Kevin Phillips, ex-populist.

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MAY 22, 2006

Kevin Phillips, ex-populist.

Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy has hovered near the top of the
bestseller list this spring. It is suffused with indignation at what
George W. Bush and his father have done to the Republican Party and
the United States: "[O]ver three decades of Bush presidencies, vice
presidencies, and CIA directorships, the Republican party has
slowly become the vehicle of ... a fusion of petroleum-defined
national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a
reckless credit-feeding financial complex." Under the Bushes,
writes Phillips, the United States has embraced "high-powered
automobiles, air strikes, and invasions," become "the world's
leading Bible reading crusader state," and suffered from
"burgeoning debt levels" and the "implosion of American
manufacturing."These are harsh judgments, but they are not unusual. They can be
found regularly in The Nation, The American Prospect, and even
occasionally in The New Republic. What is unusual is the man making
them. Thirty-seven years ago, Phillips, while serving as an aide to
Richard Nixon, published The Emerging Republican Majority, which
predicted that the GOP would solidify its political power through
electoral gains in suburbia and the Sun Belt (a term Phillips
coined). In the mid-'70s, after Nixon's resignation, Phillips helped
found the militant movement of social conservatives known as the
New Right. He was among the first to appreciate the contribution
that Christian conservatives would make to a new Republican
majority, and he welcomed the formation of the Reverend Jerry
Falwell's Moral Majority. The question now is: How did a man who
did so much to make the Republican Party the force it is today come
to so detest it?

Phillips's defection is most often attributed to his populism. And
it's true that Phillips was initially far more of a populist than a
Barry Goldwater conservative. He backed the New Deal but condemned
the Great Society for "taxing the many on behalf of the few." He
saw himself as the tribune of "the Idaho loggers, Carolina farmers
and ethnic steelworkers" against the "Yankee, silk-stocking
establishmentarians." And he was repulsed when he saw the
Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush adopt
policies that favored the rich and replace the older liberal elite
with a new arriviste conservative one.

But, if Phillips was once a populist, he is certainly not anymore.
While retaining his disdain for patricians like Bush 41, Phillips
has turned against the "new South Boston-Georgia-Idaho `populist
conservatives'" he used to laud. In the 1980s, he became
increasingly concerned with the economic health of the country.
And, when middle Americans--the heart of the Republican majority
that he had so heralded a few years earlier--irresponsibly backed
the supply-side, favor-the-rich economic policies of Reagan and
Bush because of barely plausible appeals to cultural solidarity,
Phillips threw up his hands and, in a sharp irony, became one of
the very silk-stocking establishmentarians he once scorned.

Born in 1940, Phillips grew up in the northeast section of the
Bronx, a middle-class enclave peopled primarily by Italians and
Irish. New York was a Democratic city, but quite a few Italians, in
opposition to the Irish Democratic machine, voted Republican, and
Phillips's part of the Bronx had a Republican state senator and
later a congressman, Paul A. Fino. But Italian Republicans like New
York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia were as supportive as their Irish
Democratic counterparts of Franklin Roosevelt's liberal programs. By
the early '60s, however, the influx of Puerto Ricans into New York,
the growth of a militant civil rights movement among blacks, and
the riots in Harlem were threatening the city's liberal Democratic
consensus, as the city's white ethnic voters blamed blacks and
Puerto Ricans for rising crime and taxes and resented federal
expenditures on their behalf.

Phillips himself was neither Italian nor Irish. His ancestors were a
blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. His father was
Catholic and his mother was Protestant. He went to the Bronx High
School of Science rather than to a Catholic school. "My religion
was reading the Sunday papers," he explained. His father, William
Phillips, was an official with--and, later, the executive director
of--the New York State Liquor Authority, making the family upper
middle class. Kevin inherited his father's Republican politics and,
perhaps because he was an outsider in his own neighborhood, grew up
fascinated by how New York's ethnic and religious rivalries
affected the city's politics. "The whole secret of politics," he
told author Garry Wills in 1968, is "knowing who hates who." At 15,
he was drawing up precinct maps and poring over almanacs. At
Colgate, which he attended as a National Merit Scholar, he wrote his
thesis on the ethnic and religious vote in the 1928 and 1960
presidential elections.

After graduating, he went to Harvard Law School, a path that he
could have taken into the patrician upper classes. But Phillips's
experience in Cambridge strengthened his identification with the
middle class--and the Republican Party. Harvard, he later wrote,
was filled with "long-haired kids driving Jaguars their permissive
dads gave them." Harvard's Republican Club, he told reporter E. J.
Dionne in 1990, "contained all these kids from unfashionable places.
All the kids in the Democratic Club were the sons of New Deal
lawyers who had `III' after their names."

As a teenager, Phillips had volunteered on Fino's campaigns, and,
after graduating from Harvard, he got a job as his administrative
assistant. Fino typified the movement of ethnic Republicans and
Democrats away from the liberal consensus. He remained liberal on
core New Deal issues like Social Security, but he voted against
Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, which he saw as a giveaway to
"poverty commissars and generals." Phillips, too, supported New
Deal ideas--even going beyond them to back national health
insurance--but he deplored "silk-stocking" liberals who "send their
kids 2,000 miles to look for poverty in Mississippi but won't
travel one subway stop to help poor whites working for

$1,800 a year." When Phillips envisioned a new Republican majority,
it embodied this mix of cultural conservatism and New Deal
liberalism. Its leading practitioner was not Barry Goldwater but
Richard Nixon, who would rail against rioters and promise "law and
order" but still appoint Daniel Patrick Moynihan as his domestic
policy adviser.

So, in early 1968, the gangly 27-year-old Phillips interviewed with
Pat Buchanan, then Nixon's campaign speechwriter and adviser. "He
told me about these four counties in Dixie that had voted
Republican since 1896," Buchanan recalls. "I said to myself, `This
fellow knows a hell of a lot more about politics than I do.'"
Phillips was hired and spent the campaign writing memos for the
candidate. The next year, Phillips published The Emerging
Republican Majority, in which he predicted that "the Negro
socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological
inability to cope with it" would break up the Democratic Party.
Some liberal Republicans from "the Pucci and Porsche precincts of
the Northeast" might become Democrats, but former Democrats in
ethnic suburbia and in the Sun Belt would defect to the Republicans.
Phillips predicted that, in 1972, many of the 13.5 percent of
voters who had supported breakaway third party "populist" George
Wallace in 1968 would embrace Nixon, giving him an easy victory.
Which is what happened.

Phillips painted this Republican realignment as "a populist revolt
of the American masses" against "the mandarins of Establishment
liberalism." But, when Phillips was asked whether he supported
Wallace's populism, which was based on opposition to racial
integration, he avoided the question. He argued that the racial
realignment of the parties was "inevitable." In fact, as would
become clear later, Phillips, like many armchair populists, had an
idealized and self- deceiving view of the middle class. What
mattered, above all, was that the "Alabama truckers" and "Idaho
loggers" were going to be voting Republican.

Phillips's faith in the emerging Republican majority was to be
short-lived. Phillips, who had quit the administration in March
1970 to become a columnist and radio commentator, felt vindicated
by Nixon's landslide in 1972. But--in the aftermath of Watergate,
the Republican rout in 1974, and the choice of "Old Guard"
Republican Gerald Ford to replace Nixon--he despaired of the GOP.
He began working closely with a group of other young, discontented
conservatives. These activists--who included Paul Weyrich, Howard
Phillips, and Richard Viguerie--formed the nucleus of what Phillips
would label the New Right. The New Rightists dismissed the Ford
Republicans, who, Phillips charged, "don't want a `New Majority'
coalition in which they lose control to the new South
Boston-Georgia-Idaho `populist conservatives.'"

Phillips saw the New Right as a "populist conservative" movement
that went beyond opposition to busing and civil rights. It was
based on a "conservative counterreformation" percolating in the Sun
Belt and the Midwest that he compared favorably to the older
Catholic counterreformation. "Religions such as the Baptists,
Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Jesus
Freaks are all on the same rise," Phillips wrote in his book
Mediacracy. But, he warned, "neither existing party structure
really lends itself to the articulation of the philosophical themes
of the counterreformation."

So, in 1975, he and other New Right activists began discussing
whether to run a third party candidate for president who could
mobilize this new majority and counterreformation. Phillips wrote a
column in Newsweek touting a Reagan- Wallace ticket. And, in late
spring, the group met Reagan at the Madison Hotel in Washington,
hoping to convince him to take up the New Right banner. But Reagan
turned them down flat. He only wanted to run as a Republican.
Phillips wrote later that "some participants" were "put off" and
perceived Reagan "as a stereotyped country club Republican."
Phillips was one of them.

Reagan, of course, lost his 1976 bid against Gerald Ford, but, after
he was elected president in 1980, the Californian confirmed
Phillips's earlier fears. The first event to incur Phillips's wrath
was the "record

$16 million" inaugural. During the festivities, Phillips wrote,
Reagan "seem[ed] to spend half his time going to parties thrown by
New York, Washington, and Los Angeles high society. North Carolina
and South Dakota did not elect Mr. Reagan for his taste in
limousines, formal morning attire, or Parke-Bernet antiques." But,
more significantly, Reagan disappointed Phillips when he embraced
supply-side tax cuts. Phillips, who never bought the argument that
the tax cuts would increase revenue, criticized Reagan for "hitching
his political future to the fiscal theories of Calvin Coolidge's
and Herbert Hoover's treasury secretary Andrew Mellon."

At the same time, Phillips was also developing qualms about populist
conservatism. Indeed, when neo-Nazi candidates for office won
Republican primaries in California, North Carolina, and Michigan in
1980, Phillips warned that "the American public is seething with
anger, distrust and alienation." In his book Post-Conservative
America, which appeared in 1982, Phillips warned that, when Reagan
tax cuts didn't bring prosperity, their failure would unleash the
"populism and socio-economic yeast [that] now bubbles just below
the surface of what is called Reagan conservatism." The yeast could
"metaphormose into extreme radicalism" reminiscent of 1930s

But Phillips's outlook was changing in a more fundamental way. As he
lost faith in Republican conservatism and the New Right, Phillips
became increasingly concerned with the apparent decline of U.S.
industry--evidenced in widening trade deficits to Japan and Western
Europe and the growing weakness of the U.S. auto, steel, and
machine tool industries. Phillips began spending much of his time
talking to business groups. Along with his influential political
newsletter, the "American Political Report," he founded a business
newsletter, "The Business & Public Affairs Fortnightly," that
covered the growing debate over trade and industrial policy.

Phillips's model for dealing with economic decline was what Nixon
and Treasury Secretary John Connally had done in 1971 when faced
with the nation's first twentieth-century trade deficit and with a
potential run on the nation's gold reserves. Nixon and Connally
abandoned the gold standard, set up wage- price controls, and
threatened to block Japanese imports if they would not revalue
their currency. In 1984, Phillips published a book, Staying on Top:
Winning the Trade War, in which he rejected Reagan's laissez-faire
strategy and called instead for a coalition between business and
labor and between liberals and conservatives to back government
intervention to revive American industry.

Phillips now referred to himself as an "economic nationalist" rather
than a "populist conservative." His defense of industrial policy
reaffirmed his rejection of conservative economics and his return
to Nixonian economic nationalism. (Indeed, Phillips had visited
Nixon to discuss his ideas, and Nixon provided a blurb for the
book.) And his emphasis on economics represented a clear break with
the New Right's emphasis on culture and religion.

Phillips finally broke with the GOP for good over the presidential
nomination of George H.W. Bush, who embodied everything Phillips
hated about Reagan's Republican Party. It was bad enough that the
Reagan of Dixon, Illinois, had used cultural populism to win
support for his conservative economic agenda. But seeing Bush
eating pork rinds was the last straw for Phillips.

Bush's patrician mien had long infuriated him. In 1970, he had
written a column criticizing Nixon's appointment of Bush and three
other "nonideological middle-of-the-road Ivy Leaguers." Five years
later, Phillips criticized Ford's appointment of Bush as CIA
director on the grounds that Bush was a representative of the "old,
genteel, businessoriented GOP." In 1980, Phillips warned Reagan not
to choose Bush as his vice president because he was "a symbol of
yesterday's Republicanism--and the son of a Wall Street
stockbroker, educated at Greenwich Country Day School, Andover
Academy and Yale."

In the 1988 campaign, Phillips had criticized Bush as someone whose
"zip-a- dee doo-dah Eastern preppiness" made him a "poor candidate
to rally the electoral coalition of Nixon and Reagan." But, when
Bush invoked flag, faith, and Willie Horton to defeat Democrat
Michael Dukakis, Phillips recoiled at the hypocrisy of using
populist appeals to divert the electorate from the damage that
Reagan and Bush's economic policies had done to the country. Bush,
he wrote, "tried out a populist image. ... Yet the America Bush
truly represented was that of old multigenerational wealth--of
trust funds, third generation summer cottages on Fisher's Island
and grandfathers with Dillon Read or Brown Brothers Harriman--which
accepted the economic policy of the Reagan era despite its distaste
for its arriviste values."

During the 1988 campaign, Phillips praised Democrat Richard Gephardt
for his economic nationalism and Jesse Jackson for pushing the
Democrats back to "`common man' economics." Two months after the
Bush administration took office, he described it as "one of the
least capable in recent U.S. history." And, in 1990, he published
The Politics of Rich and Poor, which indicted the Reagan and Bush
administrations for "intensifying inequality" and allowing
foreigners to "gobble up large chunks of America." In the past,
Phillips would have criticized Reagan and Bush's economic policies
because they did not appeal to "Idaho loggers, Carolina farmers and
ethnic steelworkers," but, in The Politics of Rich and Poor, he
criticized them because they "worked against the national

When People asked Phillips in 1990 whether he was still a
Republican, he replied, "I'm a Nixon Republican, not a Bush
Republican. Nixon is a Middle American Republican, and Bush is a
Park Avenue-Palm Beach Republican. In the Nixon administration, you
heard terms like `silent majority' and `Joe Six-Pack. ' What you
get out of Bush is capital gains, and a speed boat off his cottage
in Kennebunkport." But, of course, the Republican Party of Richard
Nixon no longer existed; so, after 1988, Phillips was a man without
a party whose writings would be lavishly praised by Democrats and
condemned by conservative Republicans.

In 1997, Phillips and his wife moved out of upscale Bethesda,
Maryland, and settled in tony Goshen, Connecticut, where they
maintained a summer home. Phillips shut down his newsletters, and,
disillusioned with contemporary politics, undertook a history of
Anglo-American politics. But, in the last four years, he has
returned to the fray, publishing three long political works: Wealth
and Democracy, American Dynasty, and American Theocracy. These books
are not of the same quality as Phillips's early volumes. They are
marred by repetition, pedantic detail, gnawing inconsistency, the
interposition of rumors among facts, and an awkward attempt to fit
U.S. ills into a cyclical theory of history modeled on Paul
Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But, like all of
Phillips's books, they contain astute observations of American
politics. And they are important because they showcase Phillips's
final break with populism.

American Dynasty and American Theocracy both appeared after George
W. Bush invaded Iraq, and both books seethe with a rage--partly a
function of Phillips's opposition to the war--that is missing from
Phillips's earlier works. Phillips throws everything he can at the
two Bushes--from George H.W. Bush's suspected role in the October
Surprise in 1980 to George W. Bush's suspected arrest for cocaine.
Phillips portrays W.'s election as a "dynastic succession" made
possible by crony capitalism, campaign chicanery in Florida, and
populist manipulation. The father's "political Achilles heel" was
his "cultural schizophrenia ... an unstable mix of genteel northern
moderate conservatism and the two-gunned Texas brand." The son,
with "the cow country accent, the rumpled clothing, the chewing
tobacco, the style of religiosity, the moral fundamentalism, the
outsider language, the disdain for the Harvards and Yales, the
six-gun geopolitics, and not least the garb of a sinner rescued from
drink and brought to God by none other than evangelist Billy
Graham," was "almost a caricature overcorrection of several of his
father's greatest political weaknesses."

In American Theocracy, Phillips charges George W. Bush and his
father with promoting "a reckless dependency on shrinking oil
supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential)
religion, and a reliance on borrowed money." The invasion of Iraq,
Phillips argues, was intended in part to "rebuild Anglo-American
oil company reserves, transform Iraq into an oil protectorate-
cum-military base, and reinforce the global hegemony of the U.S.
dollar." But religion also played a role. "There is something about
Iraq--most cynics would nominate oil, but the influence of the
Bible is also relevant--that clouds the competence of
Anglo-American invaders and occupiers," Phillips writes. It is in
his discussion of religion that Phillips reveals just how much his
attitude toward the middle class has changed.

In the '70s and early '80s, Phillips applauded the spread of
Christian conservative politics. It was an essential part of
populist conservatism. It was the middle class
"counter-reformation" against the secular liberal elites.
"Sociologists in the '60s," Phillips wrote, "mistakenly identified
populism with the left and played down the much more important
demographic implications of people who ... spent time listening to
fundamentalist preachers, often on television." Reagan's largest
gains, Phillips explained approvingly in 1982, were among voters
"with cultural and religious issues on their minds--Northern
Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Western Mormons, and white Southern
fundamentalist Protestants."

But, in American Theocracy, he condemns "the increasingly narrow,
even theocratic, sentiment among Republican voters" as a threat to
American science and democracy. Phillips writes, "No leading world
power in modern memory has become a captive, even a partial
captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy ... that dismisses
modern knowledge and science." Phillips simply has no patience with
this large part of the Republican middle-class base. It "favors
military intervention in the Middle East to promote the fulfillment
of end-times prophecy and the second coming of Christ," rejects the
climate-change treaty because it is "incompatible with the Book of
Genesis," and believes in "the rights of embryos" and "the
prerogative of the sperm and egg to join" over "the arguable rights
of women."

In Phillips's earliest works, militant Christianity was a
commendable expression of populist protest. In American Dynasty,
Phillips sees it as manipulated by economic conservatives. "The
right," he explains, is "mobilizing religious conservatives to
bolster a corporate and financial agenda." In American Theocracy,
he depicts cultural conservatism as a form of false consciousness
that requires no direct manipulation from above. "Some 30 to 40
percent of the Bush electorate, many of whom might otherwise resent
their employment conditions, credit-card debt, heating bills or
escalating cost for automobile upkeep (from insurance to gas
prices), often subordinate these economic concerns to a broader
religious preoccupation with biblical prophecy and the second
coming of Jesus Christ."

Admittedly, even at the height of his populist fervor, Phillips had
shown signs of distaste for certain aspects of middle-class
culture. Explaining during the 1968 campaign why a Nixon
endorsement by actor John Wayne would go over well among Southern
voters, Phillips told reporter Joe McGinniss, "Wayne might sound
bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks
we're trying to reach.... The people down there along the Yahoo
Belt." But, in his earlier books, Phillips always concealed any
hint of such contempt.

In American Theocracy, by contrast, Phillips no longer makes any
effort to identify with those parts of the middle class that
enthusiastically supported George W. Bush and the Republican Party.
Phillips notes that the top four states where Bush has done better
than Ronald Reagan-- Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, and
Tennessee--are "fundamentalist and evangelical strongholds notable
for their unimpressive rankings in education, mental health, child
poverty and homicide rate." He even rejects the "car culture" and
"hydrocarbon culture" of the South, Southern border states, and
prairie states--noting that all "thirteen states with 75 mph speed
limits ... all lopsidedly backed George W. Bush for election." So
did "spectators at nascar events." This culture, Phillips writes,
prefers "conspicuous consumption over energy efficiency and
conservation," and it sustains the rule of an "oil, automobile, and
national security coalition" in Washington. Exit Phillips the

Phillips's journey from The Emerging Republican Majority to American
Theocracy has certainly not been unique. He is one of several
notable Republicans who drifted from the party in the late '80s
because of Bush's indifference to the economy, and the Iraq war has
driven many Nixon Republicans from the GOP, too. But Phillips is
notable because he developed so much of the strategy and ethos of
the movement he has now left. Phillips virtually invented the
culture war that enabled the rise of the Republican Party. But,
with American Theocracy, Phillips has finally switched sides. He
may remain a Nixon Republican, but, in his cultural attitudes, he
now typifies "the Pucci and Porsche precincts of the Northeast" he
once disdainfully rejected.

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