The LOWDOWN on the ECONOMY Kevin Phillips doesn't look on the bright side, or see one

January 31, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

BETHESDA — TC Bethesdao-- So what did you think of my book, Kevin Phillips asks.

The most depressing thing I've read in a long time, he is told.

"I would think so," the author replies. And he smiles.

Success!

Getting his readers to think -- and upsetting them if necessary -- is something Kevin Phillips has done for a long time. He did it in 1968 as a young man of 28 with a keen interest in politics, writing "The Emerging Republican Majority," which accurately predicted the GOP's electoral successes of the 1970s and '80s. But partisan politics don't interest him anymore -- what does is the miserable state of the U.S. economy.

His 1990 book, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," decried the continuing concentration of wealth among the rich in this country as many others grew worse off -- primarily, he wrote, because of the Republican-induced "new political economics, intensifying inequality and pain for the poor." Now, in his seventh book, "Boiling Point," he describes the financial hits the American middle class has taken in the past few years, and how middle-class frustration contributed to the defeat of George Bush and the election of Bill Clinton.

Basically, here's the message of "Boiling Point" for all you people out there in the middle class: You've got it bad, and it won't be good again for some time -- because who knows who will fix it?

Mr. Phillips says certainly not the Republican Party, with which he was once closely aligned but which he now blames for much of the economic deterioration that occurred in the '80s. Bill Clinton and the Democrats? Mr. Phillips had hopes for them even as of November, but now he says of the new president: "He talked about renewal, but he's plugging back into the lawyers and interest groups."

Plain-talking Ross Perot, with his pledge to reduce the national debt and shake up the Washington establishment, intrigued Mr. Phillips, but the Texan's quirkiness put him off. So what are we left with?

"A lot of negative things really suggest the opportunity aspect for the middle class is closing down," Mr. Phillips, 52, says, and you sense the momentum building up for a thorough play-by-play. This is, after all, his job. He's been editor of the American Political Report since 1971, and he also analyzes the American political situation for CBS and National Public Radio. If the sentences are rambling at times, the words come out in the well-measured phrases of a confident, seasoned commentator.

"First of all, there's the loss of the old blue-collar jobs at unionized plants that were so terrific for people in the '40s and '50s and '60s -- ethnic families all over the Midwest, and for that matter Baltimore and New York and New England. Kids would go into the plant where their father worked, and they could look to be blue-collar middle class.

Shutting down

"But that's just shutting down all over the country, and there's very little of those [plants] left. It used to be you could get a middle-class job without a lot of education. Now education is the key -- but even educated people [are feeling the effects], as there are a lot of them in their 40s and 50s who are being laid off by corporations that want to skip the benefits and pensions. And then they are out there in the job market."

And there's more. It's going to be terrible for the next generation, too, he says.

"The young people in their late teens and 20s now are likely in 20 years to be stratified according to what they inherit from their parents, because the generation that has the money in the United States is the generation from about, say 45 to 80," Mr. Phillips goes on. "We're already seeing stratification coming from parents leaving money to their kids. More and more, the status and wealth of younger people will be dependent upon the wealth they inherit from their parents. And the problem is that many of the parents of the middle class don't have the money to save."

Mr. Phillips' message may not always be the most pleasant, but he sure knows how to deliver it. And he's frequently right. "The Emerging Republican Majority" was a stunning debut book, written by a middle-class young man from the Bronx who was only four years out of Harvard Law School. It described the emerging importance of the Sun Belt and the Southern vote, and urged the Republican Party to court the middle-class Americans who were disenchanted with liberal Democratic politics and concerned about such social issues as crime.

" 'The Emerging Republican Majority' really was a road map to electoral victory for the Republican Party," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, a leading political scientist. "It was Phillips' seminal and probably most important work. Its overall theoretical construct proved to be stunningly accurate as American politics unfolded in the 1970s."

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