The Rust in Rust-Belt Politics

I have spent months, at this point, mentally drafting various summaries of my year in local politics. While I have believed for quite some time that the saga of Lakewood Hospital would not genuinely end with this fall’s election, regardless of its results, now is probably nonetheless as good a time as any to make some conclusions about what I’ve learned.

I must confess that, while I did not take victory for granted, none of my draft versions were really about specific results one way or another… but faced with multiple bitter losses, that suddenly pushed aside most other musings. During many restless hours last night, I basically threw everything out and started my analysis over from scratch.

One of the blessings of age, I suppose, is that at this point I have seen electoral fortunes violently reversed more than once, and some kind of life goes on. Discouraging as this may be in general, it’s now more difficult to react to any specific reverse like it’s the end of the world than it was, say, 11 years ago. It’s even more difficult since I always recall the column turned in by the local media’s token conservative* after Barack Obama’s re-election; even accepting just for argument’s sake his very different perceptions of the outcome, coming from a middle-aged adult it was just so absurdly fucking over-the-top that the memory acts as a check any time I get close to a similar reaction. Even I can’t take one election result that seriously any more.

As useful as this probably is, however, it also leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. I feel silly going to that extreme. But I find the opposite extreme equally silly. One Lakewood personality** seems to demonstrate this regularly, including this morning, i.e. “hey, we’re all neighbors; so many people on both sides tried very hard to do what’s best for the community, that’s something great.” Yeah no. I don’t believe anything of the sort. But what do I say instead that doesn’t shade into childish pronouncements of doom?

I believe I’ve figured it out. What’s more, a lot of it has already appeared here on this blog, and much of it wasn’t even my own opinion. In one of the many ironies of this whole shambles, I can base most of my complaints about what yesterday’s defeat represents on statements by the very same editorial board that has lobbied consistently for said defeat.

I’ve concluded that the biggest problem underlying both the orchestrated sellout of Lakewood’s (publicly owned) hospital, and the electorate that essentially said “carry on then,” is the same underlying problem of this entire region. Civic function in greater Cleveland fossilized decades ago.

In recent years I have been groping toward the idea of an “iron triangle,” formed by the local money, media and government. I think today I took it a step further.

Like so many communities, corporate incumbents and the affiliated wealthy and well-connected have captured much of local government. Nothing really shocking there, unfortunately. The past half-century, meanwhile, has seen what substantive local journalism once existed reduced from a watchdog to a narcoleptic toy poodle. This is not unusual, either, though Cleveland is about as hard-hit in this regard as any city in America.

What really completes the stranglehold in this area, however, is a more general stagnation. The big corporate and individual deep pockets in Cleveland are, I feel safe in saying, pretty well set in their ways. They’ve mostly sorted out relations between themselves to the point where they can operate as a unified bloc—and Cleveland doesn’t see a whole lot of billion-dollar startups coming along to provoke even limited dissension within corporate ranks. Not least because Cleveland remains a net exporter of people, particularly the most ambitious, which also leaves the electorate comprised mostly of settled incumbents…

…and I think a lot of that electorate has just resigned itself to conforming to the rest of the system.

One of the metaphors that has come to mind for Lakewood, of late, is that of a hospice patient. (Don’t tell my friends, but I suspected that this was likely the long term reality even if the hospital can be saved.) I can’t help imagining that yesterday’s vote, most of which took the form of non-voting, amounted to that patient sighing “I just want to expire peacefully and not be bothered.” I’m pretty sure that if an “expire peacefully” option existed, it looked nothing like voters’ actual choices, mind you. Voting confidence in a government that wants to sell out a public asset, that should provide both revenue and services, in exchange for some magic beans is not going to produce palliative comfort. Our economic base will further erode, services will further diminish and taxes will further increase, population loss will continue, repeat. (Sorry Lakewood, but I think you just voted yourself into a choice between converting your hospice center into a work-share system, or discharging yourself to search for a different one.)

Yet this seems to be the pattern in Lakewood, and Cleveland in general. Politics seems to be almost exclusively a top-down operation, for the benefit of the top and at a long-term cost to the entire polity.

The people in power say: re-elect the same old power structure, and voters do so.
The people in power say: support regressive taxes for sports arenas, an “arts” slush fund, the port authority (whatever it does). Voters do so.
The people in power say: what we need is a new boulevard to speed affluent people through a disadvantaged area to another affluent neighborhood, and despite eloquent and informed criticism it goes forward.
The people in power say: responsibility for justice and fair policing is best left in the hands of those running things now, and there it stays.
The people in power say: the best way that you, average citizen, can get invested in your community’s fortunes is by rooting for the Browns, Indians and Cavs. Average citizens duly invest in them, and cooperate in their own exclusion from decisions about what actually makes (or unmakes) a functioning community.

As a further idea, still a bit vague, I suspect that in Cleveland (and Lakewood) we have a perfect example of a “conservative liberal city.” Lakewood’s population in particular reliably votes for state and national representatives who strongly advocate placing community interests ahead of corporate exploitation. (Lakewood regularly voted for Dennis Kucinich before his district was obliterated, for god’s sake.) Yet locally, voters don’t seem to know what to do besides just deferring to the powers-that-be.Lakewood is shrinking, yet the school board asks for more tax money to fund a massive building program and regular generous raises for the superintendent; instead of asking questions about real value to the community (or even just to students) voters just rubber-stamp the tax increase and feel good about themselves. Incumbency is an almost insurmountable advantage. Yesterday—either through active support or through non-voting—Lakewood gave its consent to the Cleveland Clinic intentionally siphoning the life out of a community-owned hospital while claiming that it’s doing us a favor. At the same time, though, almost every incumbent won, including two members of city council who have helped block the consummation of this plan for the past 11 months…

…though it may be that they, too, demonstrate the paralyzing status quo bias. While someone has obviously been stalling the demands of the mayor and the (open captive of the Cleveland Clinic) Lakewood Hospital Association all year, not one current member of council has made even one direct, public statement to the effect that “this proposal is wrong, I oppose it and here’s why.” Presumably, keeping their place inside the system just seems more important.

I presume something similar is at work with individuals elsewhere inside the system who actually go on record decrying it in general terms, but always stand up for the same system whenever any specific decision is at hand. I’m just going to fling shame aside and quote myself, dissecting a Plain Dealer editorial board round-table:

Christopher Evans thunders that nothing will change until Cleveland “replaces a tired, old administration of double-dippers and political hacks with young, vibrant leaders with vision.” It’s difficult to argue… But as the saying goes, “physician, heal thyself.” If this editorial board wants to see tired old hacks depart from local leadership, the best thing it could do is resign en masse.

Elizabeth Sullivan opines that “more must be done to curtail the corrosive costs of exurban sprawl.” But the Cleveland Clinic’s plan to shutter the hospital in older, inner suburb Lakewood and pursue expansion in sprawly Avon still gets a thumbs-up from the board! More than one board member makes comments similar to Thomas Suddes’s focus on “the basics” of good streets, schools, public services, etc… But year in and year out the editorial board bangs its drum loudest for expensive wheezes like publicly subsidized sports arenas and new freeways.

In the big picture, I’m just not sure how this changes other than the completely unexpected. When you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up… but what would that mean? I think a key part of this fossilized civic structure is that it is flexible, still, in terms of managing ongoing decline. I’m sure some crisis could genuinely shake things up, but I think it would probably take us out of the realm of dystopian fiction and approach the apocalyptic.

As for Lakewood, well, there is still a lawsuit against the Clinic, and a couple of investigative agencies have requests before them to intervene as well. For the time being, though, I’m switching over to low expectations in a big way. “Elections have consequences,” as they say, and I’ve got a feeling those include indirect consequences even in the judicial branch. Justice is not actually blind, as we know. I have the feeling that it will now be much more difficult convincing a local judge to draw down the enmity of Cleveland Clinic, the sympathetic local affluent in general, and the captive local media.

Frankly, why should he fight for Lakewood when Lakewood won’t?

* I decline to name him because I don’t want to contribute to his undeserved legitimization. If you’re really curious, though, contact me and I’ll find the link.

** I’m not naming him, in contrast, because he seems like a generous, kind soul and I don’t want to kick him even if I think he’s embarrassingly naive.

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