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Restoring political civility in Michigan

Everyone’s back to the political games in D.C. and Lansing now that lawmakers are back from the annual Mackinac Island Policy Conference where one of the agenda items on the to-do list was restoring political civility.

In a speech to business and political leaders at the conference, Governor Rick Snyder called the tone of political rhetoric a national crisis. “I view this as probably the largest threat to our country,” Snyder told the audience.

Snyder’s complaint is that the current environment gets in the way of practical problem-solving; an exercise that requires people to meet in the middle. Not just to find common ground, but also to compromise.

The heat of the last election cycle elevated this to command the attention of the state’s business and political leaders. But this isn’t something that just emerged last year. Or even the last couple of years.

Frances Lee is a political science professor at the University of Maryland. She’s written papers and a book on the subject. She says the competition for control buries compromise.

“Close competition creates certain incentives that make it hard to pursue bipartisan strategies in legislating. It reduces the incentives to do that,” Lee told It’s Just Politics.

She says party caucuses that see control of the House or the Senate, or both, within reach, are less likely to cooperate and compromise. As the search for win-win deals gives way to a fight for I win-you lose conclusions. Call it the rule of the whole enchilada. And Lee says in Michigan, state government is now even more polarized than Congress.

In Congress until the 1980s, and in Michigan until the 1990s, Democratic control was fairly entrenched. In Michigan, that was mostly true in the state House. As every election became a battle for control, cooperation became tougher and tougher.  

Caucus leaders became more invested in partisan victories than policy victories. And that has an effect in how problems get solved.

Remember President Bill Clinton and “triangulation”? It was the idea that Clinton would borrow from the right and the left to present solutions from the center.

So, apply the logic of triangulation to today’s Michigan Legislature:  Democrats in the minority have a political need to show the Republicans as failures while Republicans, who have the most to gain from bipartisanship, also have an incentive to sow fear over what might happen should the Democrats win control. Thus, they’re in no position to court Democrats with compromises.

Professor Frances Lee says when one party has a solid, nearly permanent majority, legislators in the minority have an interest in bargaining to get something. And the majority has an interest in showing it can govern with buy-in from the minority party.

Which brings us back to Rick Snyder, a Republican who’s sent signals he’d like to govern from the center, but has to bargain with Republicans who have no interest in having Democrats at the table. And Democrats who have no stake in Republican successes.

Doesn’t quite do much for the whole restoring civility thing.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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