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GOP Gadfly Turns to Bashing Rich : Politics: Righteous indignation pours from Kevin P. Phillips' writing. Class anger, in fact, is the key to understanding the consistency of his world view.

June 22, 1990|E. J. DIONNE JR. | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — 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.

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