Ryan Messer, president of the Over-the-Rhine community council, recently wrote of the need for a party that represents “urban interests.” Such a party, he says, would be fiscally responsible but socially progressive. Messer, who recently married his partner in Washington Park and lives in the highly gentrified area south of Liberty Street, laments the fact that neither the Republican or Democratic party matches the interests of the “urbanists” in the city. Without a shred of irony, Messer describes the process that the basin has undergone over the last decade or so:
In the past, the urban core of a city was predominately [sic] poor and Democratic, but that’s changing as people nationally and locally are moving back to the inner city, driving up property values. Those who are willing to pay a half million dollars or more for a condo tend to lean fiscally right yet embrace such socially progressive issues as urban renewal, transit and same sex marriage. For which party should they vote? The answer, it seems, is neither.
He paints the transformation of Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding area as being of a natural origin, and that the new richer residents are moving in as a result of–not a constituent part of–that process. This description is tone-deaf to actual forces at play in more ways than one. His narrative is completely self-serving, Messer is a property owner and he has flaunted his class interests in the past. During the debate around the streetcar, Messer, a leader in the “Believe in Cincinnati” movement, made issue of the fact that his family’s financial interests were tied to the continuation of the project. He went so far as to threaten a lawsuit in order to “protect” his family’s investments along the proposed route. And in this latest opinion piece he ties Obama winning re-election in 2012 to his and his husband’s ability to file taxes jointly in 2014 (seeming to make the cause of gay marriage out to be over an economic relation, but that’s another discussion).
These show two great disconnects with reality. First, Messer ignores the fact that the majority of the non-voting electorate are the people he identifies as the traditional population of the urban core–”poor and Democratic.” Blacks make up about a quarter of Cincinnati’s population, and about three quarters in OTR. This population has faced obstacles to actually being able to vote that harken back to the Jim Crow Era. Black men, disproportionately targeted by the racist and corrupt criminal justice system, the “New Jim Crow,” face high levels of disenfranchisement based on criminal histories, along with a slew of other setbacks coming out of prison that affect their ability to find housing, education and employment.
Even so, in the last presidential election Historic Black turnouts were a key indicator early on of an Obama victory. However, in the area of OTR north of Liberty, which still has largely black streets and is relatively untouched by the gentrification in the neighborhood’s southern half, voter turnout in the last presidential election was lower than black turnout overall (about 40% of registered voters in the precinct turning out, with 66% black turnout nationwide). But Messer’s focus is a different population, a wealthier, more conservative group, which have not been historically apathetic or disenfranchised in the political system in America. On the contrary, this group is representative of policy makers, now and historically.
The second disconnect is Messer’s blindness to the economic interests of the majority of the residents of Over-the-Rhine. For Messer, who shares the viewpoint of many gentry, this population, utilizing social services and living in affordable housing and working low paying jobs and paying low or no taxes, represent more of a passive group to be dictated to than one to be activated for their own shared interests (which are counterposed to his). Messer is in favor of protections for those of a minority race, gender and sexual orientation–good things–but he does not mention having similar protections for the class of people who are economically disadvantaged which the capitalist system requires as part of its base structure. And this unspoken part is very important, because what he doesn’t say is that the economic protections that do exist are for a specific economic class: his own. Messer’s financial interests rely on the continued displacement of this economically disadvantaged population, which is the policy in OTR. Property owners receive tax breaks and capital funds unavailable to residents. This is true no matter how many times he or people like him tout OTR’s “economic diversity.” Urban renewal, or “renaissance” as Messer calls it, always comes on the back of the lowest class of people. And Cincinnati’s poor, especially its poor blacks, are no exception, having been cleared out of Bucktown and Kenyan-Barr and now OTR over the course of the city’s history.
Putting those things aside for a moment, Messer seems completely devoid of any idea of what actual “urban” people want. An often circulated Pew poll from 2011 reported that youth voters favor socialism to capitalism by a slim margin (49 percent compared to 43 percent). The poll also showed very high acceptance of the idea of socialism among blacks at 66 percent. Taken as an indication of crude economic interests, this poll points to the opposite of what Messer sees: that a growing number of people favor an end to the capitalist economic system and its (disingenuous) espousal of fiscal responsibility. This dovetails with a more recent Gallup poll which showed 60% of the American population wants a new party.
Messer’s desire for a “government that’s fiscally responsible and helps those who are disadvantaged and protects everyone regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation” is a stark neoliberal vision of society that separates out economic and social policy to better control the both areas. Neoliberal capitalism, like capitalism in all forms, divides the working class along the same lines he describes (and countless others) so that business and property owners can reap the profits and exert control over the economic system at international, national, municipal, neighborhood and household levels. Such a system could never truly protect all its citizens.
Additionally, what Messer doesn’t see it that his dream party actually exists as the Charter Party in Cincinnati, which, though weakening recently, has for nearly 100 years been a somewhat electable third party alternative. It has a relatively fluid platform, but today is representative of Messer’s interests, having been led by richer, more liberal (in the classical sense) city dwellers like Jim Tarbell, Roxanne Qualls and Chris Bortz in recent years.
But really, Messer should be right at home in the Democratic Party, to which he was elected as a precinct executive. The Democrats actually have led the way in many of the more aggressive measures that would fall under the umbrella of “fiscal responsibility” both locally and nationally. Bill Clinton spearheaded historic measures for welfare reform, continuing the trend of demonization and scapegoating of the poor that was pushed by the grandfather of neoliberal policy in the United States, Ronald Reagan, back in the 1980’s. This kind of dismantling of the social safety net is central to policy around “fiscal responsibility.” Today Democrats even tout the fact that Obama’s fiscal policy more closely resembles that of Reagan than historic Democratic presidents like FDR or JFK, as if that’s some kind of virtue. Obama himself made it a point to mention repeatedly during his bid for reelection that his and Republican opponent Mitt Romney’s ideas around what to do about Social Security were more similar than different. Far from providing an alternative to poverty politics, Democrats are no stranger to insisting we need to live within our means.
In Cincinnati, Democratic or Democratic-leaning Charterites have held the mayor’s office for all but two of the last 40 years and Democrats on council have held either an outright majority or plurality for the last 25 years at least. Even so, Cincinnati’s level of poverty still stands at some of the highest in the nation, with child poverty at more than fifty percent. Racial tension has reached a breaking point more than once in this period and race relations in the city, among the most segregated in the nation, never show signs of improving.
The leaders of the Democratic party have been among the most outspoken in favor of tax breaks for companies moving their business to the city, developers doing work in OTR and property owners like Messer who are buying buildings in the neighborhood. These policies make up for the tax breaks and reduced funding by removing resources from much needed social services and social and cultural institutions, expecting the liberal free market to fill in the gaps. This trickle down economics, which fails at every step, forms the core of the modern discussion around fiscal responsibility. Democrats have been champions of policies which, instead of helping the residents in OTR who need it most, banished them from the neighborhood when they were caught up with drugs or as victims of human trafficking. This was, of course, a tactic to further clear the neighborhood and make it ripe for redevelopment. And it was Mayor Cranley who, as a Council member, pushed the Housing Impaction Ordinance, which all but openly declared that those in power don’t want the poor in OTR (though, this was couched as measure to de-concentrate poverty–read: angst–in the inner city after the 2001 uprising). Democrats have been among the most “fiscally responsible”, or “business-friendly” in the vernacular, politicians in the recent history of the city.
Messer’s apparently disenfranchised group are in reality representative of the upper echelons of policy makers in our current system. They are who would rather push for privatization than fund public schools, or who would rather prop up the insurance companies than provide adequate healthcare for all citizens, or who would rather block off roads than provide an economic system that supported poor women instead of driving them to prostitution.
In one way he’s right: there is a need for a new party. But this party should be a party of working people and the people who, even while they shout out, find their voices squelched by the likes of Messer and other economically advantaged people. We need a party that resists false notions of perceived overspending and promotes human need over all else. We need a party that recognizes that it is the working class who constitute the majority and embraces that and fights for working class issues. As long as Messer promotes ideas of “fiscal responsibility,” which have always fallen short of helping working people, this is no party he would ever feel comfortable in. And that’s a good thing.
Cross-posted from Dessemundo.com
A shortened version of this will appear in Streetvibes.
Ben Stockwell is an activist from Cincinnati who writes about class, race and social movements.