TCS Daily


A Populist Philippic

By Clay Waters - July 29, 2002 12:00 AM

The year is 1990. George Bush is cruising to a seemingly inevitable 2nd term as Washington debates a land war in the Middle East. And "Republican" political commentator Kevin Phillips had a book out, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," which excoriated wealth, privilege and Republican fiscal policy.

Flash forward, and George Bush II is cruising to a seemingly inevitable 2nd term as Washington debates a land war in the Middle East. And Kevin Phillips has a book out, "Wealth And Democracy," which excoriates wealth, privilege and Republican fiscal policy.

At least the media aren't calling him Republican anymore. That reputation rests on his prophetic 1969 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," before he became a populist, agonizing over the economic gains of "the top 1%." A blurb for "Wealth and Democracy" compares Phillips to Nostradamus. This is true, but not in the way the author might fancy.

In "Wealth," as in "Rich and Poor," bad things are always just around the corner. Our country again stands on the brink of an abyss unless Republican favoritism of the rich is stopped. So dire is his tone you wonder how this country ever managed to secure the highest living standards for the most people, anywhere, ever.

The same phrases surface in both books: Social Darwinism, tax-cut worship, Gilded Age. Stay with "Wealth And Democracy" long enough -- and it's one long 442-page book -- and you'll hear every argument several times. Throughout, Phillips uses corporate-bashing quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to convince Republicans to embrace "reform" -- i.e., more government restraints on markets.

Like the previous book, "Wealth" cites Lester Thurow. In "Rich and Poor," he quoted Thurow approvingly on the coming threat of Japan. That was right before Japan's economy imploded. This time Phillips only hints China may become an economic threat, quoting a China watcher who says if China grows at 7% a year for 30 years, it will be the leading economic power by 2030. Well, yeah. But who thinks China could sustain such growth?

Phillips' big idea is the cycle theory: America, he says, alternates between periods of "democracy," where inequality is lessened through government control, and freewheeling Social Darwinist eras where elites enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. Phillips can't show the rich looting the poor directly; instead he accuses the rich of pushing financial deregulation to make them richer. Even if true, that's not a compelling thesis, and it won't lead to the populist backlash Phillips is hoping for.

His eagerness to exploit populism leads him to hail some unusual suspects. One might think Ross Perot would earn Phillips' ire. After all, there's nothing Phillips dislikes more than corporations that make their fortunes through government favoritism, and Perot's company Electronic Data Systems had a near-monopoly on administering billings to the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. But Phillips simply notes approvingly that Perot's 1992 campaign "provided a brief revitalization" of democracy, "as money lost centrality and voter turnout jumped."

Phillips truly is Economic Man, a cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He can name the 19th richest person in 1918 (C.H. McCormick) but is mute on how the wide availability of computers and refrigerators and automobiles have raised the quality of life for everyone, "rich" and "poor" alike.

As in "Rich and Poor," Phillips reveals himself to be a money prude. In an undiplomatic moment he calls a financier's wife gauche for the "transgression" of booking two seats on the Concorde to fly a cake to Paris. Was it your money, Kevin? Phillips overestimates his audience's thirst for this kind of thing. It's hard enough to get Americans worked up over the "excess wealth" of the extant Bill Gates, much less that of Stephen Girard (the richest man of 1830).

In Phillips' world, life is always bad for those not currently in the top 1% of income-earners. It's bad when food prices go down because farmers are hurt. It's bad when food prices go up because the poor can't afford as much meat. Stocks are bad when they rise because rich people get richer, and stocks are bad when they fall because they make middle-class investors poor.

Phillips writes in the preface about his "background in the Republican Party." But last year Phillips penned an article titled "His Fraudulency the Second?" for The American Prospect magazine that scorned Bush's "illegitimacy and lack of mandate." His Republican background makes him a perfect resource for the liberal press -- a "Republican" that just happens to disagree with everything Republicans
stand for.

Though Phillips talks a lot about an aristocracy of wealth, his own figures subvert that argument by showing how the top wealth earners are always changing. Describing rich elites as an entrenched aristocracy conceals the fact that in a country of opportunity like America, the richest of one decade may not be the richest of the next. In 1900, one in 18,000 Americans was a millionaire. In 2000, the ratio was one in 1,500. This is bad, says Phillips. But which society would you rather live in?

In the end, Phillips does indeed resemble Nostradamus. Though the bad tidings he predicts never come to pass, his reputation among his gullible followers remains intact.

Clay Waters writes from Jersey City. For two years he was opinion editor for BridgeNews in New York City. His home on the Web is www.claywaters.com.
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