COMMENTARY | CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Back in the '70s, before the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and the NFL's Carolina Panthers came along, before Bank of America became the most beloved corporation in America, my hometown was known for three things: 'Racin, 'Rasslin and Religion. Back then, NASCAR and pro wrestling were held in tiny towns and venues, and evangelicals still held their revivals in huge circus tents on the outskirts of town instead of megachurches.
ESPN, Ted Turner and the PTL Club changed all that.
The Washington Post once called Charlotte "the city that never wakes."
But really, we are the city that loves business. Don't be fooled by the buckle of the Bible belt stuff. It's a smokescreen. Business, not religion, is the god here. Trust me. We took our entertainment, the three Rs, and turned them into gold. And then we started buying banks and didn't stop until we had gotten two of the biggest in America, too big to fail.
That's what they were protesting in Charlotte this weekend—the city's banking practices.
Now, with Charlotte's crowning moment, the Democratic National Convention, only a day away, what Barack Obama needs to understand is that Charlotte is first and foremost a corporate town, a Wall Street Journal town, a commerce town. More than any other town in America that I know of, Charlotte's yardstick is money. There is no state government here, no big-name university, no labor unions—the normal tripod of liberal politics. In picking Charlotte, Obama chose the town most likely to rebel at any thought of government regulation.
Truth be known, per capita, Charlotte's Wild West—a.k.a. California—banking practices did more to wreck the global economy than any city in the world. Sigh. So proud. Wachovia, from conservative Charlotte, had to be bailed out by Wells Fargo, from liberal San Francisco. Who's conservative? Yet most bankers don't want regulations like Glass Steagall put back in place. Just ask 'em. Secretly, bankers like their odds in the current system of casino capitalism.
If they win, they keep the profits.
If they lose, taxpayers bail them out again.
(Yes Matt Damon. Inside Job II is here for the making.)
Sure, Charlotte has a Democratic mayor and a Democratic city council and a Democratic county commission. But the business people in this town are the ruling class, and they tell the political class how it's going to be. All the bank leaders, including Democrats, voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and most are supporting Mitt Romney this time. Why? Here's a hint: Business Week reviewed Peter Applebome's 1996 book Dixie Rising thusly: "With an astute eye and painterly writing, Applebome takes us to such places as ultraconservative Cobb County, Ga., dollar-hungry Charlotte, N.C ..."
When a friend came to work for Bank of America some 20 years ago, fresh out of college, his uncle told him, "You're moving to the city with no soul." I was downtown last weekend having wine at Wooden, and we were looking down Tryon Street, a.k.a. Wall Street South. From the sidewalk, it's a stunning scene: Platinum skyscrapers. Rococo arts museums. Swank condos. All surrounded by tree-lined sidewalks, five-star restaurants and surface parking lots full of BMWs.
With prosperity came some soul. The bankers lured Johnson & Wales main campus here, and the Queen City has become a great restaurant town. But the DNA is business. Bank of America built out North Tryon, and Wachovia built out South Tryon. As fellow taxpayers who helped bail out Bank of America, we'd like to thank y'all. Everything is new here, kind of an homage to the denizens of khaki-wearing young Republicans who come from Wharton and UVA and Duke to make their millions in finance. Little girls here don't dream of marrying a doctor—too bourgeoisie. They dream of a banker, a trader or a corporate raider.
At lunchtime, uptown Charlotte looks like a Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity reunion from Chapel Hill as well-heeled 30-somethings in khakis, Ferragamos and Polos wander back into the bank boxes for more hours staring at screens. Richard Rohr, the brilliant Catholic priest who visited here last year, once made the observation of bankers: "They make nothing. No thing." They shuffle paper around all day, or they make trades with a touch of a button but they make no thing.
His point was it is a disconnect from the soul.
There have always been very close ties between capitalism and religion here. Back in 1933, in the American Mercury, Charlottean W. J. Cash wrote a story about Charlotte titled Close View of a Calvinist Lahsa.
"One takes what the pastor of the First Presbyterian is thinking, or takes what the Duke Power Company is thinking, and one arrives at the editorial page of The Charlotte Observer—the very living mirror of the Charlotte mind and a catechism for all true believers. 'The Bible,' it appears, 'is the best textbook of biology.' … The cotton mill barons, it seems, are Little Flowers, and the Duke Power Company, a sort of orphan asylum for small, wet kittens."
Substitute "cotton mill barons" for bankers, "depression" for recession, and you have Charlotte 2012.
It's also human nature. If you're around people who are millionaires all day long, they are your peers. You want to live like they do. If you missed the first wave of risk-free alpha, you can be sure our would-be Rockefellers have their bets down before the next too-big-to-fail crisis comes along.
Charlotte native Billy Graham got his big push in 1949, when at a tent revival in Los Angeles, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst heard him preaching a pro-capitalism message. The Rupert Murdoch of his day, Hearst sent his editors a two-word telegram—for you kids that would be like Twitter—telling them to "Puff Graham." Hearst helped make the Charlotte native a Christian star, pastor to presidents. By default , evangelical Christianity and unbridled capitalism became America's twin religions.
Former Charlotte Observer cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Marlette once told me for an article in Charlotte magazine, "In Charlotte, everything is done under the guise of Christianity. But it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the cult of mammon. Charlotte is about money and moi.
"Me-first Christianity. It is the cult of narcissism. Everybody laughed at Jim and Tammy Bakker, but they were the prophets of what Charlotte is becoming today."
If religion and business are right out of the Republican platform, why did Charlotte not get the GOP?
From my sources, the GOP told Charlotte don't bother; we're not interested in North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. We're going after Florida and its 29 electoral votes. Great move, except, why the Ayn Rand acolyte from Wisconsin and not Marco Rubio? Whatever. We in Charlotte hope ya'll enjoyed the Grand Old Party—and by grand old party, I mean St. Pete, shuffleboard and Dirty Harry's moving soliloquy against aging.
Regardless, I think you can pretty much rest assured Charlotte's bankers are back in the GOP fold. When Obama said the private sector was doing fine, he got castigated. When Mitt Romney said big business was doing fine, partially because of sheltering money off-shore, he might as well have been speaking for himself. He is big business, and he is doing fine because he's sheltering money in the Caymans.
Welcome to Charlotte, Democrats!
Don't be fooled by religion. It doesn't matter if Romney is a Mormon; the evangelicals who blast you for not being a Christian don't care. It's a smoke-and-mirrors game. Mitt could be an agnostic Martian and people would vote for him if they think he will help the economy. The bottom line here, Mr. Obama, is the bottom line. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.