September 30, 2008
In one frenzied month Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke remade Wall Street. Along the way they may also have recast American politics. A month of historic government interventions shows signs of triggering a political version of climate change – unleashing a new era of class fury that could hurt U.S. companies, business leaders, and wealthy investors for years.
“A potential calamity,” predicts Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. “If the reactions we’re seeing hold, we could have real spasmodic anger directed at businesses and corporations.” And the timing will have consequences, says financier and onetime GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “Unfortunately, politicians have seized on the politics of envy,” he told Fortune, “and they are stoking it this election year like I’ve never seen in my lifetime.”
Compared to this, Enron was a warm-up exercise. For all the public outrage over accounting scandals seven years ago, the result in Washington was limited to a financial reporting rule that most Americans have never heard of (though many in the business community still consider Sarbanes-Oxley a destructive overreaction).
By contrast, the implosion of Wall Street, followed by Paulson’s escalating series of multibillion-dollar rescues, has fired up populist sentiments that were already building in American politics, promising to reshape legislative battles over everything from tax and trade policies to federal regulation. Union leaders like the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney suddenly sound as if they’re in the mainstream of public opinion with statements like this: “One thing is certain. No one – no politician, no investment banker, no television commentator, no economist – should be able to say again with a straight face that here in the United States we just let markets do whatever markets do and everything works out for the best.”