Thursday, November 12, 2009
I should probably stop reading the New York Times.
ST. LOUIS – So long as Budweiser, the King of Beers, was enthroned in this pleasant and nobly resilient middle American city, the blows of corporate condescension from the other giants who abandoned the Gateway Arch could be endured.
But then, last year, came a kidney punch that still hurts: Anheuser-Busch, which had survived Prohibition and the micro-brew craze, was sold to a Belgian brewer. Bud was now Euro-beer. Next they’ll tell us Huck Finn had a taste for éclairs as he floated down the Mississippi.
Board members, those solid citizens of St. Louis, made a pile in the merger that created the world’s largest brewer. But everyone else lost, including more than a 1,000 longtime employees given pink slips.
I heard the Bud buyout mentioned in the same soured breaths that exhaled expletives regarding the upcoming bonuses that will be passed around this holiday season by Wall Street firms saved by taxpayers — $30 billion in bonuses to the top three investment banks.
It takes quite a bit for Americans to say that the social contract is broken, or look upon concentrated wealth as anything except a virtue.
But we may have reached that breach. Our politics are not simply left and right, conservative and liberal. Never have been. Every once in a while, the great middle of independents are stirred to one side. My guess is, if the drift caused by recent actions continues, the United States will be consumed in the coming year by the politics of betrayal, and the winner will be ahead of the rage.
Right now, a time when only 20 percent of Americans call themselves Republicans and Democrats are shrinking as well, the independents are disgusted with both parties. In large part, it’s because neither one seems to be on their side.
The early warning shots came on Nov. 3, against an ineffective former Wall Street executive, ousted New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, and the billionaire mayor who barely bought himself a third term, Michael Bloomberg of New York. Both felt the back hand of an electorate that feels as if the system is rigged against them.
A year ago, most people were open-minded about the ground-shaking changes that came with the economic collapse. Polls found a slim majority in favor of Wall street bailouts to save the economy. They would listen, watch, wait.
By this fall, the majority were not only against the bailouts, but in favor of curbing pay on Wall Street, and tightening government regulation of same.
The continuous drip of perceived unfairness continues. One day it’s news that Goldman Sachs seems to have stepped ahead of the line of those waiting to receive H1N1 vaccines, prompting questions about why investment bankers were getting doses rather than children or pregnant women. This week, Gallup found one in five parents saying they were unable to get swine flu vaccine for their children.
Another day brings a report that the top banks are raising credit card interest rates – some as high as 29 percent, which would shame a Mob extortionist — even against people who have always paid on time. This is the thanks we get?
If Congress steers through the Great Recession without responding to the thousand points of pain among average Americans, people will see them for what they are in bottom-line terms: an insulated club. Proof, just recently, came from a Center for Responsive Politics report that 237 members of Congress — 44 percent — are millionaires, compared to just 1 percent for the country as whole.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a Congress stuffed with people who don’t have to buy health care on the open market, or worry about meeting a mortgage payment. But in practice, it’s a prescription for misrepresentation. And though Congress is now trying to curb Wall Street excess, the reform effort seems headed for K Street strangulation.
Two things will define which way the rage goes next year: health care, and the fate of the feeble economic recovery. Again, forget liberal and conservative labels. In recent Gallup polls, 54 percent of Americans perceived Barack Obama’s policies to be “mostly liberal” and an identical margin approved of his presidency. This in a country where only 20 percent are self-described liberals.
If health care reform gives people a choice, and doesn’t just fatten the rolls of insurance companies, it will be something to run on. If the recovery helps millions of people who don’t have a well-staffed lobby in Washington, it too will be a plus.
History, as always, is a guide for these American moments.
There was once a political party that came out against concentration of wealth. They called for regulation of food, drugs, and big corporations. Called for “square deal” for the average American. And their robust spokesman, the leader of their party, said this of his countrymen:
“There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensitive to every duty, regardless of principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.”
That party was the Republicans, a bit more than century ago, led by Teddy Roosevelt.
The next governing majority will be guided by independents, and include liberals, conservatives and people whose great-grandparents left the Republican Party a century ago. It will also include a whole lot of Budweiser drinkers, wondering how the world changed so quickly, without them.