The Consumer Republic

Controlled Substance
As a platform from which to launch a political career, Saturday Night Live is second only to the professional wrestling ring. So perhaps it was no coincidence that New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani showed up in the great presidential primary state of Iowa one year after he appeared on SNL in wig, support hose and flour-sack falsies.
His drag act may have set the image of Italian American womanhood back 30 years, but it helped to attract a large crowd of heartlanders curious to know what the mayor with undeclared-but-obvious-presidential ambitions looked like in a suit.
Conventional wisdom claims no New York mayor has a chance in the national political
arena, the notion being that city slickers from the Northeast are too parochial to relate to the rest of the country (although I’ve never understood why this logic does not apply equally to senators from Mississippi). Yet if ever there were a Big Apple politician who could beat the jinx, it’s Giuliani, the mayor who made New York City safe for Midwestern tourists.
On Rudy’s watch, the capital of pushy belligerence and mugger malevolence has become as family friendly as Disneyland and as consumer-focused as an upscale suburban mall. Iowans and the rest of the nation deserve to know how our quality-of-life crusader got the job done. He started in his first administration by ridding the streets of squeegee men and the homeless, urban pariahs no one in New York cared to defend. Then he turned on taxi cab drivers, hot dog vendors and newsstand operators, hounding these enemies of civic order to the full extent of the law–and sometimes beyond it.
But what really earned Giuliani the not-so-affectionate nickname “Benito” (after Mussolini, who improved the quality of vita in his day by making the trains run on time) was when he took on the average, impatient, foul-mouthed New Yorker, chiding us for incivility and calling out the boys in blue to punish lapses in public manners.
Recently, he made time between visits to New Hampshire and Iowa to sic the cops on jerks who block street intersections and on slobs who litter public transportation. If you’re caught drinking morning coffee on the subway, you face a $25 fine. Drop a gum wrapper? That’ll be 50 bucks. Welcome to Singapore on the Hudson. How Rudy would micromanage the behavior of Americans from the Oval Office is harder to imagine. Perhaps instead of beat cops handing out summonses to jaywalkers, we’ll have FBI agents cruising Wal-Mart parking lots nationwide, ready to clamp the cuffs on able-bodied shoppers parked in handicapped-only spaces.
Giuliani is a Hobbesian; he believes that without the police power of the state to enforce the common good, life is nasty, brutish and short-tempered. Consider: The law against food and drink in the subway has been on the books for years, but as one shrewd observer who serves on the Transit Authority board said, “Nothing straightens people out like handing out a few tickets.”
Thomas Hobbes would seem an unlikely philosophical hero in the age of hyper-democracy,
yet it seems the author of Leviathan is newly relevant. New Yorkers, sensing a J. Edgar Hoover creepiness in a prosecutor-turned-mayor who likes to dress in women’s clothes, don’t much like Giuliani–but would re-elect him if term limits didn’t forbid it. After all, Hobbes was right: Selfish, rude creatures do make public life unpleasant. Besides, if the Consumer Republic values anything, it’s the quality of life.
There is, of course, a more direct way to promote public civility: inculcating citizens with respect for others and the civic space we all share. But I don’t see this happening any time soon in an economy which permits and even encourages consumers to flip the bird at anyone who dares to tell us to sit up straight or say please and thank you. We’re a society that, judging by the number of ad campaigns aimed at “nonconformists,” worships iconoclasts who “make their own rules.” Having abandoned internal restraint, we submit to the external kind.
The Consumer Republic is driven by a deep contradiction. Many of its citizens are famous for being anti-government. They feel public institutions are unfit to run our schools, manage our prisons or collect our garbage. The freedom they want is freedom of choice, which public institutions do not provide. Yet these same advocates of the withering away of the state are reconciled to police power–public and private.
In gated communities and private towns that represent the cutting edge of ex-urban housing, “citizens” pay good money to submit to managements that enforce the good life with far more
discipline than Giuliani’s administration would ever dare. Consumers will give up a lot of rights to protect their freedom to enjoy the lifestyle of their choice. Campaigner Giuliani is counting on it.