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Kevin Phillips' Boiling Point Is Not so Hot

BOOK

By John A. Cloud

Last June, Ross Perot became the first independent or third-party candidate in the history of American polling to surpass the major-party nominees in pre-election surveys Polling organizations said no such candidate had ever pushed past 30 percent in national polls--but Perot at his peak drew a stunning 39 percent.

The magnitude of Perot's support--and George Bush's neverending inability in 1992 to appeal to voters--has not been lost on Kevin P. Phillips, whose new book Boiling Point seeks to explain the 1992 mini-upheaval in American politics.

Now regarded as something of a political prophet, Phillips staked out his reputation for foresight in 1969. Having worked for the Nixon campaign, he argued in The Emerging Republican Majority that Republicans would come to dominate presidential politics by bashing the liberal Establishment and praising middle-class, church-going, penny-pinching, cloth coat-wearing values.

Here Phillips casts his explanation of 1992's surprises in terms of what has happened to "the middle class" during the Reagan years.

Phillips places the blame for the economic troubles of the middle class on "capitalist-conservative" Republicanism of boom periods like the 1980s--when the political favoring of "speculators, rentiers and other passive investors who lived off capital, not enterprise" shut off middle class advances.

Phillips is quite comfortable making political predictions that flow from middle class decline. In fact, he's pleased with himself generally. He mentions his previous books at least 17 times in his 260 pages, and spends nearly all his Introduction explaining that those who ignored the arguments of a previous book. The Politics of Rich and Poor--especially George Bush--lost their elections.

On the other hand, Clinton, Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan and other political pros had read his book" and drawn on its theses." Nyanya-nya, in other words.

Phillips does have a lot to be proud of: Rich and Poor devastated Reagan apologists' arguments that the 1980s "boom" had improved the position of everyone, not just the rich.

Boiling Point works best when it does for middle class decline what Rich and Poor did for income inequality. Using a flood of statistics and anecdotes, Phillips relentlessly persuades us that the middle class lost out during the most recent period of heyday capitalism.

Of course, Phillips does take his middle class paean a little far sometimes. At one point, for example, he decries the absence of "real service with a genuine smile" in gas stations (as in the movie "Back to the Future," Phillips says bizarrely) as a problem with the 1980s.

Overall, however, Boiling Point solidly persuades us that what Bill Clinton made a campaign of saying--that the middle class got the shaft during the '80s--was in fact true.

But Boiling Point falls apart on one important count. Phillips' conception of political motivation lacks the richness and texture he's capable of. Since Marx first said that proletarians would rise up when they became aware of their economic situation, perhaps no former Republican's interpretations of politics has been as strictly materialist as Phillips.'

Populism, he says, Lies just under the surface of American politics at all times. When the economy is good, it does not manifest itself in elections. But when the economy is bad, populist sentiment can bubble up to a boiling point--and the consequence is party realignment.

Phillips also blames growing social problems on a poor economy. Check out this materialist gem: "Moreover, stagflation fed social disruption, so that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, divorces, drug use and hemlines were rising alongside inflation, interest rates and debt."

Phillips slowly unpacks his preference for a prudish yet caring communitarianism in place of either liberal Establishmentarianism or ultra-capitalist market solutions. Phillips as Grumpy Old Man sees this as America's past, and it informs his prescription for the future.

Phillips' focus on economics reveals that he views the connection between economic decline and political protest as very simple--even intuitive. He says, for example:

[A]s the 1980s boom crested, rising taxes and other costs were gobbling up much of the national income gain of the middle class, while public services and the governmental safety net were starting to deteriorate. By the end of the decade, these economic effects were producing political unrest.

The actor remains unclear in Phillips' passive voice: By what means do economic effects "produce" something? He seems to say it creates "frustration," which leads to group behavior. This circularity doesn't tell us much: Why does frustration lead to group behavior? What does "frustration" mean? The debate over collective action is far from this simple, and Phillips merely skates over the complexities.

Why, for instance, did anger top the boiling point in 1992 and not before? The stagnation of wages and shifting of tax burdens onto the middle class were largely in place by 1988, and yet a very patrician George Bush won handily.

Phillips must turn to elite behavior to explain the absence of populist insurgency before 1992. He says Dukakis did not emphasize populist themes even as the Republicans, "mindful of popular psychologies," ripped him into tiny capital-L Liberal shreds.

Apparently "popular psychologies" aren't responsive to harsh economic conditions unless elites point them out. Clinton, he says, "developed a strong message about 1980s favoritism to the top one percent and unfairness to the middle class" and so "quickly became the Democratic front-runner." According to Phillips, Bush, as the "scion of a prominent investment banking family," didn't have Reagan's populist credential to counter Clinton's message, and consequently failed to win reelection.

Unfortunately, the very fact that Phillips must turn to elite behavior in order to explain mass actions disrupts his clean connection between economics and politics. If hard times explained political protest, elections would not be subject to the whims of campaigning and electioneering.

But Phillips holds firm to his simplicities, and his book is the worse for it.

It's obvious that large chunks of Boiling Point were written after the November election, which provided Phillips with just two months to meet his late January publication date. The writing suffers for it.

Its sometimes tortuous wordsmithing aside, Boiling Point provides a quick way to review the economics of middle-class decline. Still, readers who are looking for a well-rounded conception of political motivation in 1990s America won't find much here.

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