happened a long time ago. Like the auto industry that helped to build it, the city has become buried under debt from contracts with public service unions, and with no tax base to support it, there really is no other choice. The people left when crime, gentrification, and job losses made the city less appealing than the outlying suburbs, and the auto industry flailed under the demands of the private sector unions, to the point where even their best years in sales didn’t result in major profits. Money was going straight out the door to meet the salary and benefit demands of the unions.
Thomas LaDuke, producer of the film “Bankrupt: How Cronyism and Corruption Brought Down Detroit” (shown in full at end of article) aptly explains the problem with unions: “You know this is the birthplace of the UAW, up in Flint, where the sit-down strike happened in the 30’s, I believe. So, the union mentality, even if you’re not part of the union, is ingrained here… the union model has been unsustainable.” Relatively unbridled capitalism built Detroit, in the early years of the auto industry there, and unions, cronyism, and corruption ripped it down.
The impetus for this column was brought up long ago, when Reince Priebus and Rand Paul announced that the GOP was going to be on the ground in the city. That was in December, and since they named Wayne Bradley to head up African-American engagement, there hasn’t been a great deal of talk from anyone in the spotlight on exactly what the GOP is doing or intends to do there. Yes, it is just one city, but this is an important opportunity for conservatives that we really shouldn’t be ignoring.
While we are busy running around pointing out the evils of crony capitalism, and unions, we have the ideal example of why we are right sitting in Michigan. It’s one thing to show the shattered neighborhoods there, that can really only be saved by massive investments by real estate developers, that would swoop in to not only rebuild the homes, but also build commercial properties. It would be something else entirely to actually court those investors, and start rebuilding. Detroit has reinvented itself a few times over the years, moving from a frontier fur-trading outpost to an industrial giant in just about two hundred years. That sounds like a long time, but that history follows the history of this nation, as it grew from separate colonies and territories to the United States. Even the auto industry itself shifted gears during World War II, providing wartime materiel instead of consumer model cars, and it quickly shifted right back again when the war ended. That was no small feat in the 1940’s, but they were up to the task. The GOP has implied by even bothering to open an office in the city that the party thinks that maybe the city still has the ability to rise again, if given the right tools to do it.
Yes, it is a major battle against severely entrenched feelings about unions and big business. “It is one of the weirdest dynamics,” LaDuke explains. “I can sit next to somebody at a Lions game or a baseball game, and have a great conversation. And they absolutely see the world differently in terms of what is good in terms of politics and policy. And I try not to question people’s heart or motives, but it really has been one of the most frustrating things, living in this area, and seeing that people in Detroit going through this bankruptcy now. There’s still a vocal – may be a minority – but a very vocal, passionate group of people, who don’t see how the city has been run for the past 40 or 50 years as a problem. That the city hasn’t gotten enough from the Federal government. The State of Michigan hasn’t given them their share back.” This is the real battle against the entitlement mentality, sitting waiting for conservatives to just take the time to prove once and for all what we’ve been screaming at the top of our lungs all along. We can ask ourselves why it could work in Detroit, and the simple fact is that either the city rebuilds as it has in the past through private industry, or it will die.
Detroit is as near as we can get to a clean slate. There hasn’t been as much open land within the city limits since the city was just starting to build itself out of the farms that had surrounded the first settlement there. As Wayne Dupree from “The Wayne Dupree Show” puts it, “I think that the GOP should have tried to be a force a long time ago. It’s way past the time to kick the can down the road and think things are going to get better just because you speak it from outside the State of Michigan. We have to go there and speak face to face. Show our resolve and emotions. We have a story that needs to be heard. We have solutions that need to be tried. We need more than a chance. We need partnership! We are in this together!” With a population in Detroit that is either still rabidly for the status quo, as LaDuke explained, or fed up with political double-speak, Dupree is absolutely right. While it’s unlikely that we’ll win the hearts and minds of the people that still believe that it’s the government that holds the key to solving all their problems, we definitely could make inroads with the people that are waiting desperately for some other solution.
Rev. C.L. Bryant delivered a speech in Pittsburgh that addressed the problem that truly faces the people of Detroit. It was not well received when he delivered it, primarily because the African-American community of Pittsburgh has not reached rock bottom, yet. The message is one that conservatives have been preaching for years – that welfare is the new slavery. That it is better to earn what one has in life, than it is to depend on the government for one’s existence. Detroit has seen that the government simply can’t support the whole city, and that if it is going to rise again, it won’t be through welfare, Obamacare, or any other entitlement program. The people that are not still in that vocal minority – hopelessly addicted to governmental largesse to the point that they cannot step up to save themselves – will be the ones that work to reclaim Detroit from the ashes. They just need to be shown how to do it.
It’s easy to talk about the failings of others from a distance, and not invest in the cure for what ails them. So much time is monopolized with simply pointing out what is wrong, that it seems conservatives are forgetting what it means to fix things. We could fix Detroit. We could put people on the ground like Dupree and Bryant, to go out and speak to the people about breaking the cycle of dependence on government. We could encourage investment in the city, in the form of private small business loans, and real estate redevelopment. That’s what we’re known for, isn’t it? We’re the evil capitalists that build businesses, and dabble in the housing market. Yes, it’s definitely a gamble, to go in to Detroit, and pour money into a failing city that is rife with corruption. But, it’s probably more worthwhile than dumping millions in advertising campaigns across the nation, to attempt to regain a majority on the Hill. The political return on “putting money where our mouths are” is immeasurable. And if that monetary investment succeeds, and Detroit does begin to recover? That would at least double the political pay-off, on top of any returns in dollars.
It’s an idealistic suggestion, and I know it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will actually step up to do it. But, beyond talking about making real investments in a city that was destroyed by liberal policies, there is another point to this. We need to stop talking only about what is wrong in this country. That doesn’t win over anyone that is sitting in the middle. It just strokes the egos of our own. We need to start talking about real solutions to the problems we see. I know I’ve been guilty of it myself, and from now on, I will make a concerted effort to stop. If I can’t offer a potential solution to a problem, then I’m not going to write about it. The negativity is killing us quicker than anything the liberals say or do against us. We are committing political suicide every time we complain about something that is going wrong, without offering even a tiny portion of a solution. I’ve pointed out here that Detroit is a problem, and that there’s probably a problem with the way that the GOP is attempting to take advantage of the situation there. The people there don’t need more double-speak – they’ve had more than enough already, and at least a few of them probably already consider us the same way they consider the Democrats. We’re useless to them, because we’re not offering any real solutions. We’re just in it for ourselves. We need to prove that we’re in it to help them.