Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state legislature in Lansing, Michigan, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

A hundred and fifty years ago, in the thick of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln rejected the counsel that suggested he might postpone the 1864 presidential election on the grounds that the national circumstance was too chaotic for voting.

“We cannot have free government without elections,” declared the sixteenth president. “If the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

Lincoln’s commitment to maintain regularly scheduled elections despite all the challenges facing the nation was essential to the formation of the American democratic standard. But what happens when elections are held but those who are elected are not allowed to govern? Can we tell ourselves that democracy has been maintained if it is not respected in any realistic sense by state and federal officials?

That’s a question that the voters of one of America’s great cities, Detroit, are in the process of answering.

Detroit voters trooped to the polls Tuesday to nominate candidates for the city’s top posts in one of the more unsettled—and unsettling—elections in American history.

The voters selected candidates for mayor, city clerk and the city council—all the officials who normally would guide the affairs of one of America’s largest municipalities.

The chosen candidates are running serious campaigns. They will compete in traditional fall contests, with some elected and some defeated. The winners will take office shortly after the election results are certified. And then, the new leaders of Detroit will in all likelihood be forced to sit in official chambers and watch as their city is dismantled by an appointed—not elected—“emergency manager” and a federal bankruptcy judge.

They will not do so willingly. The candidates that initial returns suggest Detroit voters have nominated to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Bing—Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and, with a surge of write-in votes being counted for him, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan—have made it clear that they are ready and willing to govern. Summing up the sentiments of most Detroit candidates this year, Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, says that “the mayor should be able to set the priorities.”

But that won’t happen, because Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has taken control of Detroit, using an “emergency manager” law that he cobbled together late last fall.

Snyder had to develop the new “emergency manager” law after a previous version of the legislation—which he had used to take over smaller cities—was overturned by the voters of Michigan in a statewide referendum. In Detroit, 82 percent of voters said they did not want the “emergency manager” law. But they got it anyway. So it is that, while Detroit’s next mayor may eventually be allowed to govern, he won’t be calling the shots at the critical juncture when the city faces bankruptcy and dismantlement.

This is a vital distinction to recognize as Detroit faces the federal bankruptcy process—initiated at Snyder’s behest—that has been so much in the news.

“Let’s get one thing straight, the city of Detroit has not filed for municipal bankruptcy. The emergency manager (EM) filed the bankruptcy petition, and he is an appointee of the governor of the state of Michigan based on Act 436—a law formerly known as PA 4—which was repealed by 2.3 million Michigan citizens statewide on Nov. 6, 2012,” explains retiring Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson. “The EM is only accountable to the governor, the EM only answers to the governor, and the EM can only be ‘checked and balanced’ by the governor.”

The new mayor and the new city council will not have the authority to “check and balance” the emergency manager—or to guide the process that Watson argues “has clearly been crafted in a right-wing playbook to seize assets, dismember electorate voting powers, dismantle unions and the families/neighborhoods supported by union jobs, disable local elected officials, smear and tarnish the image and viability of Black elected leadership, and broadly claim that the legacy costs related to retiree pensions are largely to blame for the city’s debt crisis.”

Watson’s frustration is real. And appropriate.

Detroit’s greatest challenge has not been municipal governance. It has been deindustrialization, which has shuttered hundreds of factories and left hundreds of thousands of city residents unemployed or underemployed. And that great challenge extends beyond Detroit.

Too many American cities face financial challenges similar to those that have destabilized Detroit. Snyder’s anti-democratic “answer” could well become the model for a response to those challenges that begins by blaming the victims and ultimately denies them a full and effective franchise.

“I believe Detroit and Michigan are ‘test cases’ for certain right-wing agents who want to do all they can to control future elections for this nation’s highest office and other posts,” says Watson. “Voter suppression, including the Supreme Court’s role in gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are not incidental to the myriad of malevolence in Michigan.”

There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet.

Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.

The voters of Michigan sent a clear signal last fall. They rejected emergency-manager authoritarianism.

The courts should back the voters up and put an end to the emergency-manager charade. Federal and state officials should work with Detroit’s elected leaders to seek alternatives to bankruptcy—and the austerity cuts to services and pensions that go with it. Democracy should be restored so that the candidates who have been nominated in Detroit this week, and who will be elected in November, can guide the affairs of the city they have been chosen to lead.

Some truths are self-evident across time.

That is surely the case with Lincoln’s observation that “we cannot have free government without elections.”

It was absolutely true 150 years ago that the postponing of an election would have been a defeat for the forces of democracy.

It is absolutely true today that the sapping of meaning from elections—by denying successful candidates the authority to govern—represents another form of the same defeat.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”

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