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An Achilles Heel

The GOP used crime in the streets to reclaim political power. Democrats hope crime in the suites will do the same for them.

September 01, 2002|KEVIN PHILLIPS | Kevin Phillips is the author of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

WASHINGTON — More than 30 years ago, crime in the streets became the symbolic linchpin of a powerful new conservative agenda that realigned U.S. politics around thematic caricatures ranging from hippies and pointy-headed professors to welfare Cadillacs and Willie Horton. Today's liberals hope that crime in the suites can be just as effective and enduring.

Maybe. But probably not in time for the midterm elections in November. A few John Rigases or Martha Stewarts won't mobilize the U.S. electorate. Deeper worries must bubble, and they're not likely to shape political debate until the presidential election two years from now.

Crime rarely becomes a dominant national political issue by itself. It usually takes on a high profile when connected to a broader governmental incapacity. In the 1960s and early '70s, amid central-city and campus riots and the morass of Vietnam, crime in the streets became Richard M. Nixon's catchword for a failure of liberal politics, jurisprudence and sociology, as well as excessive belief in the power of government to do good. That deeper worry was the motor that made crime statistics a cutting-edge indicator: the public's fear of deadly streets, revolutionary campuses, police crippled by liberal judges, ruined neighborhoods, endangered homes.

This year, politics is still looking for its conceptual motor. For crime in the corporate suites to become one, it too must come to symbolize a broader failure, most likely of conservative economic policy.

For many Americans, the failures three decades ago were embodied by student demonstrators, draft evaders, social planners and central-city looters. Realignment-class politics usually requires this kind of gross oversimplification, and any comparable 2002-04 provocation must produce a new set of targets. Philosophers need not apply. Devils would have to be made out of the constituencies and theorists of organized greed, experimental deregulation, financial finagling and corporations uber alles.

You can already see who might make the list: crooked CEOs, gimlet-eyed investment bankers, politicians paid off by the likes of Enron--as well as unethical accountants, shady Wall Street securities analysts, pension-fund skimmers and so on. But it will take two or three more years of high-profile scandal to really ring true.

In place of the sociology, war and urban breakdowns of 30-plus years ago, the most plausible 2002-04 inflammations could be mutual fund evaporations, a popped housing bubble, more stock collapses and beggared pension funds. Top economic officials say that it can't happen and that the economy is doing well. That is part of the question.

The earlier gestation of crime as a national political issue didn't happen overnight. Moreover, it was interrupted by an external surprise--Watergate--that for a while seemed to turn the tables as to who stood for law and order and who didn't. New terrorist strikes could similarly scramble issues in 2002-04.

A renewal of such attacks could affect the crime-in-the-suites issue in at least two ways. It could create a garrison-state America, in which the public's multiplying fears and anxieties would dwarf worries about executive-suite corruption. But it could also turn the country toward previous, more strict wartime societal attitudes that frowned on black-market behavior and slapped heavy taxes on excess profits during wartime. That kind of "patriotic puritan" America could be extremely hard on the sort of behavior that has been in the news recently.

For the moment, however, terrorism remains in abeyance, allowing Americans to refocus on economic problems that antedated the Sept. 11 attacks. Here the executive-crime issue is important not just as a symbol but also as a barometer--a measurement of how many sectors of the economy have been put at risk by corruption, speculation and greed.

The Internet craze that led to the high-tech bubble and the misbehavior by technology and investment firms associated with it, while expensive to investors, seems like old history. This is lucky for Republicans because nobody is likely to blame them for what went wrong in an industry full of pony-tailed executives and companies with names like Yahoo, Gadzooks and Ask Jeeves.

The next two major industries to self-destruct in the stock and bond markets--telecommunications and energy merchants--suggest more traditional foul play. State and federal deregulation was one factor, political influence-buying another and criminal greed a third.

Here, crime in the suites has produced a cast of obvious criminal personifications--notably, Enron and WorldCom--and a clear ideological bias. Conservative touchstones--overenthusiastic deregulation, permissive corporate governance and a penchant for worshiping markets the way 1960s liberalism knelt at the altar of sociology--have been implicated.

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