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Detroit Broke City

Unfortunately, Detroit is more of an apt analogy for the United States as a whole than any of us would like.

There is no international bankruptcy court. What this will mean for the United States, the largest debtor nation in world history, in a Post-American Century will almost certainly depend, to borrow from Thucydides, on the strong (our creditors) demanding what they will and the weak (ourselves) suffering what they must.

No such realism was on display in federal bankruptcy court in Detroit, Michigan, this past week as beneficiaries of the American entitlement state writ small put Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr on trial, so-to-speak, for failing to negotiate with creditors in good faith, and for fast-tracking the city’s federal bankruptcy filing.

Orr has taken heat from Detroit’s political establishment for not turning Detroit around in seven months. Given that their city has been in decline for sixty years and is now $18 billion in debt, you would think they would welcome a different approach.  But in a deposition taken last week, Detroit Mayor David Bing testified, “So a lot of the key people [administrative heads] that they’re taking out, what they’re doing is putting in consultants in those positions and, you know, they’re learning on the fly. It’s not efficient.”

Help is not on the way. Both men running to replace Bing as Mayor, Benny Napoleon and Mike Duggan, are running Power Ball campaigns, believing that Medicare will cover health care expenses of retirees that amount to one-third of the debt, and that the remaining two-thirds will be paid off by collecting unpaid income taxes and fees for city services.

Unfortunately, Detroit is a much more apt analogy for the United States as a whole than any of us would like. The American ruling class, like Detroit’s political establishment, is ruled itself by a dangerous combination of low political ambition, inflexible ideological dogmatism, and irrational hope that fantastic sums of money will suddenly appear to make all things well.

As Federalist 14 shows, the contrast with the first generation of American leaders is dramatic. They were no strangers to ambition, but sought fame by accomplishing “a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human history,” not perpetual office-holding. They were committed to certain “self-evident” truths, but sought to submit to the natural order these described,  not remake it. They were optimistic in the face of deep political challenges, but grounded their hope in “their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience,” not ivory tower speculations or Magic Kingdom fairy tales. In all these ways, they behaved like the guardians of a republic, rather than the tools of a democracy.

Despite our tendency to conflate the terms today, the contrast between a republic and a democracy is central to the Federalist Papers. While differences in form are most commonly cited–government by the people through chosen representatives versus government by the people directly–critical differences in substance are also evident from Publius’s reasoning. Consider, for example, Madison’s Federalist 10 contrast between a politics governed by “the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party” and that dictated by “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” A local democracy can rarely avoid the latter, while a well-constructed republic might get the former, if the people demand it and their leaders are willing and able to “refine and enlarge the public view.”

Neither of these conditions is met in Detroit–or among the ruling class and its clients. Detroit is the quintessential example of what happens when political and economic power brokers agree to disagree publicly if only to draw attention away from the dirty deals that have left companies and cities bankrupt. Much like the automobile companies whose executives agreed to labor deals that they knew they had no business signing, the city of Detroit is in its current state because there was no demand too great from public employee unions if it meant re-election for office holders.

In his work What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1884), Yale political scientist William Graham Sumner predicted such a political future for the United States:

The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C’s interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.

In Sumner’s scheme, A and B were the “social reformers” who compel the rich (C) to support the poor (D). In contemporary politics, A is the ruling class and B the group President Obama, during the negotiations over Obamacare, called the “stakeholders.” Together they determine what C–politically weak, economically productive individuals and private enterprises–will do for D, an abstract class of victims, defined so broadly that almost all can imagine they are in the group. Thus, the President framed the Affordable Care Act so that the interests that opposed Hillarycare twenty years ago would either be silent or actively cheerleading this time around.

Insurance companies got guaranteed new enrollees; the American Medical Association, promises concerning payments to doctors; the AARP, an expansion of its own involvement in the insurance market. What about C and D? During the campaign to pass the bill, C wasn’t merely forgotten; he didn’t exist. Everyone was going to benefit from getting more secure, better coverage for less money. Since we all could have this but didn’t, that made everyone a part of group D–victims of insurance company greed, cold-hearted Republican-era legislation, and the like.

One month into the official Obamacare rollout, the American people are awakening to the reality that they are almost all Forgotten Men, especially the young and healthy. The Progressive response is an exercise in self-parody: “the only reason you can’t keep the insurance plan you like is that we are giving you something better”–your right to pursue happiness must give way to our “right” to make you happy. Here too the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.

The Forgotten Men, however, are not inherently weak–nor is our nation. In Federalist 14, Madison celebrated the “manly spirit” that led Americans to form “governments which have no model on the face of the globe,” securing “private rights and public happiness”–”which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.” The Forgotten Men are those successors in this generation, whose “manly spirit” is needed, more than ever, to “improve and perpetuate” our (nearly bankrupt) institutions–in Detroit and the nation at large.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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