What's Really Needed to Save Detroit: Democracy

Certainly spending must be cut and services must be restored, but it's essential that the voices of the loyal Detroiters who have stayed be heard.
by | April 1, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
David Kidd

Those who decry Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's appointment of an emergency financial manager for Detroit as an abrogation of democracy are missing the point. The essence of democracy is not the ritual of voting; it is that government is responsive to its citizens. On that score, the fight for democracy in Detroit was lost long ago.

In his 1970 book "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States," Albert O. Hirschman provided insights into the nature of the unwritten contract between individuals and organizations that remain relevant for government officials. The individual gives resources, often including time and affection as well as money, to the organization and receives something in return: goods, services and in some cases a sense of pride or of belonging. The guy who wears a Harley-Davidson T-shirt isn't just covering his body. He wears it because of how it makes him feel and what it says about him.

But this contract between the organization and the individual is continually subject to re-negotiation. The organization shifts the relationship by, say, charging more for the shirt or offshoring some of its motorcycle manufacturing plants. The individual can respond in one of two ways: "exit" or "voice." In exit, he leaves the relationship: He stops buying the product or walks away from the organization. In voice, he attempts to influence the organization by expressing his views without leaving. The Harley-Davidson guy probably wouldn't simply stop buying the company's T-shirts or motorcycles without raising hell first. Loyalty would make him raise his voice in protest.

Detroit certainly has plenty of experience with exit. More than a million people have left the city since its population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950. Of course, the city's economic problems and lack of employment have had a role in the city's population decline, but less so, I believe, than is generally thought. The people who left didn't necessarily go very far, and they probably need not have moved for employment.

I think the defining problem in Detroit has been a crisis of legitimacy. The idea that so many people have left because they saw the city's government as unresponsive is illuminated by the fact that nearly half of the city's remaining residents do not pay their property taxes. They feel they get nothing from the city and so they believe it has no legitimate claim on their money.

But that leaves plenty of people who haven't left but do pay their taxes. They are loyal to the city, if not to its government, and it is on this slender base of loyalty that those who want to turn the city around must build their strategy. These loyal Detroiters need to see things begin to change. They need to see the city begin to better hold up its end of the bargain. And most of all, they need their voices to be heard.

Certainly deep cuts in expenditures have to be made. A big chunk of those cuts should come from payments to bondholders, who currently consume 30 percent of the city's budget and who understood the risks they were taking when they lent the city money. But if the decline of Detroit is to be reversed, the financial restructuring must result in the city being more, not less, responsive to its residents.

The people now in charge seem to know this. As Andy Dillon, the state treasurer who was deeply involved in the emergency-manager decision, said, "We can start hanging [street] lights this summer. The other thing I think is critical: If we don't restore the morale of the police department and show the public that the police force is functioning well, I think we'll lose a lot of momentum." Likewise, Kevyn Orr, the newly appointed emergency financial manager, says that initially he is going to focus on restoring services.

Restoring services is important, but it is not enough. Things are going to be tough for a long time for Detroit's residents. Orr and the people he works with need to use the methods of deliberative democracy to engage residents in the decisions that need to be made.

Gov. Snyder and his emergency manager haven't eliminated democracy in Detroit. It has been gone for years. Bringing it back will be an essential part of a real turnaround.