“In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.”
—S.T. Coleridge

When Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor hit the best-seller list last summer, the Gipperites began to squeal like a worn-out fan belt in a used Toyota. “Anti-Reagan sophistry,” sneered David Brock of the Heritage Foundation in the Wall Street Journal. “A book-length tantrum,” wept Warren Brookes in the Washington Times. “Garbage,” pronounced Republican wheeler-dealer Eddie Mahe. “I refuse to read that fraud’s book,” declared GOP consultant John Buckley in what must have been one of the more honest comments on Mr. Phillips’s most recent contribution to scholarship.

Such, of course, is the predictable reception of a book proposing ideas and advancing arguments that cannot be comfortably hammered into existing ideological and partisan holes, and such especially is it the kind of reception to be expected from the lowing herd of pseudo-conservatives who in the past decade have succeeded in hornswoggling themselves into the courtyards (but not the corridors) of national power. When Mr. Phillips in his youth was designing the “populist” theories and strategies by which conservative Republicans could gain the votes of rank-and-file Democrats and challenge the political hegemony of a liberal elite, these same courtiers pranced for joy. Then they were happy to hear of his cyclical theory of American politics, how at approximately thirty-year intervals, one political elite is displaced by another when the incumbents have become a stale establishment. Then they were pleased to clamber into the cockpit that his theory seemed to assign them as the pilots of the “emerging Republican majority” that would hijack the country away from the New Deal coalition.

But it might have occurred to them, as it evidently did not, that if Mr. Phillips had a shred of intellectual integrity, which he evidently has, then sooner or later the cycle he claimed to have discovered would swing about, and some other rough beast would slouch toward a political Bethlehem to be born. It is Mr. Phillips’s thesis in his present book that that hour has come round at last, and here he is to pluck his lyre in honor of the animal’s arrival.

In other words, Mr. Phillips’s belief that the Reagan era saw the entrenchment of a new political establishment that is about to be challenged by a wave of populist revolt is merely the logical extension of his interpretation of American politics that he first advanced (and which most conservatives embraced) in 1969 and that he has adapted and amended in a series of later books ever since. Remaining faithful to and consistent with his own theory does not make him, as conservative chuckleheads claim, a “liberal”; then again, it doesn’t make him right either.

What really makes the Gipperites gasp, however, is not just Mr. Phillips’s prediction that Reaganism is scheduled to fail politically but also that Good Old Dutch and his “revolution” were in large part fraudulent—that, so far from helping the middle income strata of the electorate who enabled Reagan to win and hold the White House, the economic, fiscal, and regulatory policies of the 1980’s gave these very groups a fat lip, while allowing the corporate rich, a cadre of felonious financial wizards, and a select band of well-fed “conservative populists” to become opulent. Mr. Phillips buttresses this argument with the same kind of statistical megatonnage that has made his other books so formidable, and he has framed it in a breezy style rich with anecdotes that lend life to his numbers.

Here the reader nostalgic for the 80’s may trip down memory’s lane to such triumphs of “populism” as Malcolm Forbes’s birthday party in 1989, complete with Moroccan horsemen. Here he may revisit such glowing symbols of Mr. Reagan’s Augustan age as the teeth of Ivan Boesky, the modest couture of Nancy, and the cultural renaissance spawned by the baby boomers. Here too the reader may glimpse through the glory of the Reaganite dawn such misty vestiges of the old America as family farms now repossessed by banks and sold to corporations in New York and Japan, mines and factories now closed, and endless tracts of American land and buildings once actually owned by Americans themselves.

But to be quite fair, Mr. Phillips rather exaggerates the economic damage to the American middle class in the Reagan era. He acknowledges that the real losers in those years were largely confined to certain categories—”manufacturing employees, farmers, people in the oil industry, young householders and the working poor”—while others held steady or made small gains. The latter, however, were able to do so largely because their wives left home and went to work and because they simply worked harder to keep afloat. From 1973 to 1987, Mr. Phillips points out, Americans’ leisure time actually fell by 37 percent from 26.2 hours a week to 16.6 hours, while the real average weekly wage of all workers (white collar and blue collar) declined from $191.41 a week in 1972 to $171.07 in 1986 in terms of constant 1977 dollars. “Many families,” he writes,

found themselves emptying savings accounts and going into debt, often to meet the soaring price of homeownership or to put a child through college. . . . Homeownership had reached a record 65 percent of U.S. households in 1980, after climbing steadily from 1940, when 43.6 percent of households owned their own residences. After 1980, however, the homeownership rate would drop year by year, falling to 63.8 percent in 1986 and leveling off. Young people, in particular, found that home buying was next to impossible. For much of Middle America, then, the Reagan years were troubling and ambiguous as the contrast intensified between proliferating billionaires and the tens of millions of others who were gradually sinking.

Mr. Phillips frames much of this economic analysis and what he calls “plutography”—a neologism that seems destined to enter the language as easily as his earlier coinage, “Sunbelt”—in terms of his historical theory of American politics. Hence, there is much analogizing between the Reagan era and those of William McKinley and the 1920’s. “Each Republican coalition,” he writes, “began by emphasizing national themes and unity symbols while subordinating commercial and financial interests. Lincoln’s struggle to maintain the union is famous, but lesser efforts by McKinley in 1896 and Nixon in 1968 go little noticed.” But the phase of appealing to “national unity” usually doesn’t last long once the GOP sets up shop in the White House. “Beyond its emphasis on the politics of national unity, dynamic capitalism, market economics and the concentration of wealth are what the Republican party is all about. When Republicans are in power long enough, that is what America gets, by the traditional Republican methods of disinflation, limited government, less regulation of business, reduced taxation and high interest rates.”

Mr. Phillips may or may not be on strong ground in his analogical theory. Like most historical interpretations, it is one that can never be proved and must be tested by its ability to explain known facts. Moreover, even if it is true, it may reveal the outer mechanics of American political history, but it doesn’t really grasp the world-historical drift of what is happening in the United States and the world in the last part of the 20th century.

What Mr. Phillips is really talking about, though he may not know it, is not just the ebb and flow of political parties in the White House and Congress, but rather the continuing civilizational crisis, in its economic and political phases, of what James Burnham called “the managerial revolution.” The liquidation of the middle class and its bourgeois cultural order are essential parts of that revolution, which does not consist only in its material dimension of the rolling up of comparatively small owner-operated business enterprises and farming units by colossal corporate organizations and the replacement of local, legislative, and constitutionalist government by centralized, executive, bureaucratic regimes. It also consists, in its cultural dimension, in the delegitimization and eventual extirpation of bourgeois culture—first on the grounds that that culture is the product of a selfish “capitalist” oligarchy, and later, in our own times, that it is the institutional framework by which a “white, male, heterosexual. Christian” ruling class maintains cultural hegemony. The technically skilled managerial elites that hold power in corporations, unions, universities, mass media, foundations, and government cannot secure and enhance their dominance without also undermining the cultural basis of bourgeois power, which acts as a constraint on the power of the new elite.

While Mr. Phillips sees American history in terms of a never-ending conflict between “elite” and “populist” forces, it is perhaps more accurate to see it in terms of a conflict of one elite against another. The Progressive Movement and the New Deal represent the emergence of a managerial elite that holds power through its expertise in the technical and administrative skills that enable it to operate and control overgrown organizations in the state, economy, and culture and that makes use of what has come to be known as “liberalism” to justify its challenge to a bourgeois elite that seized national power in the Civil War and its aftermath. Having entrenched themselves in political, economic, and cultural power by the end of World War II, managerial forces were resisted only by the remnants of the bourgeois elite and by newly formed social strata that found managerial liberalism a profound source of resentment and frustration. Until the 1980’s, what was known as “conservatism” generally represented this bourgeois and post-bourgeois political and cultural resistance to the managerial apparatus of power and its agenda—heavy regulation of the economy by the state in the interests of big corporations, unions, and governmental bureaucracies but at the expense of small businessmen; social reconstruction in the interests of the underclass and the managerial theoreticians who designed, planned, and implemented it, but against the interests and values of those who had to pay for it and suffer its consequences; and a globalist foreign policy that vaguely recognized a communist threat to the country but was steadfast in its refusal to deal with the menace effectively and its preference for transnational diplomacy and global social engineering to any sustained use of force.

The high point of the bourgeois conservative resistance to the now dominant managerial regime was the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, “conservatism” began to change its colors. While Nixon tended toward the abandonment of the pure milk of bourgeois economic dogma—as Mr. Phillips points out, as early as the Checkers speech, “Nixon had no interest in unbridled capitalism”—he sought to build what he called the “New American Majority” based precisely on those social groups that resented and feared liberal-managerial dominance and found it a frustration of their own interests and aspirations. As Mr. Phillips has also suggested elsewhere, it may be no accident that it was principally the managerial bureaucracy of the executive branch in alliance with the managerial intelligentsia that largely did in Nixon through systematic leakages to the press during Watergate. But while Nixon seems to have contemplated a simple abandonment of bourgeois ideology and institutions in favor of a more centralized and authoritarian managerial regime, Reagan cooked up something more complicated.

It was Reagan’s achievement to formulate an ideology and a political style that could accommodate both post-bourgeois resentments and frustrations through an appeal to “social issues,” patriotism, and “traditional morality”—what Phillips calls the symbols of “national unity”—as well as managerial interests in preserving the scale and scope of the mass organizations the elite controlled—the corporations and the federal state. It was not, of course, Mr. Reagan himself who was the author of this formula, though as a former liberal Democrat he was a perfect expression of the centrist imagery that the new formula used. The formula itself was the product of what came to be called “neoconservatism,” which distinguished itself from “Old Right” bourgeois conservatism by its willingness to accept the New Deal and the progressivist tradition. The goal of neoconservatives was never to reverse or move beyond the New Deal legacy but simply to make it work more efficiently than it was working in the 1960’s and 1970’s. That goal, though usually masked by the neoconservatives themselves, was obvious to many of the more percipient exponents of Old Right ideology, but only after Reagan had departed the political scene was the mask thrown off and “Big Government Conservatism” unveiled in all its splendors.

“Reaganism,” then, was neither a continuation of the bourgeois conservatism of the Old Right nor one more installment of an eternally recurring William McKinley nor the culmination of a cycle in American politics by which one elite ousted another and became corrupted. It was rather an effort to wed or fuse those destabilizing movements, fed by resentment, fear, and frustration, which gelled in the New Right and the candidacy of George Wallace, with still-dominant managerial elements in the state, economy, and cultural apparatus. Those elements saw their institutional apparatus of power and the “consensus” that rationalized it jeopardized by an insurgency from the right as well as from the left in the 1960’s and 70’s and by the whole unraveling of American society that their own efforts at social reconstruction had helped cause. So far from challenging or displacing an old elite, Reaganism simply allowed the leadership of the insurgent forces to crawl into bed with the managerial establishment and sample its favors, thereby effectively decapitating the insurgency.

The formula worked as long as the Teflon President was there, and it has worked for his successor since Good Old Dutch was strapped to his pony and hauled back to his ranch. But it may not work much longer if recession and the economic woes Mr. Phillips discusses pop out of the political woodwork as they seem to be doing.

What is surprising in Mr. Phillips’s analysis is not his conclusion that Reaganism actually endangered middle-class aspirations but his neglect of the continuing power of the cultural and social frustrations he has so admirably penetrated elsewhere. In his 1982 book, Post-Conservative America, he predicted that what historian Fritz Stern called “the politics of cultural despair”—racial, national, and social hostilities and dislocations—would coalesce with economic frustrations to yield a chauvinist, authoritarian, and perhaps overtly racialist political movement on the order of what occurred in Weimar Germany. In his present book, there is virtually no reference to that thesis despite its continuing relevance.

Instead, he suggests that a new “populist” movement led by liberal Democrats in the image of Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, or Jesse Jackson could successfully challenge the Reaganite Republican establishment through a “New Nationalist” program that recalls the similar slogans adopted by Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly in the early 20th century. Such a program, as Mr. Phillips envisions it, would evidently be little more than a revival of the redistributionist politics and policies of the Progressivist-New Deal-Great Society eras. What he does not seem to recognize is that the kind of electoral coalition necessary for this kind of movement is today not possible.

Mr. Phillips’s model presupposes that a crippled middle class could be brought into the same political tent with an underclass that, he argues, also suffered from the policies of the Reaganite corporate establishment. The fact is that in the 1990’s the dominant noneconomic issue that is emerging is that of race and group identity—manifested in the rise of black demagogues such as Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Marion Barry, Al Sharpton, and a host of lesser fry, as well as in white counterparts like David Duke and those who will soon be emulating him. The Reaganite formula did not really resolve the fissures causing what Mr. Phillips earlier called the “Balkanization of America” but only covered it up with a generous serving of political applesauce, and the emergence of overt racialism is one species of the decomposition and fragmentation that has been occurring in the United States ever since the unifying bourgeois fabric was shredded. But since purely racialist movements can appeal only to members of a given ethnic group, which by itself is a minority, no such movement, black or white, can take power in the United States merely by relying on racial rhetoric and ideology. If, however, such a movement can synthesize its appeal to group identity (racial or national) through an imagery of “us against them” with a demand for the redress of perceived economic grievances (the burden of poverty or of taxation or of the loss of a material lifestyle), then it might take wing and fly. Such a synthesis, the combination of nationalism and socialism that has been the dominant theme of 20th-century democratic politics, not only in Weimar but also in the United States, would broaden the racial and national appeal beyond mere biology to nonracial social and political aspirations.

Mr. Phillips is surely aware of the opportunities offered by such a nationalist-socialist program and of the power of such issues as immigration, civil rights laws and litigation, and the emergence of a Sorelian myth of racial consciousness among American blacks, though he does not address these opportunities in this book. He does, however, quote liberal economist Robert Kuttner on the failure of Michael Dukakis to exploit the national-socialist synthesis effectively in 1988. Dukakis, in Kuttner’s view, “had violated one of his party’s basic historical verities: that ‘Democrats do best when they develop broad, embracing, expansive visions combining national purpose with economic advancement, and rally masses of non-rich voters.'”

That is simply a more elegant way of stating a secret understood by successful politicians from Adolf Hitler to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and also by historian John Lukacs, who writes that nationalism and socialism and their relationship are “the principal political phenomena of this century.” The political masses are motivated largely by slogans, programs, and policies that revolve around the sentiments of “us against them” and “something for nothing.” As long as the Democrats understood this secret, they flourished. When they forgot it and went in for Vietcong flags, paroling rapists, homosexual rights, national guilt trips, ACLU membership cards, and especially for the interests of nonwhites at the expense of their traditional white working-class constituency, they flopped. Mr. Reagan successfully exploited the Democrats’ neglect of the nationalist sibling of the national-socialist Siamese twin while seeming to offer what Mr. Phillips (and the Democrats) argue is an illusory economic security that defused economic issues in politics. Those who have followed him are far less aware of the secret power of group identity and far less skilled in exploiting it, nor will emerging economic dislocations allow them to rely exclusively on national-cultural-racial themes to gain and keep power.

If there is to be a successful “new nationalism” in the next decade, its leaders will have to understand the secret of the 20th century and how to use it, whether the “nation” is that of Jesse Jackson or George Wallace. The Politics of Rich and Poor is a good place for them to begin to understand the economic aspects of that secret, though it is unfortunate that Mr. Phillips, whose chillingly cold-blooded analyses of politics and power have proven so fruitful in the past, has neglected any clear discussion of the secret in his present book. But he is undoubtedly right that one thing is clear: the emerging economic dislocations that the Reagan era bequeathed to the United States will bring an early death to the apparent social and political equilibrium that characterized the 1980’s. 


[The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, by Kevin Phillips (New York: Random House) 262 pp., $19.95]