Detroit Crosses the Rubicon
Its bankruptcy marks a turning point in American governance, and a crisis for democracy.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder


Michael Auslin

It is a grim testament to the failure of governance at the local level that a city of 700,000 people finds itself under the control of an emergency manager. In order to act, Snyder had to determine that city officials were unable or incompetent to solve the crisis. That is a damning indictment that strikes at the core of our belief that democracy, while messy and clearly less than perfect, nonetheless is the best system yet devised for politics. Detroit’s slide into “dictatorship” and bankruptcy raises fundamental questions about the health of American democracy, and whether there is any hope for realistic solutions to the endemic debt and deficits that poison every level of government, from small towns to the federal government.

Sadly, Detroit is far from being unique. Four other failed Michigan cities have been under the control of EMs, while in California, Stockton and San Bernardino, along with some smaller cities, have already declared bankruptcy. New reports estimate that California’s total unfunded pension obligations are an inconceivable $328 billion, and Illinois is not far behind. There are dozens of other large cities around the nation that face the same crippling trap of unsustainable city contracts, high unemployment, and hollowed-out tax bases.

Most dangerously, Detroit may be the harbinger of things to come. If local, state, and federal governments keep failing to act responsibly and to be stewards of the fiscal health of the nation, we may well see the rise of the emergency manager in many other places, perhaps even in sovereign states. After all, who wants to condemn innocent residents to the permanent mismanagement and decline of their cities or states? Of course, it is those same voters who heedlessly return incompetent officials to office in election after election. The rot is not just in the Detroit city council or the similarly bankrupt Illinois state legislature; it is in the voting booths of citizens who are all too happy to get their unfair share of the pie and pass the costs on to others (“soak the rich”) and to their own children.

As I wrote earlier on Detroit’s tragedy, our democratic tradition starts at the smallest, most local level, and works its way up to the federal government. Anything that undercuts our sense of personal and local responsibility is to be feared, just as the pathetic, corrupt, and incompetent failings of locally elected government are to be condemned. The demise of democracy is a slow thing. In Rome, it took centuries for the republic to exhaust itself and for the temporary dictator to become a permanent fixture. But when that became accepted, the die was cast and the dictator was merely a symptom of a disease that could no longer be cured. Detroit may have crossed a Rubicon not merely for itself, but for America.

— Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.