Does Barack Obama’s victory mean a new and permanent political alignment in American politics? Bill Moyers speaks with Kevin Phillips about how America has changed since author Kevin Phillips penned The Emerging Republican Majority40 years ago. In this episode, Bill Moyers pays tribute to the loss of Studs Terkel and John Leonard.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
BARACK OBAMA: Because of what we did on this day, change has come to America. I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy.
CROWD: Yes we can!
BARACK OBAMA: Where we are met with cynicism and doubt we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes we can.
BARACK OBAMA: This morning we woke up to more sobering news about the state of our economy. The 240,000 jobs lost in October marks the tenth consecutive month that our economy has shed jobs. Tens of millions of families are struggling to figure out how to pay the bills and stay in their homes. We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime.
BILL MOYERS: For almost 40 years now, after every election I’ve gone back to gauge the results against this book, THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY. It was written in 1968 by a young political analyst named Kevin Phillips. While poring over voting patterns for Richard Nixon’s campaign, he spotted some trends that would prove to be political dynamite. People were moving in droves from the old northern industrial states into what Phillips called “The Sun Belt” just as Democrats were losing southern white support by pushing civil rights for African Americans. He believed a so-called “southern strategy” would bring working class Democrats into the Republican fold.
He told THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1970: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republican.”
Sure enough, it worked. Southern whites would help the GOP win seven of the last 10 presidential elections, by ensuring that no Democratic presidential candidate would get a majority of white votes from 1968 to 2004.THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY became a best-seller and a seminal reference for modern politics, establishing Phillips as a leading thinker of the conservative movement. But over time, he grew disaffected with the GOP’s takeover by the religious right and with its economic policies favoring the rich. With his 1990 book, THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR, Phillips’ break with his old comrades was complete.
Kevin Phillips became a political independent and the author of a series of best-selling books on politics and history. You saw him on the JOURNAL a few weeks ago discussing his latest, this one BAD MONEY: RECKLESS FINANCE, FAILED POLITICS AND THE GLOBAL CRISIS OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM. Now he’s back to talk about, what else? The election and the economy. Welcome.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Happy to be here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the catharsis of Tuesday night? The dancing in the streets, the tears in the eyes the jubilation?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Americans always have a sense that the election of a president, is somewhat like a new king coming into a country that has monarchy, will change everything, will open up new pages, will get rid of the things we didn’t like. We tend to overstate it. And that’s part of what’s going on here.
BILL MOYERS: I would say that the answer to that question is because the country is changed. When you and I were young men in Washington in the 1960s, America was almost 89 percent white. Today it’s 66 percent white. And someone said to me last night, “Minorities voted as if it’s finally their country, too.”
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, actually one of the interesting things was, according to the exit polls, among people who thought that race was a reason to vote one way or the other, the majority voted pro-Obama, and my guess is that’s because you had a proud black turnout. The same way that in 1960 the Catholic vote in Northern suburbia, which had been Republican was pretty heavily for John Kennedy because of the religion.
BILL MOYERS: He won among blacks, nine to one. He carried Hispanics by 66 percent. He won the under-30 vote by two to one. There’s your new emerging majority, right?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think demographically it may be. I think you get confused about what happens in the political institutional sense. I think the Democrats are going to have enormous problems over the next four years, taking a coalition in which they represent these new emerging demographic groups.
But they also, based on contributions and political geography, represent the financial community now, the upper-income groups. And how they straddle this, which is something they’ve never had to straddle before, especially in difficult times, I think will strain the demographics.
BILL MOYERS: So, he’s got a tension there that is incoherent, a seesaw that’s going to be hard to balance. How does he improve the lives of those ordinary people who voted for him?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think if we have a serious economic recovery in which the conservative trickle-down economics is not part of it and, as a result, you have spending that moves money in the direction of middle-income and poor people, that’ll make a big difference. But I think it’s going to be an enormously difficult balancing act.
And forget just the fact of the financial people and the role in the Democratic Party. You’re going to have Obama torn between people who want him to help his electorate, the ordinary people, and those who say can’t do it because of financial constraints, fiscal constraints. The famous thing that was said to Bill Clinton about, you know, he can’t do anything the bond traders don’t like. And he had his great response and described what he thought of the bond traders. But he did it their way.
BILL MOYERS: So you look at this new economic team that Obama has appointed, this advisory group that was announced yesterday, you know, names like Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, CEOs from Chase, Xerox, Time Warner, Citigroup, I mean, people who served their time on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms and are big supporters of this bailout. Do you see anyone in that list who represents working people?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, oddly enough, the richest man on the list at least represents skepticism of Wall Street. Warren Buffett’s told more jokes about that crowd. It’s really funny as well as prophetic. But I think it’s also fair to say that Paul Volcker doesn’t automatically represent the financial community. I think he’s transcended that. He has much more of a sense of he’ll do what’s best for the country. And I’m not sure a lot of the others quite think of it that way yet.
BILL MOYERS: Then there’s Robert Reich who was Clinton’s Secretary of the Labor.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Bob Reich, generally speaking, is there for balance as opposed to having a whole lot of impact. I didn’t really see that there were representatives of the labor movement there except Bob. And he really isn’t. I mean, he’s not somebody who came up through the union movement. That’s the weak link in the Democratic coalition. What are they going to do for labor and the people who are just falling behind in the movement of the United States away from manufacturing to finance?
BILL MOYERS: You know, I still look often at your book, 1990 book, THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR and we’ve now had this long run of corporate and right-wing free market economics that has produced the most massive distribution of income in our history, which you anticipated, by the way in that book. The top one percent of households in this country saw their real income more than triple while the majority of labor of the labor force got virtually no increase at all in real wages over the last 35 years. How does the new administration turn that around?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I don’t think they’ve even confronted it as a particular problem yet. I think they’re aware of what’s happened to the distribution of wealth and of income. But I don’t think they’ve come to grips with the fact that that has been a corollary of the rise of finance; because, whereas manufacturing had a huge labor force and moved a lot of blue-collar people up into the middle class, the impact of finance is basically to turn the whole country, whether it’s overpaid CEOs or even consultants in the economics sphere, into a people who sort of follow the markets, follow finance.
And the rewards there go to a very, very narrow group comparatively. If you look at the employment of the financial sector relative to the whole labor force, it’s total peanuts compared with what manufacturing did when it was elevating people in the manufacturing era.
BILL MOYERS: There’s an argument apparently going on within Obama’s inner circle even as we speak. Some of his advisors say it would be politically and economically disastrous if those billions of taxpayer dollars in the bailout were just to sit in the vaults of the bank. On the other hand, the Wall Street and the corporate types, according to the press this morning, are pushing back. They say leaving the money in the banks would help stabilize them and prevent a further crisis in the credit market. What do you think?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think basically that’s the most screaming set of self-interested analyses that I can remember. When this thing was passed, they basically had people on television saying that if this bailout doesn’t go through, you’re not going to be able to get money out of your ATMs, all sorts of dire things were going to happen. And now it turns out that, well, maybe they weren’t expected to spend that money after all. Maybe that was all a great camouflage outfit.
Because what they want to do with the money and seemingly it’s okay by a lot of the people involved is use it for bonuses, for dividends, for sitting around so they feel comfortable, for mergers. It’s mind boggling. They created a panic psychology, which has taken a lot of people’s 401(k)’s and savings accounts and pension opportunities and pointed them right toward the toilet. And now they got their bailout, scaring everybody to death, and what do they want to do with it? Nothing.
BILL MOYERS: How do you think the bailout played out in the election results? I mean, I’ve seen that Putnam the Republican from Florida who supported the bailout and even Blunt the Republican leader in the House who supported the bailout, are stepping down from their party positions. Do you think there’s a connection there?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: There’s a very strong connection. If there’s one spot of the election returns that were relatively bright for the Republican, it was in the House of Representatives. The Republicans didn’t lose nearly as many as people thought in the last week or two. And I think it was because of the bailout. I think finally they stood up to Wall Street, which is like the Democrats in earlier days standing up to the unions or standing up to the teachers’ union. The Republicans stood up to Wall Street, say this is no good. And people who took that view survived. And I think the administration really ought to take a look at that because between the populist Republicans and progressive Democrats and the blue dogs who are going to be worried about the budget, they may not be able to get a majority out of the House of Representatives for all the bailouts which I think they want.
BILL MOYERS: If Obama proves unable or unwilling to tackle some fundamental injustice in this country, if he just nibbles at the edges or strokes the symbolism, which is so powerful, I mean, might there be a racist backlash against a black President that will have white voters saying, “Never again”?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think there could be a backlash. And I think the Republicans could make gains in the midterm elections and maybe win the next presidential election. I say “maybe” there because I think it’s going to take a lot to make them look good, too. But what I would say “could happen” is I think black voters would be disillusioned. And instead of flocking to the polls, they might actually turn fairly lukewarm.
And I think a lot of the whites in the middle, the lower middle class, the blue-collar people, the sort that he made some ill-chosen remarks about, not you know, sort of not responding too much and sitting out there and sulking. I think if he doesn’t get anything done, they will sit out there and sulk. And that’s a danger to him, too.
BILL MOYERS: There is this argument going on among commentators in the “punditocracy”. I mean, the right wingers saying this is still a country that is center right. And Jon Meacham, the editor of NEWSWEEK, told Charlie Rose the other night this is a center right country and progressives had better understand that. On the other hand, on the other side, you’ve got Nancy Pelosi saying the center of the country today is progressive. Where do you think the center lies in public opinion?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think the demographics of the change that we started out discussing, which is the great rise in non-whites it’s not a center right country anymore in my opinion. But I think it’s a centrist country with tendencies towards frustration. And back in the 1970s, I remember Pat Caddell, who was Jimmy Carter’s pollster, was polling on some of this stuff.
And we sort of semi-collaborated a bit because we thought that affected both parties because the radical center so to speak was angry in a way that neither side could count on. I think that’ll develop again. I don’t want to say radical center. But I think it’s going to be a frustrated centrism that can lurch either left or right, outdated terms, but it’s probably going to be very unhappy if anybody says, “We can reform and privatize Social Security.” And the voter then says, “Yeah, but you bailed out the rich.” End of debate.
BILL MOYERS: You know, as you looked at the map on Tuesday night, the red, blue, and now purple map, the red runs from South Carolina, below the Mason-Dixon Line, all the way over to Arkansas and my home in East Texas. What does that map say to you today?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the first thing it says to me is I think what we’ve seen develop in the eastern United States is a megalopolis. That word doesn’t get used too much anymore. It was big 40 years ago, but it’s still very relevant. It doesn’t just run from Boston down to Washington. You now have a rapidly modernizing suburban and research belt that runs all the way down through Virginia to the research triangle in North Carolina.
And you can start to make some argument for Charlotte, North Carolina, being pulled into that. And I think that is a major inroad on what can be thought of as the South. And, of course, the other version of that is in Florida where the northern part of Florida starts in the South and then peters out as you go north, culturally. And I think this is a major caveat. I don’t advise the Republican Party and wouldn’t dream of it. But in terms of looking at what’s there of the South they can count on, it just got narrowed
BILL MOYERS: So, if you were writing the emerging new majority today, where is the emerging majority today?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I would say it’s the emerging non-majority. In other words, you can’t count on more than a plurality because party attachment isn’t going to run deep enough, which means you can’t possibly build a generational supremacy. I mean, after 1968 Republicans held the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.
And I believe if Bill Clinton hadn’t had a zipper problem, the Democrats would have had it for three terms. But at this point I think what you’ve got is a troubled enough set of circumstances for the United States, economically and globally, that people in the White House are not going to be able to make enough of a stalwart rallying impression to set up another supremacy like you got out of 1860 with the Civil War or 1896 or 1932. I think they’re gone. I think the roots of political parties are more tenuous now. And nobody will have that sort of supremacy.
BILL MOYERS: So, what do you think the implication of that might be over the next four years?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think the Democrats have to figure on trouble. The Republicans have to figure on some opportunity for a rebound. But I think mostly they both have to think about that in a lot of ways they’re a duopoly, a double monopoly that no longer has meaningful ideas but has entrenched interests. And if that’s true again, and I think it could be, then Americans are really going to start to say, “How do we get something new in this country?”
BILL MOYERS: Pat Buchanan said this week the conservative era is over. What do you think about that?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think it’s over in the sense that supply side and trickle down economics is gone for a while. I think that’s fair to say. It’s also clear that we have socialism coming in a big way. But it’s socialism for the rich. You know, the profits go to finance but the liability of something goes wrong, well, that’s the taxpayers. You know, that’s the so what you’ve seen is conservatism in the old sense of free markets was totally trashed by Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson, you know? Not your everyday garden variety Riverside Drive leftists.
So we now have socialism on right center. And I don’t see that we come back to the free market stuff for quite a long time. But I would say is the bailout liberal? Is the bailout conservative? Or is it some hybrid? Or do those words not mean anything?
BILL MOYERS: State capitalism.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the bailout is state capitalism. But opposition to it, some of it’s “conservative.”.Some of it’s “progressive.” And maybe these people in the end will have more in common than they realize and will start to vote together on some things. That could be an unexpected breakthrough.
BILL MOYERS: Quickly connect the dots of this recent era for us, ballooning debt, sliding home prices, recurrent money supply expansion, growing inflation, peak oil, crumbling dollar, stagnant wages. What do they have in common?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think they’re all part of something I’m starting to think of as the mega bubble, 25 years of just pumping up the money supply and deregulating and not worrying about the ordinary person but sort of faking him or her out with friendly statistics and feel-good stuff. We are in an age of disappointment. And I don’t think that’s going to be eradicated easily. I’m not sure it will be at all. And I think all of these things you mentioned point in that direction.
BILL MOYERS: The book is BAD MONEY: RECKLESS FINANCE, FAILED POLITICS, AND THE GLOBAL CRISIS OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM. Kevin Phillips, thanks for being again on the Journal.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Always good to be with you.
BILL MOYERS: In just the last week, our country has lost two of its most original progressive voices, and I’ve lost two friends.
So much has been said about Studs Terkel, there’s no need to embroider any further a remarkable life spent listening to America. But I’d like to share with you a scene or two from a documentary Studs and I did back in 1984 for CBS News.
TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Amtrak welcomes you aboard.
BILL MOYERS: We traveled by train from Chicago to San Francisco, on the Amtrak Empire Builder, the train that crosses the Northern Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest, then down the West Coast from Seattle. Along the way we buttonholed anyone who was willing to talk, and Studs and I, well, we just listened.
STUDS TERKEL: What’s your big worry in the world today? What worries you?
MAN: Benjamin Franklin said something to the effect that with all the technological advances that they had had at that time, and we’ve had much more since, it was such a pity —he expressed it much better than this —that we had not had moral progress.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s a moment I remember when Studs started talking with a young mother-to-be.
STUDS TERKEL: All right, that baby. Pretty soon?
WOMAN: Three months.
STUDS TERKEL: Three months. Okay. What sort of world do you want that baby, boy or girl, to have? What sort of America?
WOMAN: I want this to still be available. I want this to be accessible, and I want that baby to have the same opportunities that I’ve had.
CHARLIE FIKE: Homeward bound, I wish I was homeward bound…
BILL MOYERS: You know, you asked a lot of people on this trip, “What —what are you worried about?” Let me ask you, Studs Terkel, 72 years old —
STUDS TERKEL: Yes, sir.
BILL MOYERS: — seen a lot of this world, a lot of this country. What are you worried about?
STUDS TERKEL: I’m worried about what Einstein was worried about. And if he’s scared, I’m scared. He said, “We’ve taken such a leap in weaponry and technology and science. Unless we take that same leap as far as understanding one another in this society and in the world, we’re in for a catastrophe.” And wouldn’t it be good if we had more passenger travel and if all these roadbeds were fixed, that have been on the bumpy side? And I’m always thinking one less missile and so many roadbeds and so many passenger trains traveling. Wouldn’t that be something?
BILL MOYERS: Oh, yes, Studs, that would have been something. A few weeks ago Studs sent me two of his many marvelous books — HARD TIMES: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION, and his own memoir, P.S. FURTHER THOUGHTS FROM A LIFETIME OF LISTENING. He taught us all how to listen, and in the best progressive tradition made noteworthy the lives of the folks he called the “non-celebrated” —the people who keep the wheels going ’round.
The other friend who just left us was John Leonard, one of our most prolific commentators, critics, and essayists. A frequent contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. He was possessed of an insight that saw the early promise of such writers as Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Like Studs, he had a knack for perceiving what was at the heart of American society and our culture. Even though he was at the end of a long fight with lung cancer, one of the last things John did before dying was to get to his polling place Tuesday so he could cast his vote for Barack Obama.
So long, John and Studs. It was good to know you.
That’s it for this week. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 10, 2015