Susan J. Demas: What’s the Future of the Rust Belt?

“In so many once-thriving communities, young people have fled, and the residents who do remain have grown frustrated over diminished job prospects, and are anxious about the future. The very same anger and anxiety that found an outlet at the ballot box in 2016.” — John Austin

If you’re looking for a clear, just-the-facts-ma’am look at how the industrial Midwest is changing and how that gave us President Trump, you can’t go wrong with John Austin’s new piece, “A Tale of Two Rust Belts,” for the Brookings Institution.

No, it’s not one of those cloying columns national pundits have been churning out by the dozens after spending 10 minutes chatting up laid-off workers in Warren or Youngstown. It’s a well-researched, accessibly academic article by someone who actually lives here.

Austin is a fellow at the esteemed think tank. He also was recently ousted from a job he did exceedingly well — president of the state Board of Education (more on that in a bit).

I met with Austin a few weeks before this piece was published and much of our conversation revolved around Michigan’s evolutionary growing pains. He’s deeply concerned about what happens to areas with shrinking industrial bases, like Macomb County, Flint and Saginaw, as well as the largely rural northern swath of the state that Bridge Magazine has dubbed the new “Disability Belt.”

Austin notes that many of these areas voted for Trump in 2016. In contrast, cities with highly educated workforces (which usually have a university nearby), like Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, are thriving economically and voted for Hillary Clinton.

Bridging these vast cultural, educational and political divides in Michigan is no easy task. However, Austin believes the next governor must try to do exactly that.

Once upon a time, Austin was considered a prime Democratic gubernatorial prospect for 2018. He’s deeply thoughtful and has an envy-inducing résumé in addition to Brookings and his public service: He holds a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School, directs the Michigan Economic Center and previously was founding director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan.

Austin’s work has earned him a bipartisan fan club (at least if you count old-guard Republicans). I noted last year that he might also be able to appeal to idealistic Bernie Sanders supporters.

But Austin ran into a big roadblock when he lost his 2016 re-election bid. He was rather bizarrely, and completely unfairly, targeted for his strong support of transgender students.

After spearheading the drive for completely voluntary school guidelines for trans kids, Austin butted heads with fellow board member Eileen Weiser, whose husband, Ron Weiser, is now Michigan Republican Party chair. The Detroit News — which used to run periodic editorials practically begging the GOP to drop incendiary stands on social issues and focus on conservative economics — ran staff columns siding with the culture warriors replete with the “special rights” canard straight out of the 1990s.

It’s unconscionable for anyone to make our most vulnerable children into a cheap and easy political target. And it’s admirable that Austin was willing to stand up for them.

That’s the kind of courage we could use in the governor’s mansion. But that’s not the next fight Austin is planning to take on. Instead, he’s looking to assist with Michigan’s future in other ways. For starters, he’ll be following up on his Brookings piece on on what can be done at the state and national level to help hollowed-out Rust Belt cities and those who still live there.

That sounds like the sort of thing people who are running for the state’s highest office just might want to pay attention to.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.