Kevin Phillips: Is There An Aisle to Cross?

I read with much interest a review–published over a year ago–of Kevin Phillips’s book, Bad Money. What follows is a brief excerpt from the review, with the parts that especially interested me in bold:

From a review of Kevin Phillips’ Bad Money, April 16, 2008, Los Angeles Times, by Tim Rutten

“Kevin Phillips’ new book, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, would be sobering enough if it were the first we’d ever heard from him. When you take into account how often he’s been right in the past, this 14th volume in his continuing commentary on the American condition becomes positively alarming.

As a senior strategist for Richard Nixon in 1968, Phillips correctly forecast the coming conservative realignment that ultimately would propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. As a principal architect of the Republicans’ ‘Southern strategy,’ he correctly foresaw a shift of influence to the ‘Sunbelt’ and to the ‘new right’– two phrases he coined. He also envisioned what we call the red state-blue state divide and accurately predicted its geography. Twenty-five years ago, the Wall Street Journal heralded Phillips as ‘the leading conservative electoral analyst,’ but since then, he’s become disenchanted with the GOP’s embrace of evangelical pieties and what he calls dynastic politics and “market triumphalism.” Still, he hasn’t crossed the aisle and, in ‘Bad Money,’ he has a great deal to say about the Democrats’ — particularly the Clinton Democrats’ — complicity in the developing global economic crisis.

Ignoring distress

In part, this latest book is meant as a rhetorical shot across the bow of the current presidential campaign, which Phillips convincingly argues is failing to address the causes and implications of our current distress. There’s plenty of that to go around: The economic expansion that has occurred during the Bush administration was the first in U.S. history to exclude the middle class. Previous booms had left the poor behind, but this one was the first to benefit only the rich. Median family income is still less than it was in 1999, which makes this the longest slump ever measured in that key indicator of middle class well-being. The Clinton boom was no great shakes for the great middle either: Since 1983, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, “the median net worth of upper-income families more than doubled, while the median net worth of middle-income families grew by just 29%.”

In this context, ‘Bad Money’ reads as kind of an electoral cri de coeur: It’s the economy, stupid.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, including the Clintons’ close and quite obviously mutually beneficial relationship with Wall Street, Phillips doesn’t hold out much hope that either party is willing to address the roots of the crisis. The GOP’s faith in markets is absolute, and the religious right’s blind embrace of capitalism has eliminated populist dissent from the party’s internal debate. The Democrats, meanwhile, are irreparably compromised by contributions from the Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers, who are at the center of the current global meltdown.”

* * *
When I taught at a German university in 1980-81, I used to listen to Phillips “debate” Tom Braden on Armed Forces Radio. From the perch in 2009, their Right/Left “debates” now seem sedate and centrist, polite and learned–by contrast, at least.

In any event, the law of intended consequences seems to have caught up with Phillips. He created The Southern Strategy (based significantly on racism), and now, like Louis in Casablanca, he’s shocked, shocked that there’s gambling going on and that the GOP, not to mention the Democratic Party, has been hijacked by craven cynicism. He created The Southern Strategy, but now bemoans the influence of Conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, which (in spite of Christ’s teachings) often embraces a fictional gospel of wealth?

“Still, he hasn’t crossed the aisle” amused me because, at least according to Phillips’ analysis, there is no aisle. Both major parties are significantly the parties of “Wall Street,” to use the familiar short-hand of metonymy. That health-care reform probably won’t happen supports Phillips’s view, as does the fact that in spite of all the bad deeds done by banks, no significant banking reform seems to be materializing.

As to whether Phillips’ books was “a shot across the bow” of the presidential campaign, we must note, on Orwell’s behalf, that the metaphor is too worn out to be effective, and even if it were effective, the campaign(s) didn’t seem to hear or otherwise take note of the “shot.”

So I’m left to wonder what Phillips might have said, over Armed Forces Radio, if Tom Braden, like the Ghost of Christmas-Future, had told him–that is, reminded him–what would spring from the Southern Strategy, Reaganomics, and the erasure of “the aisle.” Maybe Phillips would have been shocked, shocked.


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