11 December 2012
Whose House is the Michigan Legislature?
Last month Michigan gave its electoral votes to President Obama, a Democrat, and re-elected a Democratic incumbent to the U.S. Senate. A majority of the state's delegation to the House of Representatives, however, will be Republicans, and as the rest of the country is now well aware, the GOP controls both houses of the state legislature, while a Republican governor is poised to sign a "right to work" law whose passage is expected this week. Labor demonstrators are protesting the legislation inside the statehouse today, chanting that "This is our house!" But as our little summary shows, that claim isn't necessarily credible if by "our house" the demonstrators mean that it belongs unambiguously to friends of organized labor. Michigan is one of the states that sends mixed messages in elections, apparently growing more "red" the more local you get and more "blue" in more general elections. That probably reflects how the population center of Detroit tips the balance toward Democrats in statewide elections -- gubernatorial votes excepted, apparently -- while many localities, left to their own devices, go Republican. If the GOP is acting against unions out of spite at Democrats, as Democrats automatically suggest, it might make more sense for them to change the law for presidential elections so that each district's electoral vote can go to the popular vote winner in the district, rather than all electoral votes going to the statewide popular vote winner, as in most states. That way, Michigan's "red" districts could actually have their votes for Romney (the son of a former governor) actually count. But while the timing of the Michigan legislation may make Democrats wonder, the Republican party's grudge against unions is a long-term thing. Going back practically to the founding days of Lincoln, the GOP has never been very comfortable with a self-conscious permanent working class asserting its interests through political action. The Republican "free labor" ideal presumed that wage labor was but a way station on an industrious individual's road to self-employment and self-sufficiency. Implicit in the presumption was a judgment that someone who remained a wage laborer all his working life had himself to blame and no business using politics to dictate better terms for himself. Republicans retain a traditional suspicion that organized labor is a conspiracy in restraint of trade, while their commitment to individual liberty (as opposed to individual well-being) leads them to sympathize with the theoretical character who wants to negotiate his own terms with an employer without being dictated to, or extorted for dues, by a union. The standard pro-union argument explaining why that individual is not better off standing aloof from his co-workers is a matter of indifference to Republicans for whom abstract freedom of choice matters more than any material calculation of a person's best interests. In our time, of course, political contributions by dues-financed unions to Democratic candidates probably make it more imperative for Republicans to try drying that stream by making dues voluntary rather than mandatory. The Republican governor is right to note that the pending legislation doesn't forbid anybody from joining a union and paying dues, but he clearly expects fewer workers to join unions upon landing jobs. He wouldn't claim a competitive advantage for Michigan if the legislation passes otherwise. Whatever his motivation, he obviously has a mandate to sign the legislation, and the legislators have a mandate to pass it. Democrats may be baffled that this can happen in a pro-Obama state, but they should remember that, the obfuscation of the Electoral College notwithstanding, the President is elected by and represents the people of the state -- and so does their Republican governor -- while the legislature represents territory. Democracy produces different results depending on how you divide the electorate. On some level, the Michigan statehouse is "our house" for any resident of the state who strolls inside, but the collective consciousness of any state is often a split personality, sometimes Bipolar, sometimes paranoid schizophrenic. Politics is ideally the voice of the people, but inevitably some individuals find a voice they expect to be their own disagreeing with them. American politics is supposed to give each of us opportunities to resolve that discrepancy by getting others to agree with us. Union people and Democrats and Michigan will have their chance, presumably -- but probably not today.