With the primary and caucus season of the 2016 U.S. presidential election now in full swing, voters across the nation are tuning into weekly debates to see the candidates feverishly compete for the highest nomination in the party system. To those un-invested in politics, these debates go off seemingly unhinged. The same issues are prompted that were at the last debate (and the one before that), and the same rehearsed stances are taken on such issues. No wonder our political participation levels are so low. From the outside, politics seems stagnant.
However, a new topic managed to weasel its way into the Iowa debate during the last week of January. It finally shifted gears to a local level issue that has plagued primarily coloured people in the city of Flint, MI and surrounding areas.
In April of 2014, in a negligent attempt to save a much-need $5 million, the city of Flint switched its source of water from treated Lake Huron water to water ‘filtered’ locally from the Flint River. Soon after, residents complained of “foul-tasting, discoloured, and awful-tasting” water coming from their taps. In January of 2015, state officials soothed anxiety-ridden residents’ nerves by assuring them the water from their homes was safe to drink. By January of 2016, thousands of residents were found to have dangerously elevated levels of lead in their blood stream, causing President Obama to declare the city in a state of emergency and four government officials to resign.
The chaos has been pinned on mismanagement by the Republican state government, as Governor Rick Snyder’s dry apology only could go so far. Especially since he refuses to admit the time gap between him finding out about the toxic levels of lead in the water and declaring a public health crisis.
When Flint was broached in the Democratic Iowa debate, Sanders called for the immediate resignation of Snyder, while Clinton used the leverage she earned for bringing the topic to the centre of attention in the first place. On the Republican side, the issue, that some consider the most pressing domestic concern at the moment, failed to even make the back burner. The only candidate who faced the matter was Ohio Governor John Kasich, who was asked how he would have address the situation. While claiming to know little details of the situation, including what Governor Snyder’s role was in the crisis, he failed to offer any sort of concrete solution other than “to be on top of it right away”. But shouldn’t our government officials be responding in this fashion anyway, in and out of times of chaos?
As a result of Kasich’s flimsy answers and the Republican moderator’s seeming disinterest in the situation all together, numerous articles have come out since the debate berating the Republicans for blatantly ignoring the issue, which only demonstrates what coloured and underprivileged cities like Flint should expect if a Republican is elected in 2016. But before we shower the Democrats in praise for their bare-minimum acknowledgement of the crisis, we should first ask ourselves what they really should have said.
Yes, the Democrats, specifically Clinton, put Flint in the spotlight it needs at this dark hour. But what’s their solution? Free up more aid money for the city? President Obama has already done so. Demand Snyder’s resignation? Fat chance, and nearly useless in a time crunch like this. The way the Democratic candidates discussed the issue was all on the surface. Who can get the loudest applause for saying the same thing in different phrasing? Whose response can gain them more percentage points in the live online debate poll? It all makes me wonder if cities like Flint will ever come come up in the Oval Office if any of these candidates are elected, Republican or Democrat.
The candidates needed to dig deeper. What the people want to hear is at least the foundations of a broadly applicable solution that can not only provide sustainable assistance to Flint, but to cities in similar situations across the nation. We may now be able to pick up any national newspaper and read an article about Flint, but what about Houston Count, Alabama? Claiborne Parish, Louisiana? These areas have also been drastically impacted by lead poisoning, with at least 40% of children testing positive. What about the city of Detroit shutting off water in local households because the government can’t even scrounge enough money to provide residents with this basic human right? These are the topics citizens need their president to be well-versed on.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire the Democrats for broaching domestic concerns that never should be a problem in the first place in a developed country, but it’s not enough to call it what it is. Foreign policy, terrorism, and other international affairs that stole the limelight in both debates are nevertheless pressing, but how are we supposed to be taken seriously abroad when we have citizens dying because our government can’t provide clean water?
Democratic candidates Sanders and Clinton are expected to face off in Flint this coming March per a demand of the Hillary campaign. Only then we will see if the candidates actually have a practical and satisfying solution.