S. S. Trudeau

Ann Arbor's Political Factions Aren't a Problem

Sam Firke, a friend, published yesterday "The Factions of Ann Arbor City Politics and Why They’re A Problem". His labels and descriptions of the "Protectors" and "Strivers" are a spot on description of the biggest divide in our local politics. I appreciate his insight but I don't draw the same conclusion as his headline. The existence of these apparent factions (or camps or dominant perspectives1) is not a problem. Interpersonal loyalty and using the "factionalism" narrative to redirect arguments away from real policy debates, however, are.

The "factions" represent real differences of opinion within our community over policies that our City Council has geniune control over. People who tend to agree with each other on meaningful issues support each other in policy debates. This is unavoidable and it's not a problem. It's basic politics.

I do see two problems that emerge in this context. The first is when people think first about "who" instead of "what/why/how" in policy debates. This kind of interpersonal loyalty is what Mary Morgan describes well in the quote Sam attributes to her. It can indeed be unproductive and obnoxious.

What Sam (& Mary) miss is the other side of this same coin: use of the "factions" narrative to deflect criticisms about real policy differences to avoid having those policy debates. Why debate the merits of policy differences when you reframe a genuine policy criticism as groupthink, factional loyalty and being "misinformed"? When the argument becomes interpersonal, most people then tune out and don't pay attention to the actual merits of debates and their outcomes, assuming it is just "factional" bickering.

This kind of deflection (along with a variety of other delaying tactics) works better for the "Protectors" than the "Strivers." The "Protectors" are primarily attempting to maintain the status quo, while the "Strivers" are actively attempting to change policies and priorities to shape a different future vision for the City. If the "Protectors" can derail an actual policy debate, they can usually accomplish their policy goal of keeping things the same.

Emphasizing the existence of "factions" as the problem plays into narratives that make these deflections easier. If you believe the factions themselves are the problem, it is very easy for either side to derail many real debates as mere factional acrimony. This is why, for example, a whole lot of lung exhaust is expended over whether various groupings of candidates running for Council constitute a "slate" or not. The answer to this kind of purely "factional" question should always be: who cares? The answer to that question doesn't give you any meaningful information about the individual candidates' perspectives, abilities, values and priorities.

Similarly, blaming factionalism itself for superficially strange alignments (like Hayner/Lumm, as Sam does) misses glaring ways they genuinely agree on local policy issues, which they have real power to affect. They're not aligned out of mere interpersonal loyaly. They're frequently aligned because they both prioritize keeping property taxes low; generally prioritize the interests of homeowners over renters and long-time residents over new & transient residents; desire to protect existing demographic segregation of neighborhoods (Hayner literally decried the days when "Division Street meant something"); skeptical of attempts to deprioritize personal automobiles as a primary transportation mode; skepitcal of the need for electrification as essential to decarbonization; and belief that the costs of achieving net zero are too high (so we shouldn't try) ... as a few examples. They agree on a lot of policy that falls on the "Protector" side of the line!

The "Protector" and "Striver" camps exist, and that's not a bad thing. Suggesting these "factions" could be productively dismantled is a form of bothsidesism that ignores meaningful & important differences. Yes, don't be lazy and assume because someone typically lands on the "other side" they are necessarily on the wrong side of any given policy question; but also don't be lazy and assume that because people are lining up on a predictable line that it is for any reason other than meaningful policy differences.

1 I don't really like the label "faction." I think it implies a level of organizational cohesion and coordination that doesn't really exist within the camps that tend share similar perspectives local policy debates; and it deemphasizes plenty of sincere efforts where Council Members and community members have worked together on issues they care about even if they tend to fall into one "faction" or the other on the Protector/Striver axis.

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