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.
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