Rome redux
Detroit and the emergence of the American dictator

Don Harder

Article Highlights

  • Detroit is the prime case study of the destructiveness of the traditional liberal model of governance

    Tweet This

  • What better way to ensure the welfare of the people than by taking away the powers of those elected officials who failed them?

    Tweet This

  • One-party rule by state and local governments means fewer checks on attempts to suspend democracy

    Tweet This

Does Detroit’s fate foretell the end of American democracy? In becoming the first major American city to die before our eyes, Detroit is the prime case study of the destructiveness of the traditional liberal model of governance, public-sector-union rapacity, and the abandonment of any sense of civic responsibility by a governing elite that feasted like Roman senators while their city burned. And as in late republican Rome, a dictator may be appointed before long in Detroit; this has happened already in four bankrupt Michigan cities, including Flint (population: 102,000). The question is whether today’s dictators are a necessary means to save otherwise irredeemable places or whether they foreshadow an end to democracy in America’s dysfunctional states and cities (and perhaps in the country as a whole).

In both ancient Rome and modern Michigan, the dictator was appointed to restore order. Given the dangers facing both, the dictatorship seemed a prudent and necessary measure. The modern American dictators are Michigan’s state-appointed emergency managers (EM), each of whom has been named to his position by the state legislature after it has identified a locality that has defaulted on its debts or is in danger of bankruptcy. In Michigan, the EMs have sweeping powers — among other things, to hire and fire local government employees; renegotiate, terminate, or modify labor contracts (with state-treasury approval); revise contract obligations; sell, lease, or privatize local assets (with state-treasury approval); and change local budgets without local legislative approval. They can strip local elected officials of their power; indeed, according to Joe Harris, the EM of Benton Harbor, Mich., “the only authority that [local elected officials] can have is the authority that’s provided to them, or is given to them by the emergency manager.” Unlike in republican Rome, however, where the dictator could not rule legally for more than six months, Michigan’s nouveaux dictators have no term limit, and they are answerable only to the state government.

"If a city of 714,000 people, the largest in its state and a major American industrial area, can be taken over because of its inability to govern itself, then the mold will have been set for ever-larger entities to come under non-democratic control."--Michael Auslin

In Wisconsin and Indiana, elected governors are using democratic means to change ruinous labor contracts and balance budgets. But in Michigan, an apparently ingrained inability to fulfill basic governance duties at all levels has led to the governor’s supporting the erasure of local freedom in the name of expediency and urgency. Michigan’s example may appeal to other similarly dysfunctional and cash-strapped states.

In Rome, what began as a position with limited powers to respond to emergencies and to ensure the smooth running of elections changed into a far more powerful post whose holder directly made laws and altered the constitution. Under Julius Caesar, the dictatorship became a ten-year position — and ultimately a lifetime appointment for Caesar by a supine Senate. In Michigan, similarly, the persistent failure of local government led in the 1980s to the creation of a new position with limited powers: emergency financial managers. But the state’s endemic problems led to the replacement of this position with the far more comprehensive emergency manager, and that may not be the final iteration, either. For example, EM 2.0 was passed last year once it became clear that the original EM statute didn’t go far enough. Soon afterward, in April 2011, Benton Harbor’s Joe Harris issued an order stripping all city boards and commissions of their authority to take any action.

From the perspective of the liberal, technocratic state, creating American dictators makes perfect sense. What better way to ensure the welfare of the people than by taking away the powers of those elected officials who failed them? There’s a perverse logic to this style of one-man rule — accountable to a higher (elected) authority, but not to the people themselves. And there’s no question that numerous states are now being forced to recognize the failure of democratically elected local governments that have impoverished generations of city dwellers. Yet this is not a temporary measure: Given the extent of the collapse of Michigan’s cities, some may have EMs for years.

Is the dictatorial path the way of the future? What will happen when Illinois, New York, and California declare bankruptcy? Will legislatures believe the only way out is to appoint EMs for their own states? And how long before Washington, D.C., finds some pretext in the “penumbras” of constitutional powers to allow the federal government to appoint state dictators so as to ensure the equal rights of all citizens and the public welfare? After all, North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue recently suggested suspending congressional elections for two years in order to let Congress solve the country’s economic crisis, which was a result largely of the policies of . . . Congress.

Americans assume that political life in our country can never become so anti-democratic or dictatorial. And indeed, there are lawsuits in Michigan to suspend Public Act 4, which empowers the EMs. But today’s activist judiciary doesn’t seem the best bet to preserve limited government. In reality, the loss of government accountability is already happening, as Barack Obama’s recent unconstitutional recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and National Labor Relations Board highlight. Not to mention that the CFPB itself is all but exempt from congressional oversight, and it is by its very nature a move toward dictatorial control of financial markets. Yet the danger is more acute at the local level; one-party rule by state and local governments means fewer checks on attempts to suspend democracy. With Michigan showing the way, how long before more bankrupt cities and counties fall under the threat of emergency managers? The loss of local sovereignty is the thin edge of the wedge to a broader loss of liberty.

If you can’t imagine what could bring America to this pass, check out these stunning pictures of Detroit, which look like scenes from the apocalyptic films Mad Max and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. They terrify at the same time that they make understandable the desire to appoint a dictator — just as in ancient Rome. In truth, Detroit, with its $20 billion debt, may represent the Rubicon. If a city of 714,000 people, the largest in its state and a major American industrial area, can be taken over because of its inability to govern itself, then the mold will have been set for ever-larger entities to come under non-democratic control. Government engineering always seems to triumph during times of fear and crisis. What seemed like a temporary expedient may soon be relied on as the only means to keep some localities viable.

Rome lost its liberties when it lost the ability to govern itself, relying ever more regularly on strong men to instill order. Yet if you had asked a Roman in 46. b.c. if his city was at risk of changing forever, he probably would have scoffed. The lessons of the dictator still hold.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.


    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.


    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.


    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

  • Phone: 202-862-5848
    Email: michael.auslin@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Shannon Mann
    Phone: 202-862-5911
    Email: shannon.mann@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.