My home state of Michigan has been in the national news in a lot of ways since I left. Whether it's passing some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, repeated attacks on LGBT rights or, most recently, undermining the state's long labor-rights history by passing "right to work" laws, the Great Lakes State sure knows how to keep itself politically relevant in the worst ways.
The only thing that seems more newsworthy about Michigan than its rightward turn – bolstered by new Republican governor, Rick Snyder – has been its economic troubles. The collapse of the auto industry in 2008 affected nearly every sector of the southeast Michigan economy, torpedoing downtown Detroit and Flint's repeated attempts to stall their cities' declines. As a result, the once steady trickle of young college grads and professionals leaving the state for other states and countries has turned into an exodus. The economy has always been floated as the main reason, but as it starts to make a comeback, the state officials have been wringing their hands about why their young people aren't coming back, and so many there are continuing to leave.
Well, as one of those young, educated people who left the state after graduation (although, I went out-of-state for college as well as staying there after college), I think I have an idea. It's the economy, sure, but it's not just that. It's also the politics.
What liberalism Michigan has has been mostly in the labor/economic sector, and it's always been fairly conservative – even compared to other Upper Midwestern states – when it comes to women's and LGBT rights. But now the degree to which has now Michigan gone to the right is unprecedented. With the vote in favor of "right to work" – a policy which claims to give workers "rights" by not requiring them to pay union dues, but actually just hurts them by reducing the bargaining power of unions (which benefit workers regardless of membership) – it seems the Michigan I knew growing up is no more.
As far as LGBT rights, why would students who have left Michigan to go to school in more liberal states choose to return to a state that will severely restrict their rights? According to this infographic from The Guardian, Michigan is tied with Mississippi and Utah for the least protections for LGBT people in the country. Not only are LGBT people in MI denied marriage equality and employment and housing protections, same-sex couples aren't even able to adopt kids under current Michigan law. Some state legislators have even attempted to introduce legislation that would nullify protections from local governments. As for women's rights, the list of excessive reproductive health restrictions passed by the MI legislature in recent years is endless, but perhaps the most telling moment came when State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) was banned from speaking during a debate on abortion legislation simply for using the word "vagina."
Younger Michiganders have reason to be repulsed by the state's backwards stance towards social issues, and older citizens are feeling betrayed by the right-to-work vote. Yet, this factor seems to get rarely discussed about why so many young Michiganders are abandoning the state. That is, until last week, when an editorial in The Detroit Free Press by Brian Dickerson posited whether or not the state's rightward political turn might be what's driving young people away and keeping them out.
In Dickerson's editorial, "Scaring away the grads Michigan needs to woo," he points out how, while the governor's website may make Michigan out to be "tax-friendly," invested in building infrastructure in rural areas and other positive things on his website, there are so many other policies that make Michigan so obviously unattractive to young people that they might re-consider moving to the state, and even staying there past graduation:
The Great Lakes State being ridiculed on the Daily Show and CNN is a insular, backward-looking place, suspicious of newcomers and new ideas -- a state whose elected officials are busily erecting new obstacles to contraception, same-sex marriage and voting, and new opportunities for people who open for-profit prisons, hunt wolves or pack heat in church. Really, lawmakers, is there something you're not doing to make young college graduates feel unwelcome? How about raising the age of consent to 35, or booking Lawrence Welk tribute bands at the Palace?
(The "pack heat in church" line refers to a recent attempt by the MI legislature to legalize concealed carry in schools and places of worship, currently "gun-free" zones. It had the unfortunate timing of passing just a day before the recent shooting in Connecticut. Gov. Snyder vetoed the bill on Tuesday.)
The fact that the governor points out growth in rural areas as a reason people should come to Michigan reveals another big issue with the state: its massive urban-rural divide. One possible explanation for Michigan's stark rightward swing may be that as more and more people have left urban areas like Detroit and Flint, the generally more conservative rural areas have gained more political clout. But along with the right-wing politics that come from those areas, is life in the country the reason young professionals move to a new state - or is it the greater cultural offerings and job opportunities that usually come from cities? The fact that Michigan seems to be jettisoning its cities to promote its rural areas – both in terms of its political conservatism, and that Snyder seems to be focusing its growth in that area – makes it seem like the state doesn't really care about the needs of the young people they want to attract.
While Gov. Snyder may see the wishes of the more extreme members of his party as something he needs to go with to get along (although, his enthusiastic support of policies like right-to-work make his reputation as a "moderate Republican" a bit more suspect), and he may genuinely think he can have it both ways, it seems like a number of Republicans are eager to take advantage of the fact that so many young people – likely Democratic voters – are fleeing the state, by passing policies they would never support. In essence, it's not even just the politics themselves, but the way it seems to be escalating as more and more liberal young people leave the state – as though the MI Republicans are making it clear they'll take every opportunity to profit off our absence, and yet throw up their hands on why we decide we don't really need them, either. It's like they expect that young people are not paying attention to politics.
But young people, especially young LGBT people, do pay attention to politics, and even without the aid of the news media mocking the state, it feels like a slap in the face. I asked one of my friends, who is gay, a native Michigander and a student at University of Michigan, why he plans to leave the state after graduation. He cited the fact that he was a "city boy" at heart as part of it, but made it clear that the state's backward LGBT politics were a bigger part – and particularly, just how targeted each measure felt. "A lot of it is that the policies are just so repulsive," he said. "The Republicans in Michigan seem entirely determined to marginalize and deny rights to LGBTQ citizens." He also cited the anti-union efforts (including right-to-work as well as other bills) and slashed education funding as a reason, but it was clear LGBT rights weighed heaviest in his mind. "Michigan's laws about LGBTQ rights are pretty much the worst in the country. I can't even adopt if I have a partner."
Maybe, as Dickerson somewhat tongue-in-cheekily suggests, more conservative Republicans really are "determined to scare [young grads] away" for the sake of electoral gains. The way the right-to-work vote was pushed through the legislature in a lame duck session, while trying to marginalize the voice of the people as much as possible, suggests a real fear of the electoral influence of Democratic voters. But if that is the case, they're eventually going to come in conflict with a traditional conservative ally: business, who need educated young people in the workforce. As Dickerson writes:
Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), a consortium of the state's largest employers, warns that the supply of workers with two- and four-year degrees could fall a million short of the number needed to meet existing employers' needs by 2025. That's right – a million fewer college graduates than Michigan needs to fill the jobs Snyder expects to create.
BLM and similar groups see the cuts in education funding as the main problem. And they likely are to some degree, as these cuts make college even more expensive in a time when tuition keeps rising, and encourage students to choose schools out of state that may offer more money. But if politics do turn out to be a persistent problem in attracting young people to the state, it's unlikely that fiscally- but not necessarily socially-conservative business groups will side with those who want to continue pushing the state backward on women's and LGBT rights issues.
Ultimately, Michigan Republicans cannot have it both ways. Even people who won't feel affected by the MI legislature's extreme conservative push don't want to live in the sort of state that is constantly being mocked on late night news. As for those of us who are affected, even the union attacks disproportionately will affect LGBT people, women, people of color and other groups that are more susceptible to discrimination – and that's considering that LGBT people already have no legal defenses in Michigan's system. The MI government can't pass through a Tea Party agenda and expect to attract progressive young people who want to a diverse, modern environment. And while the influence of the Tea Party in politics is a problem throughout the Midwest, with Michigan's serious economic issues, they really should consider whether they can afford it at all.