JACK SPENCER: Decades of denial, that’s Detroit

To the surprise of almost no one, the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy. Now, at last, it will be forced to put its house in order. Now, at last, a sense of reality will prevail.

Well, maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

Let’s brace ourselves for the predictions — they’ve probably already started. From a variety of sources we’ll hear that Detroit will be America’s comeback city. The “we’re going to be great again crowd” will be spinning its tired tale again.

One can hear the words and phrases before they’re spoken. It is like watching a movie for the umpteenth time. The scenes and dialog have been memorized by heart. “Detroit has access to the resources -— it has a key location — it was once the furnace in which the middle class was forged. Detroit is destined to see a return of prosperity. Detroit will rebound and thrive again.”

Sure, and the Lions will win the Super Bowl next year, too. Yeah, right.

In point of fact, Detroit has been America’s comeback city for decades. If we could hop into a time machine and go back 40 years — 30 years —  20 years, we’d hear exactly the same sort of stuff.

Pardon us for being doubters. All of this “comeback” rhetoric wore thin quite a while ago.

When Detroit started making nearly every list of the worst places to live in the nation, the reactions were always defensive. “Call us up and give reasons why Detroit is a great place,” Outraged Motor City radio announcers told their audiences. “How dare they say that about ‘our town?” “We’ll show them.”

Then last decade, when census figures showed that Detroit had lost the most population of any place in the Western Hemisphere, we heard it all over again. “Detroit’s not through yet.” “We’re cleaning up, fixing up and looking up.”

There’s plenty to be admired in those who defy the critics. It’s almost always uplifting to listen to people who refuse to give in to bad news. Those who fight for their city, for their neighborhoods and neighbors, generally take on the luster of heroes. But not when they’ve dished up the same message so many times previously that the taste has become stale in one’s mouth.

In fact, Detroit’s struggles have been going on so long that even the bad old times of 20 and 30 years ago seem to be almost remembered as good times.

Decades of cheer leading hasn’t helped Detroit. The rah-rah stuff might have been helpful if Detroit’s problems were primarily caused by a low self-image. Unfortunately, that was never the real source of the problem.

The source of the problem has only been propped up by the cheer leading — re-enforced by the brave words of defiance.

Here’s what else we’re about to hear – “It’s easy to be a naysayer; it’s easy to be a cynic.” “We’re going to buckle down and make Detroit great once more.”

Sure, it is easy to be a naysayer and a cynic. However, that doesn’t mean the naysayers and cynics are always wrong.

Detroit, like any other place on Earth, reflects the character of those who inhabit it. In the final analysis, they get the government they deserve. If their government is habitually rife with corruption, out-of-control unionism, single party partisanship and populated by self-serving, distracted officials; that’s ultimately a reflection on the attitude of the voters.

A classic symptom of those who never climb back to the top and are always fighting back but only falling further behind, is that they blame someone else for their shortcomings. That’s Detroit’s problem in a nutshell.

One recalls multiple debates about Detroit in the Michigan legislature over the years. Again and again, Detroit lawmakers and their allies seemed to sing the same old tune. Figuratively speaking, it went like this:

“Yeah, Detroit has made its mistakes, but we’re correcting those now. Besides, the real culprit is the State of Michigan, greedy business interests, those rotten Republicans, or any number of others. It’s not Detroit’s fault.”

Then — still figuratively speaking — they’d break into the chorus: “We don’t care what anyone says; we’re going to do things our way — the Detroit way.”

Tackling the red ink of Detroit’s bankruptcy is necessary, but don’t expect that to mend the underlying cause of the troubles that has plagued Detroit for nearly half a century.

Here’s an almost sure bet. Right now, as Detroit faces a city election year, there are political advisers telling candidates to play the blame game.

They’re almost surely saying something like this to candidates:

“Tell the voters that it’s not Detroit’s fault. Say the real problem lies outside of Detroit’s boundaries. There are plenty of entities outside of the City we can use as scapegoats.”

“Blame it on the State taking over Detroit schools 15 years ago, blame it on the GOP Governor and legislature, what the heck — blame it on George Bush, people still remember him. This is what the voters will want to hear — so give them what they want to hear.”

Any doubts that this blame game will work again? The names may have changed but it has been working in Detroit for decades.

Blaming those outside of Detroit for Detroit’s woes is a recipe for continued failure. Yet this handy political rhetoric has worked in Detroit for years. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jim Blanchard, John Engler, Jennifer Granholm have all come and gone; but; the blame game principle still rules in Detroit politics. Telling voters that “it is not our fault” is as comfortable in Detroit as a pair of old shoes.

After what has happened in Detroit over the past four decades, one might think it would be sensible for Detroit to change its ways.

It was Albert Einstein who said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different


When will the voters of Detroit figure out that those who say “it’s not our fault” are likely to be those who benefit from things staying the same? Now that the City has gone bankrupt, will they finally see the light? Don’t bet on it.

As long as the blame always falls on those outside of Detroit, what happens on the inside is unlikely to get seriously altered. As long as Detroit voters keep buying the line that their problems were caused elsewhere, it will be elsewhere that prosperity flourishes.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis.