Michigan Legislative Shenanigans…with gratuitous critique of Rachel Maddow

One of my students who watches Rachel Maddow passed this on to me. Apparently the Republican controlled Michigan state legislature is playing games with the legislative process. The Michigan Constitution requires that new laws take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, unless a 2/3 supermajority votes to have it take effect immediately. Republicans don’t have enough votes to do so, but have presumably put about 90% of the laws they’ve passed this session into effect immediately. Instead of having a roll call vote on the issue of immediate effect the presiding officer is calling the vote, and immediately banging his gavel, claiming there was a sufficient vote in favor (watch the clip in the video at about 12:45.)

That kind of quick vote isn’t unusual in politics, but this particular use of it is. Maddow (who seems to me not as bright as her reputation would have it*) finds this shocking. I don’t. I find it mildly amusing and ultimately fairly predictable. That said, I support the Democrats’ lawsuit trying to block immediate effect of these bills and hope they are successful.

Unfortunately, this video demonstrates much of what is wrong with personality-driven political talk shows. To cover enough time she has to add lots of extra blather that doesn’t really say much. And she also spends plenty of time complaining about Michigan’s emergency manager law, and how it is “destroying democracy” at the local level. That’s a lot of nonsense and demonstrates that Maddow is essentially operating ideologically rather than thinking deeply about the issue. There is no requirement for local level democracy in the U.S.–states have, and always have had, authority to create and uncreate local governments. As well emergency managers are explicitly temporary beings. And they are assigned only in cases where local democracy has failed abysmally and the local governmental unit is so indebted and incapable of managing its own finances that they are, or are going to be, displacing their costs onto the rest of the state. Maddow seems to think that forced riders have no right to a say in the decisions of those who are forcing them to bear costs, and that the state cannot legitimately intervene in such cases. Basically the emergency manager is just a form of receiver for a local governmental unit that’s functionally bankrupt.


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* Yes, she has a doctorate in politics from Oxford and was a Rhodes scholar. I won’t pretend I can top or equal that. But she doesn’t give me the impression of someone who ever understood that political science is about something more than ideological politics, and those types of folks are a dime a dozen. As both my undergrad and graduate mentor tried to impress upon me, there’s a difference between analysis and advocacy. Maddow superficially gives the appearance of doing analysis, but really she’s doing advocacy with pretty superficial analysis.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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20 Responses to Michigan Legislative Shenanigans…with gratuitous critique of Rachel Maddow

  1. TCC says:

    As well emergency managers are explicitly temporary beings. And they are assigned only in cases where local democracy has failed abysmally and the local governmental unit is so indebted and incapable of managing its own finances that they are, or are going to be, displacing their costs onto the rest of the state.

    I’m really bothered by the argument, “Well, local democracy failed, so you don’t get the right to have it for some indefinite period of time.” Additionally, what about Maddow’s argument (which I don’t think is hers originally) that this law disproportionately affects communities with high percentages of African-Americans?

    P.S. I’m the commenter from Dispatches formerly known as “The Christian Cynic.” Missed you around there lately!

  2. Matty says:

    Emergency Managers sound worrying to me though I don’t know exactly how they operate. I suppose I’d like to know.
    Given they are temporary how long is that, is it a fixed term or until some benchmark is passed in terms of local finances?
    What are the limits on their powers, obviously they get fiscal control but is there anything else for instance can they pass or repeal local ordinances?
    Last when are they appointed, are there criteria or is it a matter of whenever the state government thinks its a good idea?

  3. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    I share your opinion of Maddow. I’m certain that if some redneck Republicans had mismanaged a little town in Arkansas and Democratic governor Mike Beebe had appointed an Emergency Manager she would be just fine with it.

  4. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Dime a dozen or not, looking at their comparative earnings I’d have to conclude there’s a hell of a lot more money in being a successful ideologue than a successful analyst. Which, sadly enough, answers the question why if we’re so smart we ain’t rich.

  5. James Hanley says:

    TCC–Glad to see you here! I hope you’re doing well. As to your point, I get what you’re saying. I can only emphasize that local democracy is essentially a gift from the state in the first place, a privilege rather than a right, and this only occurs in places that are so thoroughly screwed up that they have effectively no real prospect of righting their own ship. And the state normally does a lot of throat-clearing ahead of time, giving them plenty of warning and opportunity to come up with a reasonable plan for solving their own problems. E.g., Detroit just signed a consent agreement with the state to avoid an emergency manager. Ultimately the state is on the hook for costs of failed local governments–because they really can’t not bail them out–so it’s not as though they’re coming in where they don’t have a real stake in the situation. In some of these cases there’s been massive corruption–widespread embezzlement of funds, local funds, state provided funds, federally provided funds.

    And it’s true it’s happening in predominantly minority communities, but the ugly truth is that those are the ones that are failing most. They’re not going in there as a matter of racism, but because of the underlying problems that cause majority-minority communities to have the characteristics that create a failed local government or school district; poverty, no economic development, a horribly undereducated populace. If done well–and that’s a different question than the straightforward political legitimacy one–the emergency manager will do good for the citizens of the community by protecting them from a corrupt and failed local government. If my only choices of whom to vote for is the crook or the thief, is the state harming me by temporarily stepping in in their place?

    And of course those folks still have the right to vote at the state level, from which all local authority ultimately stems, so it’s not a wholesale suspension of democracy.

  6. James Hanley says:


    Here’s a brief (and remarkably defensive!) backgrounder on the Emergency Manager law. See also here.

    They cannot suspend or remove local officials (although the Governor can, under the 1963 Michigan Constitution), but can supersede their decisions. They also have fairly broad powers on forcing changes in governmental contracts with unions.

    Managers for school districts serve one year terms and can be reappointed. Managers for municipalities have unlimited terms, but are subject to the authority of the state board that appoints them.

    Let me emphasize that my initial point was not to defend any particular rules relating to the Emergency Manager law. Legitimate laws can be unwise, and wise laws can be implemented unwisedly, and I haven’t studied this one closely enough to make an argument in support of or against any specific attributes of the law or how it;s been used. My claim is limited to saying that A) such a law is indisputably politically legitimate within the American federalist political structure and B) in concept it is appropriate for some cases.

  7. TCC says:

    And it’s true it’s happening in predominantly minority communities, but the ugly truth is that those are the ones that are failing most.

    Couldn’t the same be said about voter ID laws disproportionately affecting minorities? (Yes, I know that the situations are not perfectly analogous, but I think the principle is applicable here. Also, that seems to be Rep. Conyers’ argument, as mentioned in the second link you provided to Matty.)

    I accept that this isn’t a complete suspension of democratic rights, but it does negate democratic decisions already made by voters, since this law (more so than the past versions of it) really does strip local elected officials from doing much of anything. And frankly, saying, “Well, we at least are letting you keep some democracy, so be happy,” seems like an overly paternalistic and not-so-comforting sentiment to the people who are in such a situation.

    Also, as a side note, your second link to Matty also suggests that Public Act 4 does allow EMs to fire local officials, despite your claim to the contrary.

  8. michaeldrew says:

    Just want to suggest that it is, or wonder why it is not, entirely possible that Maddow knows the difference between analysis and advocacy, and is simply consciously doing advocacy (using a fair bit of analysis to further her effort, which by the rules of advocacy, though not of analysis, is entirely within bounds). She does strike me as remarkably unstinting in her didacticism as well, but not as being not self aware about it. She strikes me as being able to do analysis, but as simply being uninterested in presenting the results of that analysis as other than advocacy. (As a separate matter, I do also think her brilliance has been somewhat overstated. But not because she only presents advocacy. I feel like I can hear the analysis behind the advocacy, and I don’t think just doing advocacy necessarily dims brilliance significantly, though perhaps a bit. I just think that the analysis and advocacy are themselves just somewhat short of overwhelmingly brilliant. Sharp and formidable, but not blindingly brilliant.) But as other have suggested, that may be related to the incentives she has in occupying the platform she occupies.

    Chris Hayes, on the other hand, is, I think, legitimately and almost undeniably brilliant.

  9. Matty says:

    OK looking through the links it seems EMs are not as worrying as I’d thought given many of their actions need to be approved by the state so they aren’t unchecked and that the alternative would be a court imposed bankruptcy with the same powers to fire people and sell assets but more damage to the credit rating of future local government in the area.

  10. pierrecorneille says:

    “I can only emphasize that local democracy is essentially a gift from the state in the first place, a privilege rather than a right, and this only occurs in places that are so thoroughly screwed up that they have effectively no real prospect of righting their own ship.”

    I think you might get some pushback from readers who might be misunderstanding what you mean by “local democracy.” My initial, gut reaction to the claim that “local democracy is essentially a gift from the state” is to wonder, “well, doesn’t the state theoretically get its power from the people in the first place?”

    I don’t think that’s the point you’re making, but could you clarify what you mean by “local democracy”? Do you mean corporate (i.e., municipal) organization? Is “local democracy,” in the way you’re using the term here, analogously to the power that, say, a city or town exercises when buying services, incurring debts, running schools, and raising taxes to do these things?

  11. James Hanley says:


    Voter ID laws are designed to have long-term detriment to minority communities. The Emergency Manager law is designed for the long-term improvement of those communities. I really think there’s no desire in the state government to have long-term, permanent, management of those communities. It’s like forcing a sick person to go to a doctor, whereas voter ID laws are like purposely infecting them.

    As to firing local government folks, we have to distinguish between elected officials and local government employees. Employees can be fired, the elected officials cannot.

  12. James Hanley says:

    @Michael–I knew grad students who never grasped the difference between analysis and advocacy, and I know political scientists who still don’t grasp that distinction, but think their ideological distinctions are analysis. Maddow’s either one of them or she’s sold out for the money. To hell with her either way.

    I don’t know Chris Hayes. Should I?

  13. James Hanley says:


    Good distinction, thanks. I mean that allowing the people of community X to run their own affairs
    is essentially a gift from the people of the whole state. Of course it’s a reciprocal kind of deal, generally–I don’t necessarily support local governance in Muskegon because I care about them or believe in the glories of local governance, but I want local governance in my community so I don’t want Muskegonians to have any reason to oppose that.

    At another level, the U.S. Constitution sets the fundamental rules for our system, and while it says each state must have a republican form of government, it does not in any way require states to allow any degree of autonomy to local communities. Whether to do so or not is entirely up to each state itself.

    The general principal is stated in what’s known as “Dillon’s Rule,” (enunciated by John Forrest Dillon, at the time–1868–an Iowa Supreme Court judge, later a federal judge).
    “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.

    The contrary view was stated just a few years later by Michigan Supreme Court Judge Thomas Cooley, who said,
    “[L]ocal government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away.”

    But Dillon’s Rule has been the one that became widely accepted in American jurisprudence, and Cooley’s proposal is a mere footnote (although he does have a third-tier law school in Michigan named after him).

  14. Matty says:

    Pierrecorneille, I read ‘local democracy’ as being able to vote for the people who control the smallest unit of government covering you.

  15. James Hanley says:

    Matty, That’s a good definition. I forgot to cover that in my response.

  16. pierrecorneille says:


    Thanks for the clarification.

  17. James Hanley says:

    I should note that I was probably unduly snarky about Cooley. The law school is considered third-tier, but Cooley was Dean of UM Law School back in the day, and is considered a “Michigan Legal Milestone” by the state bar association. He also lived in my town for a while, where he studied law (this was before it was necessary to go to law school to become a lawyer), and had his first practice. That his rule was not picked up in preference to Dillon’s doesn’t mean he was an insignificant hack.

  18. James Hanley says:

    By the way, what’s with your gravatar? Should we now think of you as TAC?

  19. TCC says:

    You could think of me as that; I’ve kept TCC mostly for continuity. But yes, your assumption is correct.

  20. michaeldrew says:

    She’s definitely sold out to a degree. On its own terms, I guess I don’t hold that against people as much as you.

    Chris Hayes is another MSNBC talking head. So no, you probably shouldn’t concern yourself.;) He’s not Oxford- or even Oregon-PhD brilliant (I don’t think). He’s more brilliant in the literal sense – flashy (which doesn’t sound very impressive, I guess. He’s more than just flashy, but at the same time I’m trying not to overpraise. You’d have to judge for yourself, I guess.) But his weekend morning show is pretty remarkable for the depth of discussion it achieves given its location. Up with Chris Hayes is what it’s called. I won’t recommend it per se, cuz I’m pretty sure you’ll despise it, but I would contend it’s pretty damn good anyway (again, considering that it’s on a cable news network. Certainly it’s better than Maddow’s show.) If you want to check it out, it’s on from I think 7-9 am on Saturdays and Sundays, or back episodes at the website, I think.

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