Kevin Phillips

The Politics of Rich and Poor

VTR Date: September 23, 1990


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Kevin Phillips
Title: “The Politics of Rich and Poor”
VTR: 9/23/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And, according to some, what my guest today is, is superbly the demographer, the political analyst, the fact-based realist who, indeed, wants the facts only the facts of our political history, our ethnic and economic realities – and the, one after the other, structures upon these indisputable building blocks the way we were, the way we are, and what it is we Americans will become if political leadership takes full enough advantage of such insights.

Now Richard Nixon presumably did just that a generation ago. Indeed, the former President says about my guest: “Kevin Phillips is America’s premier political analyst. His new book The Politics of Rich and Poor will revolutionize the way we think about politics in the nineties, just as his 1969 book, The Emerging Republic Majority had such an impact on the decade of the seventies”.

And about this new book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, published by Random House, perhaps a future President, Mario Cuomo, notes: “Phillips says convincingly what Democrats have not been bold enough to say and Republicans won’t admit: (that in the Reagan years) “We have redistributed our wealth from the poor and working middle-class to the rich. We have compromised our fiscal integrity and risked our world position. Phillips says that the people will compel what the politicians have failed to do”. And Governor Cuomo adds: “I hope he’s right. Every American should read this book”.

So that my guest has never been reticent in speaking his mind…or in writing it boldly. But the question does remain, whether he is quintessentially the neutral analyst, simply setting before us the factual basis for a victorious Republican game plan in the 70s and now perhaps a Democratic strategy for political victory in the 90s. Or whether he is, instead, a true believer, having simply switched his political loyalties from one generation to another…a personal posture, after all, that is neither unfair or unprecedented.

Best, then, that I ask Kevin Phillips himself just what sense of the way the world should be does inform his present thinking about American futures…about what he calls “the politics of rich and poor”. Mr. Phillips?

Phillips: Well, I think that my view is partially that of an analyst, and partially that of someone who has been involved, in a sense. When I wrote The Emerging Republic Majority back in the 60s I think its analytical relative accuracy has been proven since. But I can’t say at the time that this was purely analysis. This was something I believed in and in consequence it was clear to people who wanted to criticize me that it was something I believed in, therefore they would say, “Well, this guy is just banging a drum”. Now at this point they can’t say that about The Emerging Republic Majority so people who want to take issue with me have to get through that by saying, “Well, yes, he was largely right about that, but…”, then they come to this one. Now I think I’m probably less involved with this in, in any party sense because I’m not a Democrat and I don’t intend to be a Democrat. My sense is that what happened in the 1980s represents a weakness in the Republican Party. And as one who was very much involved inputting its coalition together 20 some years ago, I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time, that there’s a history that Republican coalitions start with as, a broader outreach, kind of middle class nationalism, and they…at the end, or near the end go into a king of capitalist overdrive that winds up doing…and did do…during the gilded Age and then in the 1920s what we’ve just seen again in the 1980s. So as I got into this, I have the sense that “Gee, this doesn’t make me…particularly thrilled to be a Republican”, but saying this about the Republicans, and also pointing out how the Democrats have been totally inept and feckless during these periods, doesn’t make me obviously a Democrat, and of course, President Nixon gave me a nice endorsement on the book and I think has some sense of some of the same problems. So I come at this probably less in the 1990s, as someone who’ll be involved on the side of what’s going to take shape. But I do think it will take shape.

Heffner: What do you mean when you say that you think that President Nixon, former President Nixon has, in some sense, some feeling about the same problems relating to the Republican Party?

Phillips: Well, he has signaled some things. He’s made it pretty clear that he didn’t agree with Ronald Reagan’s desire during the 1980s just to turn off government. He didn’t put it quite like I did there, but he said that he didn’t agree wit the approach to government. In his most recent book, he actually noted that his father voted for Robert LaFollette in 1924 because he thought Coolidge was too much for the rich. Now as a long time Richard Nixon watcher, as well as someone who worked for him, this is Nixonian for “I don’t like some of what went on”. I know, perhaps, a little bit more about his views. I’ll leave those to him to state. But I do know that this 1980s upper bracket orientation was not sort of the “Will it play in Peoria?” Republicanism that everybody was trying to put together 22 years ago and I think he has registered, as far as he will publicly, some dissents form what happened.

Heffner: But how do you reconcile that then with the fact then that withdrawal of government from the economic sphere, the deregulation philosophy really began with…before the Reagan years?

Phillips: Well, it began before the Reagan years in the sense of, I suppose it began with Gerry Ford, and with Carter. It didn’t really begin with Nixon, that’s the interesting thing. Nixon was somebody whose change of the way America thought and worked was more in foreign policy and cultural policy. That was his dissent from the politics of the 60s, less on the economic side, except on inflation. Now Republicans have always been, I think, more hawkish in trying to do something about inflation than the Democrats who are always sort of willing to print money. But once you got away from inflation, Nixon was an economic activist. One of the things that now House Speaker Tom Foley has said is that the administration that did the most to try to deal with hunger in the United States was the Nixon Administration because of the food stamps program. He was active with Pat Moynihan in trying to put together a guaranteed income for the poor. It was actually, I thought, a little bit naïve in places. Here was someone willing to slap on wage and price controls, when inflation was going too high. Nixon was just not someone who believed in the whole deregulation, cut taxes, trickle down economics. His conservatism was cultural and patriotic.

Heffner: You said before that during this period the Democrats have been rather feckless and ineffective. How do you account for that? After all, this was the party that did, if I may use the word, capitalize upon those previous periods of Republican rule, accompanied as you suggest in Politics of the Rich and Poor, by policies that benefited the rich.

Phillips: Well, the Democrats do and they don’t. They do it at a very late stage. They don’t for most of the process. The fascinating thing about the Democrats, true again in the 1980s the way it was true in the 1920s and the Gilded Age, is that while capitalism is going into overdrive, while this is all fashionable, while the markets are King, well, entrepreneurs are the heroes. The Democrats are saying “good”, while taxes are being cut. They’re going along. But they’re not quite as enthusiastic…well, some of them are…but as a party, they go along. They don’t offer a dissent. And we saw this during the 1980s, the same way it was seen during the Coolidge years, and Grover Cleveland and the Gilded Age…he was a Democrat…he was just absolutely indistinguishable from the Republicans. But during the 1980s when the taxes were cut in 1981, and when they were overhauled again in 1986, the Democrats were there, going right along. When the Social Security burden was increased, the Democrats were right there. When the farce of Gramm-Rudman was set up, the Democrats were right there. They used their compass during these periods. They’re essentially a middle-class capitalist party, just a lesser variety than the Republicans, and when this happens the Democrats become noodles. They spent the 1980s essentially as a bag of noodles. They are now beginning to stiffen. And this is the great fascinating dimension of 1990…they are stiffening…are they going to become the old Democrats? Is Andrew Jackson going to come alive again? Well, we’ll wait and see.

Heffner: What’s your bet? Let’s not just wait and see. What’s your prophecy here?

Phillips: Well, they clearly are doing some of this. I testified before the Senate Finance Committee in the, in the middle of September on a hearing that Lloyd Bensten scheduled on foreign economic influence in the United States, and he had me lead off, and he congratulated me on the book and said he’d underlined parts of it, and this spirit was playing a role in the Summit. And, so I really have the sense, and I…for a lot of the Democratic presidential candidates have either said something to me, or Mario Cuomo’s quote is on the back cover. They are clearly reacting to this book. But how far they’ll go and the extent to which they can take themselves out of the 1980s is still a question because a lot of it depends on the economy. If the economy tumbles, if it implodes, if this debt cycle plays out with trouble, then I think you will see the Democrats really rally around a lot of the analysis that’s in that book. But if the economy continues to sort of stretch out, then I think the Democrats will state these things, but they’ll hold back, waiting for the implosion because they’ve never really gone great guns before until the economy headed south.

Heffner: Now this seems to me to mean that you don’t believe that the Reagan Revolution was a permanent one.

Phillips: Well, there are very few permanent revolutions in the United States. I mean, I suppose you could say the Northern victory in the Civil War was a permanent revolution. I think the Civil Rights revolution is largely a permanent revolution. The ideological swings are swings. You have a cyclical pattern. Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved a number of things, but the view Americans had swung away from the ideology of the New Deal even before World War II, and swung away more in the 1950s. I think that we’re going to see the mood of the country, it is swinging already, move away from the, the thought processes and convictions of the Reagan era. When Ronald Reagan became President, the big things on television were “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, and “Falcon Crest”. That mood is gone on the United States. Now what’s taking shape in Hollywood and in the book stores are all these books about what greedy bums the people who did this were. Bonfire of the Vanities, Roger and Me, about Roger Smith at General Motors, it’s a whole different portraiture. So we’re going to see a big change.

Heffner: You know, it interested me in particular, Michelle Mazur, the intrepid Associate Producer of THE OPEN MIND set before me a piece from The New York Times magazine section, written about you 20 years ago. And I couldn’t help but be fascinated that it quoted at some length, the historian/journalist Milton Voorst, mostly because Milton had been my student many years before then at Rutgers. And he said, to contradict what you said about the…what you wrote about the emerging Republican majority, “So far this is a caretaker administration”, talking about the Nixon years thus far, “not a coalition builder. I have a certain amount of skepticism about politics, but I don’t think great coalitions can be built on cynicism. Thy have been built by men who cared about the country enough to put into it the things needed to build a country and that’s what builds a country. To succeed, a coalition builder must be able to appeal to decent men, to idealism, and a policy routed in the acceptance of inequality can’t do that”. Now, you think that he hit something there that is what it is that you’re saying, or are you just saying the pendulum swung back? Because Milton seemed to be saying that you can’t use selfishness and carelessness about the disenfranchised, economically, and make that the basis for a coalition.

Phillips: Conservative eras don’t start, I think in the same way that liberal eras start.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Phillips: Well, you get a conservative era and you certainly would have to call, in a sense the Republican era that began with the Civil War conservative. And I think you would, you would call the one that began in 1896 with McKinley, when they beat back Bryant, and then in 1968. There is always a cynicism at the beginning of a conservative era although I would think that there was cynicism in the New Deal about what the capitalists and Republicans had done to the country. And an awful lot of cynicism in the way those programs were thrown together, because I’ve read the cynicism that some of the people involved had. They weren’t sure it would work. But with conservative coalitions coming together, I think you tend to sort of indict the role that government had played. The sense that it got too big, and this was clearly an ingredient in what the Republicans were saying right through Reagan and one of the ways that Reagan got in position to push the hey-day of the 80s was because people had the sense that government had just gotten too big and they had it even more vividly in 1980 than they had it in 1968. So I think a lot of cynicism about government was entirely warranted during the first 12 years of the Republican coalition. Some of the things I suspect that there was an objection to government doing, government in some degree had to do. And that’s certainly the basic civil rights thrust. What government didn’t have to do was all the things like quotas and busing and talking about welfare recipients as welfare clients. The whole sociology of judicial, I guess, explaining away what a criminal did because he had an unhappy childhood. Now, to the extent that this had become part of a, an almost liberal infrastructure in the 60s, which had a lot of people…it was a mandarinet really of social change. I think an awful lot of cynicism about that was warranted. As much as is warranted now about the economic infrastructure that was built up during the 1980s and the way that fed, at the expense of the average person. I think a lot of these liberals in the 1960s and 70s did that, too.

Heffner: You know, the, the, the book The Politics of the Rich and Poor provided for me, the greatest sense of déjà vu I’ve had in a long, long time. The references you make to Matthew Josephson, to Gustavus Myers, The History of the Great American Fortunes, to my old teacher, Richard Hofstader, and his emphasis upon social Darwinism…I couldn’t help but feel that this is a Democratic campaign document. Now, you dissociate it from partisanship…you say, “These are my, these are my ideas, this is what I think”. Would it be unfair to say that essentially only the Democrats could benefit from an involvement by your readers in these references?

Phillips: Well, I don’t think so. First of all, as I said, the Democrats historically have gone along with the hey-days so much that they haven’t always been able to take advantage of them. One time the Democrats got nailed by their acquiescence. When they elected Grover Cleveland in 1892 just in time to have conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland in the White House when the Panic of 1893 hit. So the Democrats got wiped out in the Congressional elections. The Democratic Party was split by these processes…nominated William Jennings Bryant, and the Republicans, because they were lucky enough to be out of power, were able to beat that. Had they been in power, a more moderate version of William Jennings Bryant would have been elected in 1896, and the Democrats would have captained the White House during the Populist Progressive era. Instead, because the Republicans were out of power, they were able to indict the Democrats, and they, they rolled back William Jennings Bryant and so you had Republicans during the Populist Progressive era. Teddy Roosevelt was the President who got to break up the great trust, advocate the progressive income tax, all kinds of different things. So there’s a potential lesson for the Republicans in there if they can shift enough of the blame for what happens to the economy on to the Democratic Congress, on to people who still can’t state a coherent view of the economy, because they participated in so much of the 80s. I spoke to a meeting of Republican congressmen, Newt Gingrich’s group of conservative activists.

Heffner: Your good friend.

Phillips: Ah, probably Newt wouldn’t characterize it that way, and I don’t think I would either, but we, we had a civil exchange. And they were very much interested in the idea that they could pick up on the Teddy Roosevelt analogy. Now I said: “I don’t think so because the Republicans have the misfortune to be in power now. And I think it’s going to be harder for them to shift the blame”, but because of the uniqueness of split control of government, I think there’s a little bit more blame-shifting opportunity than usual. Now what I’ve told the Republicans is that the obligations of the coming decade are going to be a lot more in the direction of a Teddy Roosevelt, than I the direction of a Coolidge, a Reagan or a Grover Cleveland. And you have to think in that vein. What I would tell the Democrats, and I’ve spoken to a lot of Democratic groups, too, is that when you come off the sort of behavior pattern of acquiescence the Democrats have shown during the 1980s, you don’t get your credit back very quickly. And a recent Times-Mirror poll by the LA Times parent corporation showed that all kinds of lower income people and minorities but also lower income Whites have stopped believing in the Democrats because they watched them during the 1980s. So the Democrats are not automatically positioned. First they need to get their sense of who they are back, and secondly they need to have an economic downturn. They need to see Reaganomics, and now I think you have to call it Bushonomics…indicted in the everyday market of public opinion. And it may well be. Because we can look at the economics of the 80s, the debt cycle, and all the things that were done with speculation, they’re signs of it coming unraveled now. If the Democrats get that, then in all likelihood they will get the benefit out of that analysis.

Heffner: Certainly as I read The Politics of Rich and Poor, I couldn’t help but feel that the man who, along with Richard Nixon, gave you such a wonderful send off in the book, Mario Cuomo, was the one who best understands the references that you make to our historical past for whom Darwin and Darwinism is a constant whipping boy, who understands what it is that Gustavus Myers and the others wrote. Is there someone else in the party equally attuned to these intellectual concepts?

Phillips: Well, I’m not sure. I think Mario Cuomo has a head start on the intellectuality of these issues. Dick Gephardt had a bit of a head start in 1988 on the “putting them before audiences in the sort of populist heartland of America, in Iowa, and South Dakota and the other states of middle America where he did well with these. Jesse Jackson has a real sense of this. I ran into Jesse Jackson on a talk show and he immediately came up “I’ve got to have, you know, two autographed copies of your book”. Lloyd Bentsen had said, another possible Democratic Presidential candidate that, you know, he’s underlining paragraphs in the book. So I have a sense, at this point, that they’re all into this, in the sense of looking back at the history. Now we’ll see what they do with it. I think Gephardt had a head start on the populism, Cuomo a head start in understanding it historically and intellectually, Jesse Jackson in emoting it, and perhaps Lloyd Bentsen’s technical expertise as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee could be in some of these issues greater than anybody else’s. So I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch these Democrats compete now to pick up in a new politics of economics.

Heffner: You know, I couldn’t help as I read the book again, think about Arthur Schlesinger and his, his particular emphasis upon cycles in history. And I can’t help but wonder whether if we sit at this table, twenty years from now, God willing, whether you will perforce, be in a position to have seen another cycle take place, bringing us back, if not to the Republicanism, then emerging Republican majority, but to something similar.

Phillips: Well, it’s possible. I think these cycles are shortening. Arthur’s views and mine are very compatible. He tends to look more at ideological mid-range cycles whereas I look at the longer party cycles. His tend to be maybe 12, 16 years, and the party cycles, beginning in 1800, have run 28 to 36 years. You go from 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and whenever this winds down. I think because of the role of the media and the diminishing role of party and other factors relating to that, that we’re not likely to see these 28 to 36 year cycles anymore. I think they’re going to shorten. This one, which is winding down, I’m reasonably sure ion the 1990s, maybe the last that even has that framework. Now it did not change party domination below the national level, and I mean even in Congress all that it really affected was the Senate, which began very, very competitive. And I think that the next cycle may be a lot more shallow–rooted than that. So we may have seen the last of these rather projectable swings. Most people wouldn’t have credited beans about the cyclical analysis when I was working on The Emerging Republican Majority. They laughed. They didn’t even understand what had happened for ten years after that first election. But I don’t really think that the 21st century is going to see the same pattern.

Heffner: But what’s going to happen to the ethnic determinism that characterized your thinking 20 years ago?

Phillips: Well, one of the things about the, the changes in Republican party politics and the national coalitions has been that they start with a very, very important ethnic and cultural component, and they tend, as they break up in a later stage, to show economics as a much more important determinative.

Heffner: And ethnic groups will go on or not?

Phillips: Well, what happens is your economics comes in and overrides some of the changes that were created in the crucible anywhere from 25 to 35 years earlier. And it usually doesn’t do so with an ethnically specific effect. Economics isn’t ethnically specific. On the other hand, before George Bush got himself the Middle East as a new politics. Looking in July at the polls, where the Republican coalition was really starting to unravel, was among sort of Reagan Democrats, Southern poor Whites, Northern ethnics. In other words, the portion of the Republican Presidential collation with the weakest economic fidelities to sort of upper-bracket Republican loyalties, and this has been subordinated by the Middle East, but I doubt that it will be for very long. So I think that the play of the economy tends to hurt the Republican coalition in these new areas that have, still have half-Democratic loyalties, which is to say your poorer Whites, your George Wallace vote, your Western populist, your Northern ethnics…and in that scenario I would look for some Republican erosion.

Heffner: Now, we have a minute left…I have to ask you about what you meant when you said a moment ago, “George Bush has a new politics in the Mid-East”.

Phillips: Well, essentially what he’s got going at the moment is something that has taken…if not taken people’s minds off the economy…taken their political thought processes away from the weakening economy, from collapsing financial institutions, fro Neil Bush and the S&L’s, and put their political thought process over there in the Persian Gulf with the flag. Now that’s very helpful to the Republicans short term, but he’s staked his future on what may be a very difficult situation, maybe our first economic war. The Mid-East is a burial ground of Western ambitions historically, so it may be by 1992 that Bush will be in a much more competitive race than anybody really imagined.

Heffner: Kevin Phillips, I do appreciate your joining me today, and like Mario Cuomo, I hope that everybody reads The Politics of Rich and Poor. Thank you.

Phillips: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.