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. \nRepublicans used to detest New York as a heaving pit of liberalism, but since Sept. 11 the city has become a patriotic icon. This Republican fund-raising gala was in a Washington hotel, but the imagery was a pastiche of New York street life, complete with street signs and a mock facade of Yankee Stadium. The catering followed the same theme. \nThese 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. \n"I think it's great because I think folks would rather be eating hot dogs with President Bush than sipping wine and nibbling cheese with Hillary Clinton," declared Senator George Allen of Virginia. \nThe 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 realize the great promise of this country." \nHe promised to reach out to those Americans "who seem hopelessly lost, some who hurt, some who are lonely." \nThis is President George W. Bush's trademark -- language that was once the preserve of black Baptist churches and Democratic party rallies. \nBut 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. \nThe men and women in the ballroom had paid a minimum of US$1,500 for their hot dogs, and almost all of them had contributed much, much more. The single night brought the Republican party a total of US$14 million. \nBush has so far raised US$83 million for his primary campaign, more than all nine Democratic contenders put together, even though he does not have an opponent inside his party. \nThis 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 US$2,000, and more of them are chief executives who vie with each other to become honored Republican "Rangers" or "Pioneers", by putting together US$200,000 and US$100,000 "bundles" of contributions from their employees and friends. \n"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 Center for Public Integrity. \nThe 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. \nThe richest 1 percent of Americans now own well over 40 percent of their nation's wealth. It is a skewed distribution that sets the US apart from other modern industrialized nations. In Britain, widely viewed in America as the embodiment of social stratification, the richest 1 percent owns a mere 18 percent of the wealth. \nThese 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 leveling incomes and wealth after World War II, inequality began to rise exponentially from 1980, driven principally by the boom in stock prices and the decline in unions. \nDifferentials 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. \nNearly half the benefits of Bush's US$1.35 trillion tax cut in 2001 went to the richest 1 percent, while 60 percent of this year's cuts will go to taxpayers with incomes of more than US$100,000, according to the tax policy center run by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution in Washington. \nBush also fought hard to repeal an inheritance tax that affected only the wealthiest 2 percent, as well as cutting capital gains tax and trying to abolish the tax on dividends. \nThe Bush cabinet also stands out for its big money background. Every member is a millionaire and, the Center for Public Integrity says, its total net worth is more than 10 times that of the Clinton cabinet. \nPresident Bush may not be the cause of America's unequal society, but the members of his administration arguably personify a new plutocracy. \nIn 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. \n"It's the second plutocracy after the gilded age," 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." \nYet it would be hard to imagine a country less ripe for social upheaval. \nBush may be politically vulnerable in the approach to elections a year from now, but he remains favorite 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. \nFor outsiders, the absence of class-based politics is the enduring mystery of American society. Among US analysts it is a matter of ideological disagreement. \nDavid 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. \nRed America eats meat loaf and votes for George Bush because it identifies with his cultural values. Its people are not envious of the top 1 percent of the population, 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. \n"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. \n"They compare themselves with their neighbors." \nPaul Krugman, a Princeton economist and 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. \n"There has been a tremendously successful campaign to shift the focus from economic elitism to cultural elitism," Krugman said. \n"Because the president uses short words and talks tough, he is seen as an ordinary guy." \nCertainly, most Americans appear to take Bush at face value -- as a plain spoken, 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. \nHis 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. \nThe 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." \nIn 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.
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