Rome Redux
Detroit and the emergence of the American dictator

Joe Harris, EM of Benton Harbor, Mich.


Michael Auslin

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.

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.