One of the most persistent criticisms of American politics from outside observers is that it is oh-so-American. Prone as we are to embrace the celebrity-driven spectacle of “election season,” or the drama of the ever-present threat of “government shutdowns,” our politics resembles reality television more and more with each passing day. And yet, behind the spectacle, the quiet, unglamorous responsibilities of self-governance remain.
This week we bring you two short, straightforward pieces that chronicle the failures of governance that led to a water contamination crisis in post-industrial Flint, Michigan, as well a short piece Jedediah Purdy wrote in the wake of a similar crisis in West Virginia. As we argued in our retrospective look at “Katrina,” however much damage they produce, systemic failures of governance can at times be so severe that they weaken our confidence in the project of democratic self-governance itself. While it remains to be seen if the ongoing crisis in Flint will rise to this level, paying close attention to the details surrounding the crisis is a useful and necessary counterpoint to the spectacle of American politics, particularly during presidential elections.
The first piece is a brief account of the highlights of the crisis from the non-profit journalistic enterprise ProPublica. Included within this piece is a succinct and important recorded interview with Ron Forger, a local reporter for the Flint Journal who has covered the story since 2014, when the decision was made to draw water from the polluted Flint River without taking adequate steps to ensure its safety. Forger’s non-ideological account of the crisis is a useful place to begin for the simple reason that it highlights the internal power dynamics in places like Flint—and, importantly, between struggling municipalities like Flint and state governments. As Forger reports, once it was established that Flint’s residents (particularly young children) were in real danger of lead poisoning, what began was not an effort to protect vulnerable citizens by acknowledging and addressing the source of that danger, but rather “a great debate” among public officials (appointed and elected) about who was responsible for what, and who was gonna push whom to fix it. Not only did government officials feel no apparent need to fix the problem before them, they felt no need even to validate the experiences citizens were having by admitting the problem existed. The whole scene is reminiscent of the “tableau of abdication” Jedediah Purdy described regarding the contamination of Charleston, West Virginia’s water supply in late 2013.
In their account of the problem in Flint and the breakdown of government that allowed it to persist, Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith further contextualize the governmental breakdown by personalizing it. They tell the stories of families who were aware of problems with the water, but unable to either secure a reliable diagnosis or avoid the ill health that came from consuming insufficiently treated water. The piece ends with the words of one such citizen, Ms. Tammy Loren. They write:
“Ms. Loren, the mother of four, said her sons’ skin remained irritated, and she is worrying obsessively about their lead levels, particularly that of her 11-year-old, who has learning disabilities. ‘My trust in everybody is completely gone, out the door,’ she said. ‘We’ve been lied to so much, and these aren’t little white lies. These lies are affecting our kids for the rest of their lives, and it breaks my heart.’”
Testimony like this from the people of Flint should cause us to rethink the spectacle of American politics. Politics is about many things, surely, and the ongoing public debate about our greatest ideals and aspirations for a more just, humane, and prosperous society should continue. But, as the ongoing crisis in Flint reminds us, that debate can only take place when a society takes seriously the comparatively boring—and, yes, bureaucratic—task of securing the minimal conditions under which citizens can live and thrive.