State of the State is the monthly roundup of policy and research for the state of Michigan from the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. Arnold Weinfeld is Associate Director for the Institute and is joined by MSU economist Dr. Charley Ballard and Institute Director Dr. Matt Grossmann.
This month’s guest is Dr. Jakana Thomas, an Associate Professor in MSU's Department of Political Science whose research focuses on political violence, how violence influences conflict resolution, and the determinants of a successful peace process - items that are no doubt on the minds of many Americans today.
“The drop in the economy in Michigan and everywhere else was dramatic in April of 2020. Really, by many measures, April 2020 was the worst month in American economic history,” says Ballard. “We previously thought that the 100,000 jobs lost in Michigan in January of 2009 was really horrendous; in April of 2020 we lost 10 times as many. We lost about a million jobs.
“I think there are a couple of things going on. One is the federal government has stepped up and has relieved the burdens in many ways. Another is that we have learned a lot of businesses have been able to continue to operate better than maybe we first thought in an online, remote environment. So the good news is that the budgetary situation for Michigan is not nearly as bad as we once thought.
“The not so good news is that the recovery appears to have stalled out.”
“Can we keep injecting federal money into the economy,” asks Weinfeld?
“On the one hand, I think this is not yet the time to worry about balancing our budget because our economy is still in deep trouble. On the other hand, the federal deficit for the fiscal year that ended last September was more than $3 trillion. And now the total accumulated debt is pushing toward $22 trillion. So far, the world credit markets seem happy to gobble up that debt and we don't have to pay very high interest rates. I do worry that there will eventually be a day of reckoning. I hope that once we get past the worst of the COVID crisis, which I think we may well be able to do that by summer, then it will be time to have a serious national discussion for the first time in a long time about maybe paying our bills.
“I think that the tax cuts that were passed three years ago were absolutely wrong-headed because introductory macro economics tells you that you should balance your budget or run surpluses when the economy is good leaving some room for deficits when the economy is struggling. But the tax cuts that went into effect three years ago meant that we were running a trillion a year even when the economy was doing well. That's a concern, but I feel like I'm kind of a lonely voice in the wilderness when I say that. Because in order to deal with it, you're going to have to cut some spending or you're going to have to raise some taxes.”
Weinfeld asks Grossmann to reflect on the events of January 6th and how corporate America has seemingly taken a different tact with its philosophy on donations.
“First it's too early to say on the donation patterns,” says Grossmann. “This is right after an election; this is not usually a high time for corporate PAC donations. Many of the businesses that have made announcements have just said they're not making donations for the next six months or doing some kind of pause. Overall, actually the data shows that corporate donations tend to moderate representatives. It's actually the individual contributions that are more likely to lead to more extreme representatives. It's not clear that those patterns are really going to change our polarized landscape.
“On the stimulus, I just want to make sure everybody understands that although state and local government funding wasn't directly included in the December stimulus, Michigan is still vastly helped in its state government by that stimulus package. Not only is money that is for health and education likely to be fungible in the state budget as it was almost entirely in the last state budget, but we also benefit in terms of revenues from those higher unemployment benefits and from checks going to individuals. So those stimulus packages before really helped to alleviate what would have been big pain in the state budget.
“Going forward, if we do get to that point that Charley mentioned where we start to see if not austerity, at least a turning off of the hose of federal money, we are likely to have postponed that potential pain in the state budget rather than gotten rid of it completely.”
Weinfeld wonders whether Democrats and Republicans may or may not work together more closely in the wake of November’s election.
“It doesn't seem like it's so far,” Grossmann says. “We're a few days after the inauguration and already there's a dispute about even how to form the Senate committees. There's no evidence that there's Republican support for any of the initial legislative proposals that Biden put forward, either the immigration one or the stimulus proposal.
“So there's a lot of talk about unity, but most of that was about being unified in values or against extremism or maybe toning down the culture war. There's not really a whole lot of sign that there's going to be bipartisanship when it comes to public policy. Democrats do now have full control and there are a lot of people who are going to want to use that full control to enact a lot of policies. We also know that the party out of the presidency tends to win the midterm election, and so they are going to see this as a fleeting chance that they have to potentially enact new policies.
“Now at the state level research shows that the party out of power in Washington is more likely to move their states more ideologically in the opposite direction. So we will be looking for Republican states to actually move rightward under the Biden administration while Congress tries to take advantage of its couple years with Democrats in the majority.”
“I think 2021 is going to be better than 2020,” Ballard adds. “But that's setting the bar really low. Certainly, the Trump administration never really took fighting COVID very seriously. They viewed it as a public relations problem, not a public health problem. It will be difficult for Biden’s team not to do better. I think there's a decent chance that we will speed up the shots in arms rapidly. But since there are still bottlenecks in the system, I think it's probably summer or fall before we really start seeing major progress, and then it will take many months to put the economy together. Most economists say that 2021 will still be a rocky year and maybe we can look to 2022 to getting back to an economic more normal.”
Grossmann welcomes his colleague from MSU’s Department of Political Science, Jakana Thomas, to the conversation.
“She’s an international expert on terrorism and violence,” says Grossmann. “Jakana, talk about how you think we should see the attack on the Capitol in an international context.”
“America is not really the only country to encounter many of these same problems,” Thomas says. “This looked very much like post-election violence that we would witness around the world in other countries. And post-election violence occurs often when people distrust the electoral process or they're unhappy with the outcome and so they engage in violence. A key point of focus here is a lack of trust in the institutions and specifically in the electoral process.
“A colleague of mine notes that what we saw on display on January 6th is consistent with democratic backsliding, and this is kind of where you see a democratic state sliding closer and closer toward autocracy very slowly. Other colleagues say that there are clear indicators of some deep-seated trouble ahead for the United States, and some of the key factors that are going to cause some of these problems are the gross economic inequality and the growing polarization in our politics, and these can cause or lead to democratic erosion and breakdowns.
“The events of January 6th were not necessarily a death knell to our democracy. It's not that this is a sign that our country is dying. However, it is a sign that there are some broader problems. And one of the problems that I focus on a lot in my research is the growing extremism and the growing radicalization that has led to violence in our country and the kind of violence that was on display on January 6th.
“Some of those factors like polarization and inequality, they breed grievances that can fuel political violence. They can allow political entrepreneurs to seize this moment and say, ‘Look, we have a crisis that we have to solve that our government cannot solve.’ One of the biggest things that I think Michigan really needs to focus on and look at is this growing radicalization among the population that's fueled and supported by militia activity around the Midwest and around the country more broadly. Groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and the Proud Boys are concerning organizations and we know this because at least one Three Percenter was involved in the plot to kidnap our governor.
“The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have been around since 2008 and 2009; they're not just harmless patriot groups that are protecting the Constitution. They're actually challenging our authority and they're threatening the democracy. Politicians have to somehow restore faith in our institutions. They have to combat this erosion of trust in our electoral process and the institutions more broadly.
“Congressman Peter Meijer recently came out to denounce the violence and he's been trying to restore the faith in the process. I thought he said a couple of really interesting things. He mentioned that it was really important to help us move past this point that we have accountability for what happened, but also that politicians start to tell their constituents the truth. So not just to tell them what they want to hear, not necessarily just tell them what's politically expedient, but tell them the truth. And to some degree the truth that's important that would help combat some of this growing radicalization and this growing extremism is that our Constitution is not being undermined by government actors. Our elections are safe and secure for the most part. Our institutions are not beyond repair, and that means that people can continue to participate in participatory democracy in order to see real changes.
“And most importantly for me is we do not need non-state actors like these militia groups to protect the government from its citizens or to protect the government from itself. A particularly troubling sign is after Meijer came out suggesting accountability, he's had to buy body armor and change his security routine because of this threat of violence. One thing that we really have to do is acknowledge that this is a problem that our country has. It was not an isolated event. January 6th is not the last time we are going to see violence. It's really important that we acknowledge that that was not just a fleeting moment. January 6th was not an aberration; this is potentially a sign of what might be coming if we don't take seriously the fact that we have armed non-state actors roaming the country, and for the most part, going unchallenged.
“We saw terrorism and organized peaceful protests at the Capitol on January 6. Those two things coexisted at the same time, and it's really important to treat those actors separately, acknowledge that those were different sets of actors and the repercussions are different. We cannot come out forcefully and just denounce all the protesters and quash all right wing speech and protests because it happened to coincide with violence. That just feeds into this radicalization loop and this radicalization process.
“What we know from around the world is that government repression is one key reason people become radicalized and take up extremist politics and take up violence. In order to avoid turning some of those peaceful protesters into violent extremists in the future, we have to make sure that we don't just crack down on their ideas and their beliefs and their speech just because we don't like it but recognize that just because they were there and just because they may have contrary beliefs, they're not necessarily complicit and guilty.
“However, for those who are complicit and guilty of engaging in actual violence and insurrection, the government has a responsibility to crack down on those actors in order to deter further violence in the future. But again, lessons from around the country suggest that we can't treat those sets of actors the same. We can't treat the peaceful protesters as if they were rioters, and this is a job for law enforcement. They're going to have to do a really good job of discriminating between those who were actually violent and actually planning and orchestrating these violent events from those who participated in the violent riots and those who were just out to protest peacefully. Because they're not the same.
“There are underlying grievances that have sparked people's anger that need to be acknowledged. Some of these things are legitimate, like economic inequality or the fact that people are hurting economically. Some of this is brought on by COVID, but some of this has been around for a really long time. This can be dealt with by actually governing, by responding to people's grievances that they have. These grievances allow violent actors to then appeal to people who otherwise would not be violent. These grievances make these political entrepreneurs say, ‘These problems that you're facing are beyond what the government can control and change. They're not interested in doing this. We, however, have the unique solution, and the solution is to take over the government.’ If the government continues to ignore that the people who came out to protest might have some legitimate grievances toward the government, they allow these violent actors to recruit.
“Another concern is that these violent actors are also feeding them lies that some of the politicians are also feeding them. They're painting a picture of a country that is not actually our country. They're painting this picture of a country where people can't go out and vote for their politicians anymore because elections are meaningless. They're painting a picture that there is no point in participating in the institution, and that there's no point in running for office anymore because you can't actually change things from those institutions.
“It's also important for government actors, and specifically the ones who contested the results of the election to come out and say like Peter Meijer did that this is just not what's happening. This is just not the truth. The institutions are still what they've always been; they're still safe, and they're still secure. You can still participate. You can still change the balance in Congress. You can still change the local political landscape by participating in politics. This is not your only option. And it's very important that people see that there are other options out here other than violence.”
What about the role of racial politics, Grossmann asks Thomas?
“There has been some really interesting research on ethnic violence and ethnic politics that would say that these cleavages become salient when political actors make them salient,” Thomas continues. “These are cleavages that always exist and that can co-exist. “But when you have a political actor who comes and fabricates this conflict, people who are on these different lines are likely to buy into it. Unfortunately, political actors and trusted elites have a big role in stoking this violence and also quelling this violence as well. So around the world, we see often that there is ethnic conflict, but what we also see is there are a lot of people in countries where there's huge ethnic mixes, maybe where there were histories of contention, that can figure out how to live and coexist peacefully. So just because we have this polarization doesn't mean that it necessarily has to lead to conflict, but it only does when we allow politicians to stoke these tensions along these dividing lines, when they make these issues salient.
“We need to find a way to make these issues less salient. They'll never go away, they're not going to go away in our country, but they may not play such a primary role in our politics. I guess one of the things that we can do, which sounds very naive, is to return to civility. Return to politics of respecting other people who have different beliefs, who are different than you and believe that they have a right to exist. They have a right to be in this country as well and have contrary opinions and we can disagree without going to war. It is possible for us to do that in this country and I think we're hearing this rhetoric that that is not possible. It is not possible to co-exist with these different viewpoints, but that's just not accurate. The rest of the world has been contending with these kinds of issues and has had to figure out a way to do that.”
“It will be very interesting to watch in the years ahead, not just in the weeks and months, but in the years to come to see whether the polarization in our country accelerates or whether we can pull it back,” adds Ballard. “I'm cautiously optimistic that our democracy is sufficiently robust and that we'll get past this, too.”
MSU Today airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 on 105.1 FM, AM 870, and however you stream at home. Follow and subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.