Think of Kevin Phillips as the Karl Marx of the Great American Middle Class.
When Middle America felt itself under attack from hippies and limousine liberals, from social engineers and cop-haters, Kevin Phillips was there to turn adversity into strength--the electoral strength of Richard Nixon, whom he hailed as the voice of real Americans and helped to victory in 1968.
Then, in the 1969 book that secured Phillips’ reputation when he was only 29, he predicted “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Twenty-one years later, after a resurgence of conservative political thought and a series of GOP presidential landslides, the Phillips prediction still looks pretty good.
What defies prediction is Phillips himself.
How many conservative Republicans do you know who condemn former President Ronald Reagan and his era for creating “a new plutocracy,” for leaving America with “too many stretch limousines, too many enormous incomes and too much high fashion?” So writes Kevin Phillips in his new book, “The Politics of Rich and Poor” (Random House).
Phillips talks that way, too, punctuating his sometimes donnish sentences with reference upon reference to the conspicuous consumption of the leisure classes. “You can’t just let the resources that were redistributed in the 1980s sit in the hands of people who subscribe to Yachting magazine and Architectural Digest,” he said.
Not since the heyday of the proletarian writers of the 1930s has an author taken so much pleasure in bashing the rich. In his book, Phillips savages “Calvin Coolidge birthday parties hosted by parvenu GOP Washington lobbyists and consultants happy to tell attending gossip columnists the price of their new Savile Row suits.”
You would think Phillips’ new book would be as welcome in Republican circles as a homeless socialist at one of those glittering Reagan-era soirees.
But conservatives have become inured to Phillips and his continuing, or evolving, apostasy. More than a decade ago, William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review branded Phillips’ ideology “country and western Marxism.” Phillips liked that so much he quoted it proudly in his 1982 book, “Post-Conservative America.”
The label is apt for a man who defends the interests and values of Middle Americans with the same enthusiasm Marx mustered on behalf of 19th-Century industrial workers.
Class anger, in fact, is the key to understanding the consistency of Phillips’ world view. And though he’s not part of the angry middle class, he’s definitely angry--no less in 1990 than he was in 1969.
Back in those days, the elitists he loved to hate lived in places such as Cambridge and Hollywood, and their condescension to Middle America was cultural. His new villains look down their noses, he tells us, from such places as “Rodeo Drive, Sutton Place and the Florida Gold Coast.” Their standard of superiority isn’t culture. It’s money.
In an age when most Democrats believe that stirring class resentment is dangerous--and, in any event, just isn’t done--here is a serious political analyst whose book is chock-full of lists of billionaires and the annual salaries of the country’s best-paid lawyers and investment bankers. Righteous indignation pours from Phillips’ pages.
Phillips acknowledges he is a highly unlikely Populist. He wears monogrammed shirts and conservative pin-striped suits. He drives a Jaguar. Although he publishes a well-regarded political newsletter, he draws a big chunk of his income from a newsletter for business executives and from a busy schedule of speeches to business groups.
His opposition to huge budget deficits, Phillips notes, is an orthodox GOP position--pre-Reagan. It is the Republicanism of Bob Dole, for whom Phillips in the 1988 primaries voted over George Bush, whom he disdains as a symbol of the old-school-tie Republicanism of Round Hill Road.
When Phillips attacks educated elites, he speaks as an insider. He graduated from Colgate and (like Michael Dukakis, whom he eviscerates in his book) from Harvard Law School. But even at Harvard in the 1960s, he insists, his Republicanism had an anti-elitist cast.
“I noticed that the Harvard Republican Club contained all these kids from unfashionable places,” he recalls. “All the kids in the Democratic Club were the sons of New Deal lawyers who had “III’ after their names. Well, that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, but it was telling us something.”
To understand what makes Phillips tick, you have to hear how almost any discussion on almost any subject winds back to migration patterns, voting history and political geography. This is a man who loves data.
Phillips is an especially successful example of a common type in American politics: the young political numbers junkie whose obsession endures into adulthood. In his case, the lure of numbers took hold when he was 13 or 14. He found treasure troves of “crumbling old World Almanacs” in old bookstores on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a subway ride from the middle-class Parkchester neighborhood in the North Bronx where he grew up.
World Almanacs are to election freaks what old baseball cards are to baseball fans: a source of almost limitless statistics. They include results of Presidential elections county by county, and, if you want to follow voting through the years in Dixie County, Fla., Charles Mix County, S.D., or Deer Lodge County, Mont., all you need is a large almanac collection.
Young Phillips took his collection and started drawing maps, especially political maps. His father, a top official at the New York State Liquor Authority and a registered Republican, had doubts about Kevin’s obsession.
But by the time he was 15, Phillips had graduated from maps to real elections. His North Bronx congressional district was one of a handful in New York City represented by Republicans. After school and on weekends, Phillips mounted a sound truck and, as he tells it, he would “warm up the crowds” before Rep. Paul A. Fino spoke.
His experience in the Bronx gave him an intuitive feel for the rhythms of urban politics and, in particular, the import of ethnic voting. He came to understand which groups could coexist or collaborate, and which simply couldn’t stand each other. That education would serve him well.
Phillips may have understood the various ethnic groups better than they did themselves because he really wasn’t part of any of them. In a borough full of Italians, Irish, Jews, African Americans and Puerto Ricans, Phillips was a mixture of Scotch-Irish, English and Welsh. In a city where religious loyalties had political implications, his family--Catholic on one side, Protestant on the other--rarely went to church.
Phillips, after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1964, went to work as Fino’s administrative assistant. And he kept drawing political maps.
In 1966, while most Republicans still wondered if the party would recover from Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson, Phillips saw an “emerging Republican majority.” His ideas caught the attention of influential party leaders.
When the 1966 midterm elections produced large GOP gains, Phillips became a minor prophet, the articulate young man with the charts, graphs and maps. The Nixon campaign decided it had to have him, and signed him up in Summer, 1968.
To liberal Republicans, then a force to be reckoned with in the party, Phillips’ approach was an outrage; they saw him as rationalizing white backlash against blacks.
Essentially, Phillips believed that poor Southern whites and Northern big city ethnics were poised to flee the Democratic Party. In “Nixon Agonistes,” Garry Wills quoted a young Phillips who spoke with a candor that eluded many GOP strategists: “White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party. When white Southerners move, they move fast.”
Thus was Phillips credited with developing the much-maligned (by liberals) but seemingly effective GOP “Southern strategy.”
To liberals, Phillips was moving the party away from Abraham Lincoln--and toward George Wallace. Though Phillips says he supported the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, he clearly saw the white South as the GOP Promise Land. “We’ll get two-thirds to three-fourths of the Wallace vote in 1972,” he told Wills; as with so many other matters electoral, he was right.
When “The Emerging Republican Majority” was published during Nixon’s first year in the White House, it became the electoral Baedeker of GOP politicians; it remained so for more than a decade.
The book sealed Phillips’ reputation as a political sage, but doomed his career as administration insider. He had taken a job as a special assistant to Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, “but when the book came out, I was sort of unplugged,” he says. He left the Justice Department in March 1970. “I’m very glad that I did,” he says.
Phillips set off on his lucrative career as a commentator and writer and never returned to government service.
After the Watergate debacle, Phillips became increasingly unhappy with the Republican Party and the old conservative movement. His Populism in full fury, he denounced the Old Right as “elitist.” As the 1976 Presidential elections approached, he washed his hands of Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, and, ever the contrarian, called for a ticket of Reagan and Wallace.
Despite Phillips’ earlier enthusiasm, it didn’t take long for President Reagan to disappoint him. Phillips’ 1982 book “Post-Conservative America” was a mournful view of an America haunted by “End of Empire frustration.” Far from being a “revolutionary conservative” of the sort Phillips was seeking, Reagan had given the nation a “nostalgic restoration,” he says.
Phillips insists his relentless opposition to elites has nothing to do with his psychological makeup and everything to do with his view of America.
America, to Phillips, is its middle class, which he says is now threatened not by bureaucracies but board rooms: “It’s important for people to realize how much (money) a small group of Americans made while most people were treading water and while the U.S. was losing so much internationally.”