Flint water crisis could damage Republican party among student voters
When citizens lose trust in their government, political science professor James Hill said one of two things usually happens: They become more politically active or decline to participate in government at all.
During the Flint water crisis, many people are calling for Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation. Hill said this could lead to a blow to the Republican party, or cause people to not participate in government at all.
"We're asking people to engage in government, and when these things happen, it turns you off," he said. "It accentuates that the government is not your friend, not there to help you. That's the worst outcome of this situation — that people will lose interest."
Hill said he can think of other major crises, like in the 70s when former Gov. William Milliken was part of the "worst agricultural disaster" the state had ever seen. In that case, a man-made chemical fire retardant was accidentally misbagged and distributed by Michigan Farm Bureau as cattle feed. Polybrominated biphenyl was unknowingly distributed across the state, destroying hundreds of farms and thousands of animals. Michigan residents might still be feeling the affects of the chemicals, according to a 2015 Detroit Free Press article.
Disasters like that could potentially motivate people to vote, Hill said.
"Sometimes these moments motivate people to go to the polls and say, 'I didn't like this and I won't show my criticism by walking away,'" he said. "If you look back in history, if you have these environmental crises it forces (the government) to make more dramatic changes than they may want. If people mobilize and go to the polls, it might be that catalyst to get people to express their views by voting."
During his Jan. 19 State of the State address, Snyder became more emotional than Michigan residents had previously seen. Tom Shields, president of Marketing Resource Group in Lansing and Republican consultant, said Snyder is taking responsibility for what happened. Snyder acknowledges that the Flint water crisis will be part of his legacy.
"He's normally the kind of governor who doesn't want to feel your pain; he wants to cure it," Shields said. "He prides himself on getting things done. I think what he's doing now is correct. It's all in for Flint."
How will Snyder's handling of Flint affect the rest of the Republican party, especially Lt. Governor Brian Calley, and Attorney General Bill Schuette, who have both expressed interest in running for governor in 2018?
Jayne Strachan, political science faculty member, said the water crisis in Flint has the potential to harm the party, because in times of trouble moderate voters will often penalize the party in power during the next vote. This means looking back over Snyder's term and assessing if you're happy with how things turned out.
"If voters do that and blame the party, the Republicans will probably take a hit," she said. "There are some policies that were questionable; most obviously the emergency manager program. If people understand that and link it all together, the Republicans will take a hit."
As many have been calling for Snyder's resignation, Strachan said there's pros and cons that should be weighed.
If Snyder resigned, Calley would step in for the rest of his term. In the next election, Calley would be the incumbent. Strachan said these candidates often have an easier time being elected into office because of broader name recognition.
"For people who want to see a turnover, they might be perpetuating a Republican governorship," Strachan said. "But, if (Snyder) is not effective anymore, if he can't get enough political capital to help solve the crisis, I would say at that point it would be time to resign."
Strachan hopes young people will engage in traditional politics, as well as continue the grassroots activism that caused the government to take note of the Flint water crisis to begin with.
The millenial generation is the first in population size to compete with the baby boomers, which leads to the opportunity to swing a vote. Millenials are engaged politically, Strachan said, but don't often make it to the polls.
She said this goes back to the issue of trust. She has found through her research trust in government is the precursor for a healthy democracy.
"You can have structures in place, but if trust is absent, people will not use institutions and you won't have a healthy democracy," she said. "Why would you participate in government if you think it doesn't matter? The damage has been done to the democracy, not just with Snyder."