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Susan J. Demas Headshot

Yes, Virginia, You Can Be Too Cynical About Politics

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I am a hopeless romantic. Give me a glass of wine, a fireplace and a little Lord Byron, and I'm a happy woman.

I have been known to reread certain works, silently cheering for Catherine and Heathcliff, Gatsby and Daisy, even Henry Miller and Anais Nin to surprise me and make it in the end. Whatever the quandary -- pride, family feuds, class warfare, decades-long age difference -- it can be overcome, or should be, anyway.

Of course, I was born in the wrong era, that of internet porn, trashy talk shows with their "Who's the babydaddy?" slapfests and endless bromance movies where dudes get each other in a way their dour wives never could.

And I apparently work in the wrong field, because romance and politics rarely go hand in hand (unless you discover your Argentinean soulmate on the Appalachian Trail) and it probably won't end well, anyway.

But researching budget crises, health care policy and the environmental meltdown has a way of keeping you grounded and giving you perspective.

Nowadays, it's fashionable to be politically apathetic and personally narcissistic, posting your breakfast consumption for all to see on the Twitter. Whenever my 6-year-old throws a tantrum about some toy she absolutely needs to get this instant, I refocus her attention by reminding her of all the kids in this state, country and world who don't even have a roof over their heads. And I usually turn on the news to demonstrate that the world is a pretty big place, praying that there's not some insipid segment playing on Michael Jackson.

I recommend the same shock therapy for self-obsessed adults.

Now admittedly, my political column is pretty jaded ("You know, for a young thing, you sure sound like an old guy," an editor recently told me). And whenever I talk to my Capitol press corps colleagues, it's a bit of an unspoken contest to see just who can be the most cynical.

Doses of suspicion and realism are necessary for good reporting. We're subjected to endless press conferences pushing petty political agendas (and gnat-like PR flacks berating us for not printing their spin verbatim like ideologically friendly blogs). As a political analyst, I can cut through some of the bull and tell readers what's really going on behind Michigan Democrats' calls for drug lawsuit reform (winning back the Senate in '10) and Attorney General Mike Cox's crusade for, well, anything (he's running for governor, in case you haven't heard).

The funny thing is when politicians huffily sniff that we've gotten it all wrong. ("I just care about the people, man. How could you even suggest that this is about politics? Only the Democrats/Republicans would try to gain political advantage off this. I'm pure.")

Yes, most public officials have earned our skepticism. Nixon's Watergate opened the floodgates. Bill Clinton's obsessive spin machine and personal foibles after his corny "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" shtick didn't restore any trust. By the time G.W. Bush recklessly lied us into a deficit-exploding, Middle East-destabilizing war, we were used to it. And when Barack Obama holds a Bush-style, invite-only event in Macomb County, we snark, "That's not change you can believe in."

For most political reporters, there's deep distrust of the system as a whole. Ask any Lansing journalist if a piece of legislation is going to pass or the budget will be resolved with time to spare, and his default answer will be "Hell, no."

But you know what? I think we could use a little just a dash of romanticism and idealism after decades of doubt. Maybe not every official is lazy, craven or incompetent and we shouldn't automatically assume that of everyone who comes up here -- we can wait and see what he does. I can happily report that I know of at least a handful of politicians who are a genuinely fine individuals and brilliant to boot. There have to be others.

But more than that, maybe, just maybe, there is a way to make the process better. Several groups like Detroit Renaissance are advocating reforms to reshape and reimagine the Great Lakes State.

At the top of the heap is the nonpartisan Center for Michigan, which has been holding small meetings attended by 5,000 residents across the state. These aren't bitch sessions; participants have proposed viable solutions for everything from improving the business climate to local government collaboration. Look for the Center to play a big role in next year's election.

Founder Phil Power has a simple goal: He wants a better Michigan, one in which his grandchildren will want to live. So do I, which is why I've done some research projects for his group.

Want to know what the chattering classes think about the Center's efforts? Pie-in-the-sky vanity project by a guy who wants to run for governor. Which is just a bunch of baloney. I briefly worked for the former HomeTown Communications CEO. He is nothing if not brutally honest. When Phil says your piece stinks, it probably does. And when he says he's not running for anything, well, I'd take it to the bank.

But more than that, he's taken on the Herculean task of trying to fix the most depressed state in the nation. I don't know if the Center will succeed -- many have tried and failed -- but it's the best grassroots effort I've seen and it's being steered by the smartest minds in the state. Power deserves a little more credit and a little less cynicism.

When political insiders start to pummel those who are sincerely trying to make a difference, maybe we shouldn't be surprised when only the calculated and corrupt stick around.