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So what can we do?

Last night I spoke to a group in Northville, a pleasant and mostly affluent little town that straddles Wayne and Oakland Counties. Northville is about 30 miles and thirty light years from Detroit, but my audience wanted to know about the city. Wanted to know how Detroit got in the mess it is in, and what was going to happen next.

They all seemed to hope the city would come back, that someday it would be prosperous again. When I asked, I found that perhaps eighty percent used to live in Detroit; only one does now, which was one more than I expected.

They were people with varying opinions, but with good will. Besides Detroit, they were interested in the dysfunctionality and corruption of Wayne County government. I gave them as much information about the facts as I could.

But then one person, and then another, and another, asked me questions I couldn’t answer, questions along the lines of:  What can we do? What can we do about all this? How do we fix it? What can ordinary people, do?

Frankly, I had no real answers for them, other the glib and obvious ones: Write your representatives in Lansing and Washington.  Find good candidates; do your best to learn about the issues, get people involved, form pressure groups, register and vote.

Those are all perfectly sensible things which yet seem entirely inadequate. They knew it and I knew it.

Today’s term-limited and gerrymandered legislature seems nearly immune to any pressure, other than that from big money.

Some people last night wanted to know how any sane and decent ordinary people can even think about running for office in a world in which you might have to spend hundreds of thousands for a  puny two-year seat in the state legislature.

And many were plainly frightened by the elephant in the room: The increasing possibility that the United States may actually default on its debts tomorrow, an event that could wipe out billions in retirement savings, among other things. One person asked me why this was getting so little coverage in the media, and I had to say I was baffled too.

Indeed, the front pages of Detroit’s newspapers today are all about a lost baseball game, the squabbles of city politicians, and the chance that Michigan same-sex couples may have a brief window in which they will be able to marry.

Meanwhile, the biggest credit agencies are reportedly preparing to downgrade our nation’s bond rating, which could set off an economic storm that would make previous recessions look tame.

I don’t know what any of us can do about that, except to let our elected leaders know, in no uncertain terms, that they need to avoid default. Fixing everything else is possible -- but you have to be prepared for a long hard struggle. 

Half a century ago, President Kennedy used to say that “every person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” We used to believe that was true. Now, I am afraid too many people no longer do. I think unless we find a way to believe we can make a difference, in the long run, we really may be doomed. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.