Why America's Plutocrats Gobble Up $1,500 Hot Dogs
By Julian Borger
Wednesday 05 November2003
In the final part of a series, Julian Borger examines the inequality of the Bush era
The band pumped out brassy dance tunes, many dedicated to the gritty urban realities of New York. A few couples in the black tie and taffeta crowd found a space to dance, but most milled about in the packed ballroom, gravitating towards the stage as they waited for the president.
Republicans used to detest New York as a heaving pit of liberalism, but since September 11 the city has become a patriotic icon. This Republican fundraising gala was in a Washington hotel, but the imagery was a pastiche of New York streetlife, complete with street signs and a mock facade of the Yankees' stadium. The catering followed the same theme.
These politically charged dinners are normally five-course affairs eaten off white linen, but the folksiness of the Bush White House has by now pervaded the Republican party. The menu on this night was hot dogs and peanuts, served from food carts and eaten standing up.
"I think it's great because I thinks folks would rather be eating hot dogs with President Bush than sipping wine and nibbling cheese with Hillary Clinton," declared George Allen, a Virginia senator.
The president, who marched in to an ecstatic welcome, offered rhetoric to match the humble fare. After vowing to persevere in the battle against terrorism, he turned to his domestic ambitions, "to work for a society of prosperity and compassion so that every single citizen has a chance to work and succeed and realise the great promise of this country".
He promised to reach out to those Americans "who seem hopelessly lost, some who hurt, some who are lonely".
This is President Bush's trademark - language that was once the preserve of black Baptist churches and Democratic party rallies.
But what is more extraordinary is his capacity to co-opt the populist style of his adversaries at a time when the Republicans are more than ever the party of extraordinary wealth.
The men and women in the ballroom had paid a minimum of $1,500 ( 900) for their hot dogs, and almost all of them had contributed much, much more. The single night brought the Republican party a total of $14m. Mr Bush has so far raised $83m for his primary campaign, more than all nine Democratic contenders put together, even though he does not have an opponent inside his party.
This financial superiority flows from the simple fact that the president's backers are far wealthier than those of his rivals. More of them give the maximum contribution to a presidential campaign of $2,000, and more of them are chief executives who vie with each other to become honoured Republican "Rangers" or "Pioneers", by putting together $200,000 and $100,000 "bundles" of contributions from their employees and friends.
"You don't raise that kind of money at barbecues and backyard sales. You raise it from big business," said Charles Lewis, who runs the Washington watchdog the Centre for Public Integrity.
The egalitarianism of the evening also stood in marked contrast to the reality of contemporary America, which in hard economic terms is a more divided and unequal country than at any time since the "gilded age" of the late 19th century.
The richest 1% of Americans now own well over 40% of their nation's wealth. It is a skewed distribution that sets the US apart from other modern industrialised nations. In Britain, widely viewed in America as the embodiment of social stratification, the richest 1% owns a mere 18% of the wealth.
These disparities are, of course, not solely the work of the Bush administration. The economic division of the country has been under way for 20 years. After a long period of levelling incomes and wealth after the second world war, inequality began to rise exponentially from 1980, driven principally by the boom in stock prices and the decline in unions.
Differentials continued to stretch, albeit more slowly, under the Clinton administration, despite its efforts to institute a more progressive tax policy. What sets the Bush era apart is the extent to which policy has reinforced the divide rather than sought to mitigate it.
Nearly half the benefits of Mr Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001 went to the richest 1%, while 60% of this year's cuts will go to taxpayers with incomes of more than $100,000, according to the tax policy centre run by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mr Bush also fought hard to repeal an inheritance tax that affected only the wealthiest 2%, as well as cutting capital gains tax and trying to abolish the tax on dividends.
The Bush cabinet also stands out for its big money background. Every member is a millionaire and, the Centre for Public Integrity says, its total net worth is more than 10 times that of the Clinton cabinet.
President Bush may not be the cause of America's unequal society, but the members of his administration arguably personify a new plutocracy.
In the view of Kevin Phillips, an economic historian and the author of a history of America's rich, Wealth and Democracy, you have to go back more than 100 years to find an era when big money and government were in such a tight embrace.
"It's the second plutocracy after the gilded age," Mr Phillips said. "Laissez-faire is a pretence. Government power and preferment have been used by the rich, not shunned. As wealth concentration grows, especially near the crest of a drawn-out boom, so has upper-bracket control of politics and its ability to shape its own preferment."
Yet it would be hard to imagine a country less ripe for social upheaval.
Mr Bush may be politically vulnerable in the approach to elections a year from now, but he remains favourite to win, and his opponents in the Democratic party try to avoid the language of class warfare at all costs. The "liberal" label can still spell death at the polls.
For outsiders, the absence of class-based politics is the enduring mystery of American society. Among US analysts it is a matter of ideological disagreement.
David Brooks, a commentator at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, believes the divide is cultural rather than economic. It is the divide between the urban, cosmopolitan and liberal culture of the coasts where there are "sun-dried tomato concoctions" on restaurant menus - what he calls Blue America - and the conservative, church-going, gun-owning, patriotic and mainly white culture of Red America.
Red America eats meatloaf and votes for George Bush because it identifies with his cultural values. Its people are not envious of the top 1% of the population, Mr Brooks argues, because in Red America they never meet them. Instead, they consider themselves lucky to live in their own modest communities where prices are so low they see little they cannot afford.
"I didn't find many who assessed their own place in society according to their income," he reported. "They don't compare themselves with faraway millionaires who appear on their TV screens. They compare themselves with their neighbours."
Paul Krugman, a Princeton economist and Mr Brooks' liberal counterpart on the comment pages of the New York Times, argues that this cultural divide is more manipulated than natural, and serves to mask the society's ingrained inequity.
"There has been a tremendously successful campaign to shift the focus from economic elitism to cultural elitism," Mr Krugman said. "Because the president uses short words and talks tough, he is seen as an ordinary guy."
Certainly, most Americans appear to take Mr Bush at face value - as a plainspoken, homespun Texan, rather than the scion of a wealthy East Coast family. It is hard to imagine his real social background passing so unremarked in a British election campaign.
His party has also toyed with the cultural imagery of class, in one instance arranging for party loyalists to wear street clothes and workmen's hard hats at a rally for the Bush tax cuts.
The memo sent out to would-be demonstrators stressed that "If people want to participate - AND WE DO NEED BODIES - they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types etc."
In the end, the televised rally involved the president's supporters dressed as the working poor, cheering for more money to go to the rich. It is hard to think of a more fitting tableau for Bush's America.
Jump to TO Features for Monday 10 November 2003