The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Soda Wars Spread to California, Point to Future of US Politics

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg concentrated on monitoring soda sizes in the months before Hurricane Sandy turned large stretches of his city into dark and freezing refugee camps.

At least one city in California shares the mayor’s sense of what matters. The New York Times reports that Richmond, California is now preparing to become the first city in the country to tax businesses for selling sugary drinks, rather than simply taxing the drinks themselves. The ballot initiative has become a contentious issue, and the rhetoric is already getting rather heated:

“We’ve been taking on Chevron for so many years, and now we’re taking on Big Soda as well, because we know that corporate entities are buying elections and unduly influencing cities and our nation,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said in an interview in her City Hall office. “We’re trying to show the Richmond community that we don’t have to sit back and let them take control of our lives. We can stand up to them.”

The measure has its share of supporters, but it has drawn the ire of the city’s minority communities, who worry that the proposal could seriously hurt minority-owned businesses:

Black and Hispanic leaders say the alliance, whose most prominent leaders are white, failed to reach out to them before moving ahead on a tax that would disproportionately affect small businesses and consumers in their communities. Supporters have said that the tax would combat child obesity, which is highest among black children in Richmond, according to a local study.

“They’re using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us,” said Nathaniel Bates, a veteran councilman whose campaign for re-election has received $157,000 from Moving Forward, a coalition that is heavily financed by Chevron. “We’re tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve renamed them Plantation Alliance.”

It’s hard to ignore their concerns. With black unemployment on the rise across the country, local politicians would do better to worry more about allowing businesses to thrive in minority communities rather than taxing those businesses for serving sodas. Unfortunately, it looks like blue California is learning all the wrong lessons from blue New York.

The 2012 presidential election has brought the coalition of white “progressives” and African American and Hispanic groups together into a powerful force that may well re-elect President Obama. But that coalition is more fragile than it looks; many liberal white “progressives” scoff at the economic growth agenda that minority communities desperately need. Win or lose tomorrow, GOP operatives and policy wonks should think deeply about what is happening in Richmond; the biggest long term divide in America may be between those who think we need more growth and those who think our economy is too big and too vulgar already.

Published on November 5, 2012 3:22 pm