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Power Politics in West Michigan

September 19, 2010

Over the past few days some of us who write for GRIID were reporting on the West Michigan Regional Policy Forum held in Grand Rapids. The commercial media referred to this gathering as group of businessmen with “West Michigan values.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am never really sure what anyone means when they say West Michigan values. One could argue that they mean Christian Reformed Church values, but that surely only represents a certain sector of those who reside in West Michigan.

For this writer, those gathered at the West Michigan Regional Policy meeting represented local economic and political elites – CEOs, lawyers, people who are board of directors, politicians and investors. These people do not represent West Michigan values, they represent the values of people who have a great deal of power and want to increase that power or at a minimum maintain their current levels of power.

The goals of the group are pretty clear. They want to influence regional and state policy to benefit their interests. The goals they have laid out are to cut taxes to businesses, eliminate government regulation of business, privatize more of the public sector (such as education) and make Michigan a right-to-work state.

The West Michigan Regional Policy Forum plans to achieve these goals the old fashion way. To manipulate public opinion and to pay for politicians that will represent their interests.

To manipulate public opinion the group brought to their gathering Rick Berman, a man who has represented corporate interests for decades. Berman creates what are called Front Groups (in some circles Astroturf groups) that pose as grassroots entities in order to manipulate public opinion and often the news media into thinking they are an independent grassroots entities.

The truth is that Berman’s front groups have been financed by the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, agribusiness, the animal cruelty industry and in general corporate America through his anti-union front groups. Berman was in West Michigan to help the local elites to figure out how to get the public to support a right-to-work policy.

Besides bring political assassins like Berman to town the group made it painfully clear that they were going to financially back candidates that embraced their agenda. Peter Seechia and Doug DeVos both made that perfectly clear in their comments to those gathered for the two-day forum.

Part of the packet that they provided to the 600 plus in attendance was a voter guide with a list of endorsed candidates throughout West Michigan. On day two the forum began with a Q&A session with gubernatorial candidates Rick Snyder and Virg Bernero, which was a pretty impressive feat considering that up to that point the candidates had not really appeared together (besides a mid September Town Hall that Snyder held where Bernero just showed up).

What the policy group was doing was vetting the two candidates to see which would be more loyal to their agenda. Both candidates argued that they were more “business friendly” than the other and neither of them really disagreed with the platform of the group except on one issue. Both candidates did not support making Michigan a right-to work state.

Now imagine for a second if candidates for the highest office in the state were to fight and argue which one was more committed to working people, racial justice, immigrants, protecting the environment, seriously reducing carbon emissions, health care as a right, mass transit and supporting reproductive rights for women. You can imagine it all you want but this reality does not exist in the US for two main reasons.

First, people who are fighting for economic justice, racial equality, mass transit, health care as a right, reproductive rights and environmental sustainability are not organized well enough to command the attention of political candidates. They clearly do not have the capital to influence these candidates and more importantly they do not have enough political power to demand change.

The second reason why we can’t imagine candidates fighting to be the best representatives for these movements is because they don’t have to. Unions, women’s groups, environmentalists and other grassroots sectors overwhelmingly will vote for Democrats and not really demand anything in return, thus leaving Democrats free to continue to support business as usual.

The Grand Rapids Press ran an AP article on September 18 that summed up this mentality quite well. The headline read: “Dems tell voters: You may hate us, but GOP is worse.” The whole article was about the Democratic Party’s main message between now and the November elections, which was essentially that they don’t represent people’s interests, but at least they aren’t as bad as the Republicans. Now that is a campaign message we can really rally around now isn’t it?

What we ought to consider and what has always made a difference in this country is creating autonomous movements that are not tied to political parties. The abolitionist movement, the women for an 8-hour work day, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and many other movements that have actually achieved change were not beholden to political parties. Something to consider as we watch candidates jockey to win approval from the business class.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 1:43 pm

    Sadly the most autonomous political movement in the country right now may be the Tea Party, not in terms of their funding of course, but in terms of their rank-and-file “believers.” This despite repeated attempts by the GOP and various right-wing functionaries to hijack the TP and use it for their own advantage. I agree that a “popular front” is certainly vital to our collective future, but it’s at least grimly amusing watching the GOP virtually disintegrate before our eyes.

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