Michigan local leaders report little change in the tone of civic discourse in their communities, but are concerned about local impacts of increasingly hostile national partisan politics

January 2022

This report presents the opinions of Michigan’s local government leaders regarding the state of public discourse in their communities, including how constructive or divisive it is among residents, between residents and elected officials, and among the elected officials within the jurisdiction’s government. In addition, it looks at local leaders’ assessments of relationships among elected officials and residents, as well as whether they believe national partisan politics helps or hurts those relationships. These findings are based on statewide surveys of local government leaders in the Spring 2021 wave of the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS), with comparisons to the Spring 2018 and Fall 2012 MPPS waves.

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Key findings

  • While national political discourse seems to be increasingly hostile, Michigan local officials in 2021 continued to report generally positive assessments of discourse in their communities around local issues, although leaders in the state’s largest communities report higher levels of concern.
  • Assessments of discourse among local elected officials themselves remain quite optimistic. Only 6% statewide say discourse among their jurisdiction’s elected officials on local policy issues is divisive. Meanwhile, 73% say it is generally constructive, including 40% who say it is “very” constructive. These percentages are essentially unchanged since surveys in 2018 and 2012.
  • Discourse between residents and elected officials is reportedly still quite positive too, and relatively unchanged over time. Just 5% of local leaders describe discourse with residents as divisive, while 70% describe it as constructive (up slightly from 67% who characterized it as constructive in 2018). 
  • Assessments of the tone of discourse on local policy issues among residents themselves are much less optimistic, although they have generally declined only slightly over time. Overall, 35% of local leaders say residents’ discussions of local policy are constructive, compared with 38% in 2018. Meanwhile, just 14% say it is divisive (up from 11% in both 2018 and 2012). Statewide, 37% say residents’ policy discussions amongst themselves is mixed, sometimes constructive and sometimes divisive. 
  • In all three cases, local leaders from Michigan’s largest jurisdictions (those with more than 30,000 residents), those from urban jurisdictions, and those who report their governments are under high fiscal stress are more likely to describe the discourse as mixed or divisive, compared with those from other Michigan communities. The most severe decline over time is regarding discourse among residents in Michigan’s largest communities, where just 17% of local leaders say discourse is constructive, down from 28% in both 2018 and 2012.
  • Despite few changes in perceptions of the current tone of political discussions in Michigan communities, local leaders are sounding the alarm about the impacts of national partisan politics on the more fundamental issue of local relationships
    • Statewide, 61% believe the current environment of national partisan politics hurts relationships among their residents,  including 29% who say it hurts residents’ relationships significantly.
    • Almost half (45%) of local officials say that national partisan politics is hurting relationships among members of their board/council, up from only 15% who said the same just three years ago. 

Tone of discussion among local elected officials


Three quarters of local officials say discourse among their jurisdiction's elected officials is generally constructive, essentially unchanged since 2012 and 2018. Spring 2021 MPPS

Tone of discussion among residents


One third of local leaders say residents' discussions of local policy are constructive, down slightly from 2018. Spring 2021 MPPS

Impact of national partisan politics


61% of local leaders say the current environment of national partisan politics hurts relationships among their residents. Spring 2021 MPPS