The residents of Flint, Michigan, who are predominantly African American and poor, have been drinking water containing toxic levels of lead —in some instances, over 13 times the level required for federal intervention. And of course, no level of lead is safe for a human body. Lead poisoning attacks the brain and central nervous systems, and its effects can be devastating.
The problem began in April 2014 when an Emergency Manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder switched the city’s water source from a Detroit water system to the Flint River. Despite the concerns of local residents and democratically-elected city officials, the state-appointed Emergency Manager arranged the switch in order to save approximately $5 million dollars. The federal government will now have to provide a package of roughly $220 million dollars to repair Flint’s infrastructure damages. The human damages are incalculable.
My research for the Enhancing Life Project explores the importance of the environment for the enhancement of life; in particular, I am interested in the way political theology shapes the interconnections among environmental responsibility, social justice, and political community. As I have followed the unfolding tragedy in Flint, it has become increasingly clear that these events in Flint are indicative of a broader threat to our democracy. Let me explain.
Liberal democracy is participatory, procedural, and pluralistic. But the logic that led to the poisoning of Flint is more reflective of a distinctly antidemocratic form of political theology, which was infamously articulated by Carl Schmitt, a legal and political theorist of Weimar and Nazi Germany. I am not suggesting that our context is in any way similar to the world of 1930s Europe or that political leaders in Michigan have any idea who Schmitt is. Nor am I suggesting that Snyder meant for his actions to have the results they did. What I am saying is that when ideas like Schmitt’s are applied, we see the way democracy is threatened and the people’s well-being may suffer.
Schmitt’s understanding of the essence of politics and the nature of sovereignty supports a form of governance that is exceptionalist, conflictive, and decisionist — in other words, it is the antithesis of liberal constitutional democracy. A sovereign, according to Schmitt, is one who decides when an exception should be made to conventional legal norms. Sovereignty embodies the supreme power of decision and the defining decision is twofold. It is a decision about what constitutes a state of emergency and the legal exceptions that such an emergency warrants. Schmitt defines politics by way of a distinction. The essential core of politics, according to Schmitt, is the friend/enemy distinction. Politics, for him, is about confrontation and contestation rather than collaboration and compromise.
While Snyder was democratically-elected to office in Michigan, two of his early actions provide examples of Schmitt’s theories of sovereignty and politics. In his first act as governor, only three days after he took the oath of office in February 2011, Snyder issued an executive order that divided Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment into two separate agencies, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Although he framed this split in the rhetoric of conservation, an economic interest was clearly the driving factor. As he explained at the time, “Michigan is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and we need to be a leader and innovator in protecting these resources. Recreational fishing, hunting and boating activities alone contribute more than $3 billion annually to our economy. Separating the DEQ and DNR means we can better address these key priorities.”
But which was the key priority? Resource preservation and environmental protection? Or business interests and the recreational industry? By dividing the DNR and the DEQ, Snyder pitted economic interests against environmental interests. This division plays into the jobs vs. environment narrative that Republicans have used for years to undermine environmental protection and seems to replicate the friend/enemy distinction at the core of Schmitt’s definition of politics.
Several weeks after his first act, in March 2011, Governor Snyder signed Public Act 4 into law. This law embodied the two-fold decision at the heart of Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty. First, it granted Snyder the power to determine what Schmitt would call a “state of exception” in cases of municipal financial exigency and, second, it allowed him to appoint an Emergency Manager whose power could override democratically-elected municipal officials. Although this bill was soon repealed by a citizen referendum, a short time later Snyder signed into law Public Act 436, which had a significant revision. As with the original act, the new act granted the Emergency Manager powers to “reject, modify or terminate labor agreements,” to “strip local officials of their duties and of their pay,” and to “sell off assets of a local government or school district.” Different from the original act, Public Act 436 included a significant amendment that immunized the law from citizen repeal through the referendum process.
With these powers in place, Governor Snyder appointed an Emergency Manager to Flint. In April 2014, the Emergency Manager switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. In October of that year, General Motors, who had contributed to the contamination of the river in the first place, stopped using water from the river because it was corroding their pistons. It has also been discovered that at that time clean water was being shipped to the state office building in Flint. Despite all of this, and in the face of residents’ complaints that the water smelled bad, that it was discolored, and that it was causing rashes and hair loss, the state continued to claim the water was safe to drink.
The tragedy in Flint is like the canary in the coal-mine, warning us that the greatest threat to democracy in the United States is not coming from the outside. When democratically-elected leaders take steps to become sovereigns, democracy itself is poisoned. Let us hope that in this election year we will all learn from Flint that life is endangered by antidemocratic concentrations of power and the politics of conflict. When some human lives are excluded and exploited, all of human life is diminished. When the natural world is degraded, all of life is threatened. In face of the complex challenges we face as a nation and as a species, from clean water to the climate crisis, let us choose to enhance life by increasing democracy, rather than suspending it.
Read a Q&A with Michael S. Hogue about his research here.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Irwin via Flickr.