The Middle Class Revolts Of 1860, 1968 And 1992


By Kevin Phillips

Random House -- 307pp -- $22.50


By Robert C. McMath Jr.

Hill & Wang -- 245pp -- $30

For 25 years, politicians have ignored Kevin Phillips at their peril. In 1967, as an adviser to Richard Nixon, he identified the first stirrings of the white middle-class resentment that would change American politics for a generation. In 1990, in The Politics of Rich and Poor, he took another look and found the middle class angrier than ever--its rage focused on the economy.

In Boiling Point, Phillips reassesses that rebellion in light of the 1992 Presidential election. And he senses a sea change: George Bush's stunning defeat in 1992 was, according to Phillips, as much a political "big bang" as the crushing Democratic defeats in 1860 and a century later, in 1968. Only this time, it's the Republicans who are in deep trouble.

The middle-class revolt may be a great opportunity for Democrats, Phillips writes. If Clinton can "revitalize and sustain the economy," the party could hold power for years. But 1992's "Democratic middle-class watershed" also carries risks. Phillips recalls how easily the GOP gave up its gains among the Silent Majority. If this anger "could destroy Bush and his Presidency in 18 months," he writes, "his successor can also be destroyed by the same angry electorate."

Phillips' dissection of the politics of frustration is worth reading, but unfortunately, he spends less than half of this book on politics. The rest focuses on economics and tax policy--not his strength.

Most of the volume recites the now-familiar litany--taxes up, incomes flat, layoffs soaring, services down, and pensions at risk. But Phillips never mentions that, while the middle class pays most of the taxes, it also enjoys the bulk of government subsidies, such as the mortgage-interest deduction. And, trade hawk that he is, he rejects the possibility that global growth could create opportunities for U.S. workers.

Phillips has a curious perspective, especially for someone usually identified as a Republican. For instance, he bemoans the fate of the residents of a New York suburb who must now pay for public beaches, pools, and golf courses that were once "free." Phillips should know better. These services were never free. If the residents of Nassau County weren't supporting them, other taxpayers were. Similarly, he hates privatization, because it means that those who use public facilities must pay for them. Never mind that these services might be provided more efficiently.

In the short run, the weaknesses in Phillips' unremittingly bleak analysis of the economy are probably beside the point. As long as most people share his view, they'll remain angry at government and the financial Establishment. And, as Phillips says, that fury drove Bush back to Houston. In 1992, a stunning 62% of voters turned thumbs down on Bush and his country club set.

Bill Clinton has that tiger by the tail now. But he'll have only a brief opportunity to criticize the Washington that he now largely controls. Then it will sink in that he is the political Establishment. And in 1996, the state of the economy will be his reward--or his burden.

Clinton has bet the ranch on his high-profile deficit-reduction plan, an effort that, for now, has the backing of the middle class. But they're going to bear the burden of deficit-cutting: For instance, Clinton has already proposed to raise taxes on Social Security recipients with incomes of more than $32,000. And their sacrifice will taste bitter unless they also enjoy some rewards--a stronger economy and more jobs. Phillips argues that Clinton is on the right track with his anti-special-interest rhetoric. But the President still has to deliver.

Today's middle-class angst is, of course, just the latest manifestation of a populist thread that has run through U.S. politics since its earliest days. "Genealogists seeking the ancestry of political alienation in the early 1990s," Phillips notes, "will find forebears in the late 19th century." If you're interested in putting current developments into historical perspective, you're in luck: Also new in the bookstores is Robert C. McMath's clear-eyed and readable American Populism.

McMath reminds readers of the nature of Populism-with-a-capital-P, a movement that ultimately failed but that helped define American politics in the late 1800s. Most important, he recalls that populism has always been a movement of the middle class, rather than the poor. A century ago, it was driven by yeoman farmers and small-town shopkeepers whose comfortable lives were rocked by technological and social change. They blamed banks, Catholics, and the government. Today, the disaffected blame Wall Street, the Japanese, and the government.

Listen to Ross Perot and radio talk show hosts blast "special interests," and you're hearing echoes of long-ago voices in American politics. In 1828, Andrew Jackson got himself elected President by railing against "special privilege."

In 1988, Jesse Jackson learned that he couldn't build a successful populist Presidential campaign by appealing just to the downtrodden. Perot is still trying to make populism a permanent political force. Phillips clearly thinks the movement's time has come. But if the economy does improve, will contemporary populism go the way of its ancestor? Reading McMath makes you think so.

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