KEVIN PHILLIPS, the conservative publicist whose
1968 2 The Emerging Republican Majority accurately identified the shift of political gravity from the frost belt to the "Sun Belt," here examines the health and prospects of his 14-year-old brain child. I should warn readers at the outset that Phillips has become something of a deep thinker, prone on slight provocation to cite Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, Fernand Braudel, Milton Friedman, and J.K. Galbraith, not to mention Arthur Laffer, Michael Novak, and George Gilder, on such weighty themes as the decline of civilizations and the quality of national character. As pundits will, Phillips entertains himself with shaky historical parallels between contemporary America and Weimar Germany and between recent inflation and the price revolution in 16th-century Europe. To his credit, Phillips tends to cast a skeptical eye upon his own speculations so little harm is done.
What I find fascinating in this clearly and provocatively written volume is the fragility which Phillips now discerns in the Sun Belt populism which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House. Like all coalitions this one is subject to stress. Its major components include born-again Christians deeply distressed by the performance of that born-again president Jimmy Carter, retirees from chillier climates, entrepreneurial types also from the north, and traditional patriots and upholders of family and flag who are comfortable with traditional southern attachment to military virtues and the army bases, defense contracts, and aerospace facilities which undergirded the Sun Belt economy even before OPEC marked up the prices of the region's oil and gas. To the Sun Belt conservative constituencies, Ronald Reagan added northern ethnics fearful of crime and enraged by "social engineering," frost belt evangelical Christians (an increasing minority), and those of the elderly who stick it out in the New England and midwestern snows. Reagan also retained the votes of most GOP moderates and traditional budget-balancing conservatives.
The New Deal coalition dominated American politics between 1932 and 1952 or, perhaps, right up to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Why shouldn't the Republican coalition endure for a similar span of time? Phillips perceives incipient cracks already threatening the Reagan new order. Unless economic growth resumes at healthy rates, the interests of the elderly will conflict (perhaps they already do) with those of young workers compelled to support out of social security and Medicare deductions from their paychecks a rapidly growing cohort of pensioners who tend discouragingly to live longer and longer.
In other words, the centerpiece of the Reagan revelation--its cherished combination of supply-side tax cuts and restrictive monetary policy--threatens the future of the Republican Party. If, darkly broods Phillips, four years of Republican economic failure succeed a similar spell of Democratic bungling, then the possible consequences include a shift in the direction of right-wing authoritarianism, our very own version of fascism (the Weimar parallel) or, more likely, decomposition of both major parities and the splintering of our politics among a collection of relatively small parties. Phillips is surprisingly impressed with the John Anderson phenomenon. Even though his independent candidacy collected in 1980 only 7 percent of the popular vote, Phillips thinks that the Anderson constituency, the quiche and chablis suburban types, can potentially be converted into a party similar in size and influence to Roy Jenkins' British Social Democrats.
In other words, for the rest of this decade at least, American politics are up for grabs. Phillips thinks that among the additional possibilities is revival of economic radicalism in the train of persistently high unemployment and spreading farm and business bankruptcies--a cheering note for citizens somewhere to the political left of Ronald Reagan. Still another entry is corporatism, an alliance between government and business in the interest of economic recovery. Corporatism currently comes in two flavors, John Connally's conservative mix and the comparatively liberal Felix Rohatyn alternative.
After so much intrepid crystal-gazing, Phillips is disappointingly conventional in his chosen remedies. He joins the critics of separation of powers between executive and legislative branches and endorses a shift toward parliamentary models which yoke power to responsibility. When Margaret Thatcher proposes a budget, the House of Commons obediently endorses it. She and her ministers, after all, constitute a substantial fraction of the Conservative vote in parliament. Not so here. If Congress nerves itself actually to enact a budget this year, its resemblance to the document David Stockman presented in February will be only coincidental.
MIT's notoriously liberal political scientist Walter Dean Burnham praises Phillips (on the dust cover) as "one of about five people in the United States who have a really good understanding of American electoral politics." I am inclined to agree, partly because Phillips' imputation of central importance to Reaganomics strikes me as valid and, for the rest, because I admire any writer whose analysis is at variance with his preferences. Although Phillips is as conservative as ever, he sees scant hope for the current political vehicle of his principles. I sincerely hope that he is right and that Reagan-style conservatives will shortly come to be perceived as the wave of the past.