The feds, freedom, and Schlitz

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting take on a provocative poll result from Rasmussen last month showing that only 21% believe that the current federal government has the consent of the governed.  As he notes, only 63% of the political class — the people who work in that government — disagree.  Has America become ripe for a second revolution?  Glenn thinks instead that the federal government has become a damaged brand, and relates it to the story of Schlitz beer, which was at one time the second-most popular brew in the US:

These numbers should raise deep worries about the future of our republic. A nation whose government does not rest on the consent of the governed is a nation whose government holds sway only by inertia, or by force.

It is a nation vulnerable to political shocks, usurpation, or perhaps even political collapse or civil war. It is a body politic suffering from a serious illness. Those who care about America should be very worried.

But we’ve had enough political drama in recent years, so I’ll go for a more prosaic comparison: The once-heady brew of American freedom has become watery and unsatisfying.

In fact, when I think of the federal government’s brand now, I think of Schlitz beer. Schlitz was once a top national brew. But, in search of short-term gains, it began gradually reducing its quality in tiny increments to save money, substituting cheaper malt, fewer hops and “accelerated” brewing for its traditional approach.

Each incremental decline was imperceptible to consumers, but after a few years, people suddenly noticed that the beer was no good anymore. Sales collapsed, and a “Taste My Schlitz” campaign designed to lure beer drinkers back failed when the “improved” brew turned out not to be any better. A brand image that had been accumulated over decades was lost in a few years, and it has never recovered.

The book series The Bathroom Reader told the story of the Schlitz debacle in brief (as is its wont) a few years back.  The final straw came when the brewer decided to use cheap high-fructose corn syrup in its process to save money, as part of the “accelerated brewing” to which Glenn refers.  The beer brewed acceptably, but didn’t store well; after a few weeks, it separated in both bottles and cans and became undrinkable.  The “Taste My Schlitz” campaign failed because consumers stopped trusting Schlitz, and because consumers had many alternative choices available.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with federal government, or it hasn’t been until recently.  Both major political parties have offered Big Government as their product, and both have suffered brand damage because of it.  The Tea Parties today serve the same purpose as the one in the 18th century in Boston, which was a signal that consumers wanted another choice.

If the market is responsive, one party will start providing that choice, or else consumers will create a product to meet the demand.  A third party would damage the GOP almost irrevocably, while benefiting Democrats in the short run.  With that in mind, the Republican Party and its politicians had better consider some rapid product improvements or find itself becoming the Schlitz Beer of political parties.

Update: Comment of the day from Noel of Cold Fury: “The cure for both problems is Sam Adams.”