By now, the entire country has heard the tragic story. In 2013, Flint — under the control of an emergency manager who answered to governor Rick Snyder — signed an agreement to stop buying water from Detroit and join a new authority that would draw water from Lake Huron. The deal was expected to save millions for the city in such financial arrears that Michigan law stripped its citizens of the protection of democratically elected government and placed control of the city in the hands of an emergency manager who answered to the governor.
Detroit treated its water with an anti-corrosive chemical that coated pipes and prevented chemicals from leaching into the water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not. As the highly corrosive Flint River water flowed through the city’s pipes, residents complained of discolored, strange-tasting, foul-smelling water coming from their taps that caused sever skin rashes, among other things.
Finally, last October, the state government was forced to admit that Flint residents had been drinking, cooking with and bathing in lead-contaminated water for more than 18 months. More than 8,000 to 16,000 of the city’s children were exposed to lead contamination. The percentage of children showing elevated levels of lead in their blood increased from 3.6 percent before the switch to 6.4 percent after the switch.
According to the World Health Organization, “lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”
Democrats have spoken in solidarity with Flint citizens demanding a right to clean water, and denouncing the Michigan state government’s inaction in the face of the crisis. President Barack Obama declared Flint a water disaster, and addressed the Flint crisis during a recent visit to Detroit. The president also met with Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addressed the Flint crisis. Clinton called the crisis “a civil rights issue” and sent high level campaign aides to meet with Weaver. Sanders called for governor Snyder to resign.
“I Shouldn’t Be Commenting on Flint”
The Republican presidential candidates were initially silent about the Flint crisis. When they finally spoke, they either tried to avoid discussing Flint at all, or deflect attention away from the conservative policies and strategies that led to the crisis.
● Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was among the first candidates to address the Flint crisis, and blamed the disaster on local leadership and the federal government. “Unfortunately, the leaders of Flint have failed to place the well-being of their residents as a top priority," said Carson.
● Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) initially shrugged it off when asked about the Flint crisis. “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on for me to give you a deeply detailed answer on what the right approach should be,” Rubio said as he declined to comment on Flint’s crisis. The next day, finally briefed on the issue Rubio called for accountability and solutions. “It’s quite tragic, actually,” he said.
● Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, asked about the crisis, said it’s “a shame.” “I shouldn’t be commenting on Flint,” Trump said.
● Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declared it a “failure at every level of government.”
● Former Florida governor Jeb Bush actually praised Snyder’s handling of the crisis.
The candidates weren’t alone in attempting to deflect blame for Flint’s crisis away from conservatism. Right-wing media did its part.
● Fox News host Chris Stirewalt blamed Flint residents, saying that “the people of Flint should have been protesting in the streets,” after realizing their water was contaminated. Stirewalt either missed or ignored that Flint residents began complaining about the water within months of the switch, and didn’t stop until it received national attention. They simply weren’t heard. Mayor Weaver said it best: “It’s a minority community. It’s a poor community, and our voices were not heard.”
● Fox News contributor Jesse Waters blamed “the left” for causing the Flint crisis by fighting for clean air.
● Fox News guest Mark Aesch blamed government focus on climate change and “PC stuff” for causing the Flint water crisis.
● Fox News host Heather Nauert dismissed Democrats’ concern about the Flint crisis as “a way to get black votes.”
Conservatives have avoided addressing the Flint crisis, or resorted to deflecting blame, out of a desire to avoid addressing conservative failure. Commenting on Flint means criticizing Michigan’s Republican governor and his mishandling of the crisis from the beginning. Snyder’s depraved indifference towards the well-being of Flint’s citizens is reflected in the state agencies that ignored the pleas of Flint residents, but it has its roots in a corporate-style governance that conservatives have long advocated.
The Flint crisis again underscores the problems and limitations of “running government like a business.” In the case of Flint, business principles applied in order to avoid tax hikes usually lead to a trade-off between cost-cutting and public health. Corporations may cut corners in order to preserve the bottom line, and if doing so leads to an inferior — or even dangerous — product or service, then customers have the ability to look for a better deal or a better value elsewhere. When governments cut corners in service of the bottom line, the most vulnerable populations receive shoddy or nonexistent services, and — like the people of Flint — can’t just go elsewhere for things like water service.
Jared Bernstein writes in The Washington Post that government failure in Republican-run states like Michigan is no accident. It’s a strategy employed by those who benefit from less government. Flint’s crisis is another example of what happens when people who are opposed to the very idea of government either take or are given the reins of government. Having run on a message that the government doesn’t work, they start making sure that it can’t work.