As a general rule I try each month to vary the topics I tackle in this column, for obvious reasons. At this writing, I had several issues I could have addressed but then along came Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson's annual State of the County address which I caught on YouTube.com the night after the invitation-only event.
As expected, the address really served as a “greatest hits” litany of accomplishments on the part of the Patterson administration over the nearly two and one-half decades he has held the chief executive post in Oakland. And justifiably so. As I have said on numerous occasions, I have long supported Patterson's efforts on behalf of the county, and certainly much has been accomplished, thanks in large part to the team with which he has chosen to surround himself, as he even admitted in this year's address. So, once again, I like Brooks Patterson and what he has accomplished on behalf of Oakland County residents.
Where I break with Patterson in recent years is on the basic issue of politics, the topic on which he ended this year's annual State of the County address.
As parting thoughts at the end of the evening, Patterson asked his audience to give consideration to what one of the country's founders, Ben Franklin, said at the time of the Constitutional Convention, where the guiding document under which we still operate was created. In answer to questions, Franklin described what was being created as a “Republic, if you can keep it.” Patterson also latched onto what James Madison – founding father, fourth President of the nation, considered the Father of the Constitution – thought at the time about “factions” in the government. Madison, in the Federalist Papers, defined a “faction as a group of citizens with interests that are adverse to the rights of other citizens or adverse of the best interests of the nation as a whole.” Madison said, “Because of the nature of man, such groups are inevitable, and moreover, in a free society, they are unavoidable. They arise from different interests and opinions that naturally exist.”
Madison also wrote that in a government where the majority opinion rules, factions would not pose a problem, unless the faction occupied a place in the majority.
Patterson then proceeded to posit that some radical leftist, violence-inclined groups such as Antifa and By Any Means Necessary had already started to occupy a place in our government – quite a stretch by any definition. Antifa and By Any Means Necessary are radical far-left street-fighting groups that resort to violence at public events and political street gatherings. I have yet to hear that any of their members occupy state or national elected positions.
Patterson also lumped in with the previous two groups the MoveOn organization, which has an estimated three million members nationwide and was first formed in 1998 when its two founders posted an online petition calling for censure, not impeachment, of then-President Bill Clinton and several hundred thousand signed it. MoveOn has grown into an organization known as one of the more effective users of the internet for petitioning the government, running virtual phone banks, expanding from online organizing to offline door-to-door field efforts on behalf of progressive causes and candidates, as well as raising millions in contributions to support their efforts. To lump them in with the street-fighting groups on the left is simply dishonest.
So what gives with Patterson's closing remarks that February evening? One the one hand, I believe he was sincere when he expressed concerns about the frailty of the representative government and what his grandchildren will face years from now. I certainly share some of the same concerns, although not necessarily for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, I have to view most of his closing remarks as dog whistle politics.
Dog whistle politics basically means using coded messaging that communicates a message that is understood – sometimes unconsciously – a high-pitched “dog whistle.” The terminology first gained recognition in Australia in the mid-1990's during a political campaign for prime minister by John Howard who had a penchant for working into his public pronouncements such terms as “illegals,” “mainstream” and “Un-Australian.”
In Patterson's case, I am not sure he consciously decides to use dog whistle phrasing or that it has just become second nature – especially as the Republican Party control of the county and state government starts slipping through the fingers of the GOP.
No mention that evening of the Tea Party (a faction representing 10 percent of the population, according to pollsters). The same faction that just years ago Patterson labelled the “Taliban” of the Republican Party is now part of the state legislature and Congress where followers have their own caucus. No mention of the Trump faction that has invaded the GOP. And no disavowing of the vitriolic language and dog whistle pronouncements by the current President – an ill-informed and aspiring autocrat – despite the fact that violent behavior has become commonplace at his rallies, including his recent Texas gathering where a man in a MAGA hat broke into a contained area for the media and began physically assaulting journalists.
No acknowledgement that in January you could find Antifa, an anti-fascist group, fighting in the streets of Portland, Oregon with the equally violent right-wing Patriot Prayer Group and the Proud Boys, one of whose founders is a former Republican Senate candidate from the state of Washington. Or that far-right factions of white supremacists have made their way into our government.
I also can't ignore the snide comment made by Patterson about a “complicit media” when alleging that violent leftist factions have made their way into the government – a clear – and disappointing – sign that he has drunk the Trump Kool-Aid.
I could go on but you get my drift.
I expect more from a major political figure in the county and the state. And I would hope this is not a preview of what we can anticipate in local 2020 elections – dog whistle pandering rather than an honest debate of issues.
So I close this month like Patterson did on that recent evening when he asked those in attendance to give some thought to the frailty of the republic in the face of current day threats that can undermine the democracy. I ask the same.