The Michigan Mitten Points the Way: Democracy or Autocracy

Sometimes in the journey of history and political change, certain moments and places are a microcosm of a larger story and unfolding. Michigan is one of those today. It has become the frontline in the battle between democracy and autocracy, between truth and lies, and between love and hate.

This past week two simultaneous important telling events took place in the Wolverine state. Early in the week a nationally unknown Democratic State Senator, Mallory McMorrow, stood on the floor of the State Capitol in Lansing and delivered a compelling passionate defense of truth, democracy and love, pushing back against the forces of misinformation and hate. The video of her speech spread across the country receiving millions of views.

A few days later, this past Saturday, the Michigan GOP nominated two candidates for statewide office who have been an integral part of pushing the “big lie” and in denying election results and harming our democratic institutions, while seeding their own brand of hate and ignorance within the land of the Great Lakes. One is running now to be Attorney General of Michigan, and even worse one is seeking the office of Secretary of State which oversees Michigan’s elections.

It should not surprise us that Michigan has become the place where both the best of us and the worst of us reside and are in a battle for the soul of America. In 2016, former President Trump won the presidency in large degree because he carried Michigan by a few thousand votes. In 2018, as many citizens were appalled at President Trump’s words and actions, three moms were nominated by the Democratic Party for the three key Michigan statewide offices of Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. They all went onto victory less than two years after Trump carried the state, and each stand for re-election today.

It hasn’t been easy for them. As they have defended our democracy, they have all received hateful abuse on line and in public especially from white supremacists, and death threats are not uncommon as they try to do the job they were elected to do by the voters of Michigan.

For those who don’t know the history of Michigan politics and its complexities, they might be surprised by this paradox. I was born in Detroit, and grew to adulthood in Michigan, as did my ten siblings. And we all saw a good bit of this paradox growing up and learned a great deal of its history and lived it.

Michigan is a state known for it’s manufacturing especially in the auto industry (my father worked his whole life in the auto world), but the greatest geographic expanses of the state are farming, agriculture, and forestry (my great great grandfather Patrick Dowd who came from Ireland during the famine was a cabbage farmer in Western Michigan). In schools growing up we were all taught about Henry Fords innovations and advancements, but we weren’t taught about his anti-semitic and racist views, and that Adolf Hitler considered him a hero and had his picture on his wall.

Detroit became and is the largest American city with a black majority population, has many leaders who have stood up for justice and equality, and became famous for Motown and the music of the soul. Michigan also has a long history of white supremacy, and at one time there were more KKK members in Michigan than in any other state, and the former Grand Dragon of the KKK recently lived for a long time in Livingston county.

I remember driving with my dad down Woodward avenue seeing the tanks in the middle of the road in the aftermath of the riots in 1967 where African Americans were angry over inequality, discrimination, and injustice in policing. And then 5 years later, the segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama won the Democratic primary for president in Michigan. Just sixteen years after the victory of Wallace in Michigan, the civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson won the same primary in 1988.

Michigan has an incredibly diverse religious population with large segments of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims practicing their faith throughout the state. Michigan also had the infamous Father Coughlin, the radio priest, who worked out of a church in Royal Oak and built a huge radio audience where he pushed his anti-semitic racist views and lauded many of the programs and policies of the fascists, and Coughlin openly questioned the value of elections.

Michigan has the greatest access to fresh water in the world, yet the citizens of Flint, mainly African Americans, suffered from lead poisoning and couldn’t get access to clean water showing huge discrepancies in equality and political power.

So here we are again in a moment where Michigan is a microcosm and a paradox in the fight for democracy, equality, and justice for our country. In the 2022 elections, the Republican Party of Michigan has decided to choose the path of hate, lies, and an anti-democratic platform and ignore the history of this type of destructive movement in the world and in the state.

For all observers of politics and those who want to know where the fight is, Michigan, more than nearly every other state, will determine the direction of our country and the soul of America in these 2022 midterms and in the pivotal 2024 presidential election.

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