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Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Kevin Phillips
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Kevin Phillips Transcript

BILL MOYERS: With me now is a man who has been tracking the political and economic history of American wealth for a long time. Kevin Phillips and I were both young men in Washington in the 60s. We were on different sides but had a mutual interest in politics that reached workaday people. He was the chief political strategist for Richard Nixon's victory in 1968 and wrote the bombshell book on the emerging republican majority. Ten years ago his best-selling book on the politics of rich and poor influenced the 1992 elections. In his new book, WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY, he is writing about how big money and political power are the invisible hand in the hidden story of the American experience. Good to see you again.

Good to see you again.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Nice to be here.

BILL MOYERS: You keep referring in "Wealth and Democracy" to a plutocracy. What do you mean by that?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the plutocracy ... and I think we have one now and we didn't, 12 years ago when I wrote THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR is when money has ceased just entertaining itself with leveraged buyouts and all the stuff they did in the '80s, and really takes over politics, and takes it over on both sides when money not only talks, money screams. When you start developing philosophies in which giving a check is a First Amendment right. That's incredible. But what you've got is that this is what money has done. It's produced the fusion of money and government. And that is plutocracy.

BILL MOYERS: But hasn't money always held politics hostage?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, it's usually been very influential. And sometimes it really hasn't been too influential,

But what we've seen in the '80s and '90s is that it's taken control of both parties, pretty much taken control of the culture, and controls the whole dynamics of politics. And that is ...

BILL MOYERS: But the si- ...

KEVIN PHILLIPS: ... a plutocracy in a way that we haven't had before, since the gilded age.


But the signers of the Declaration were representatives of America's first and wealthiest families.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, they were, but, you know, a funny thing about that, because they were simultaneously people who were furious with the British. Furious with the British for taxing them, for not letting them make their pig iron into hammer and spades, for not paying the right amount of money for tobacco.

And if you read what they had to say, it sounds like the American version 100 years earlier of what the people out in the plains said about the bankers in New York and the railroad owners in Minneapolis. So they were fighters in a way. And Thomas Jefferson pretty much stuck with that. You had a divergence within the founding fathers of those who became, in the American context, pretty conservative, and those who like Jefferson maintained their anger they had against the British economic elites in the United States.

BILL MOYERS: But where is that anger today? Because the ... the two men who spoke most consistently with what you're saying in WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY in 2000, John McCain and Willi... Bill Bradley, Senator Bradley, both got defeated in their primaries. And they were the ones who were registering the discontent of which you are ... are writing about. What happened? The peop... that the majority of people don't share your convictions and mine?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I'm not certain whether they do or they don't. But the ... the key thing in the year 2000 was that if you look at all the psychological profiles of the United States, of the electorate during that period, even though the Nasdaq had started to crash they still thought things were pretty good. The real dive didn't come until after the election when you had the miserable elections stalemate and the sagging economy.

So that basically, you never get one of these reactions against big money until you've had this speculative implosion. And normally I think if we were seeing any kind of debate in Washington, and the Democrats have all kinds of things they could say about the Bush dynasty and Enron, for example, it's mind blowing, but they don't.


KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think partly because they're so interested in raising money that they can't see their soul in the mirror.

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to the word equality? When you and I were young men in politics it was a common reference in our political discourse. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, a lot of others too, but you don't hear it in the political lexicon anymore.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: You hear it in twisted ways. There is a view in some conservative circles that it doesn't matter much what concentrations of wealth you have or disparities of income. It's equality of consumption. It's the right to have Nike shoes, to listen to a boom box, to take a plane ride. And ...

BILL MOYERS: Nothing wrong with that.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, no, but on the other hand, that didn't solve problems in a depression when you had the right to watch a plane fly over Kansas. Or turn on the radio. So you've got these different ledgers that are kept. And people that try to say "consumption is the yardstick" usually have it in mind that democracy is not ... that income differentials are not, they stand for a different philosophy.

BILL MOYERS: Didn't the word "equality" disappear because the people who believe in inequality won the elections?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, there's a certain truth to that. And going back to the time when we were both in politics on different sides of the aisle, the ... one of the great weaknesses, in my opinion, in liberal politics, was to start talking about social equality in a way that had never really occurred in the United States. People came to this country as immigrants and they ... they suffered all kinds of hardships and "no Irish need apply" and everything you could name. Nobody ever tried to draw blueprints for bussing the Irish around Boston ...


KEVIN PHILLIPS: ... or things like that. And there was a sense that equality in the social sense could be obtained through government, that became powerful in the '60s. And in my opinion, that was the beginning of the tending of the idea of equality in the sense of ... of economics. Now, conservatives will still say all that matters is equality of opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: The market will produce the equality.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Yes, exactly.

BILL MOYERS: You ... you know that I was quite taken with your book "The Politics of Rich and Poor," what, a decade ago?


BILL MOYERS: 1990. In it you told of how the wealthy had made great gains in their power. They had ... are you writing the same thing now? Has it changed quantitatively and qualitatively?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think there are two stages, the 18- ... the 1980s were the first stage in the sense that Ronald Reagan wanted people to have a chance to get rich. He liked entrepreneurs, he liked people who owned 14 department stores or two movie studios. It wasn't for the big old steel companies or anything, but he liked money. And he and Don Regan, the Treasury secretary, created a political culture in which fashion became in, making money became in, paper entrepreneurialism was the key, all the leveraged buyouts. And that was a whole culture of... people got a lot of money at the top.

But what you got then in the 1990s was, in my opinion, stage two. And this was the technology mania, and the rise of the securities markets, taking technology and making this incredible bubble out of it. And a new crowd of people got rich. Plenty of the old people, but a whole lot of new people. New people who tended to have a more liberal politics in many cases, to name Internet companies, things like Yahoo! and AskJeeves, and what have you.

If you look at the list of new money in the Forbes 400 say in 199... 1998 or 1999, when the Internet crowd was coming in big time, we've got an awful lot of Democrats. And the Democratic Party has in its own way started to be a party of a different type of wealth. The Republicans have the smoke stacks and the polluters and the ranchers and the oil companies, and the Democrats have a lot of the communications media, a lot of biotechnology, a lot of the coming stuff ...

So what we've got are two sets of people in Washington who basically because of the whole demand of financing campaigns go to people with money. They go to different sets of money and you've sort of got what you had in politics before the Civil War: the Democratic Party, that basically was in with a southern plantation aristocracy, and Republicans who are in with the merging industry. Nobody was for the little guy.

BILL MOYERS: What's the ordinary Joe and Jane to do? I mean, the guys running these cameras working here, whom you've met, they can't write big checks to either political party or political candidates, and yet it's a struggle not to leave people despairing today when they read an analysis such as "Wealth and Democracy." What are the average folks to do?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, one thing I think they have to do is they really have to say on certain issues, which are not strictly party issues, we've just got to mobilize on the issues, whether it's campaign finance or other things like that. But secondarily they've got to work to make the party system make a difference. You can't have two parties that represent different flavors of great wealth and expect not to see all these weaknesses continue to grow.

BILL MOYERS: But you've already said that both parties spend all their time raising money. And they don't listen to the people running the cameras. They listen to the people writing the checks.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Yeah, well, some of the time they do, because you keep reading about votes in Congress periodically, where these outrageous proposals, be they tax or trade or other things, they only make it through by one, two, three votes. People are standing there twisting arms of Presidents, giving them six post offices and three favors.

Now, if there wasn't some responsiveness to public opinion and a sense that things have gone too far, that wouldn't happen. So the trick is to mobilize somehow or other institutions in this political culture that will take those issues on which Congress ... some of them would like to be made to vote against their contributors. And, you know, I'm ... I'm not sure how to do it. I think ...

BILL MOYERS: It took a rich man, Ross Perot, to make it happen in any significant manifestation ... eight years ago, ten years ago.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: But see, part of the thing in ... in the United States, is that the minority of rich people are usually on the side of trying to make America work like America. You had in the last election, in the three people who were running sort of as populist, John McCain, millionaire, son and grandson of four-star admirals, Bill Bradley, multi-millionaire, former basketball player, even Ralph Nader's got three or four million dollars worth of investments. So all kinds of people go against what should be their interest financially because of what they think is the right thing to do. That's really something to build on.

BILL MOYERS: What's been the biggest change? You ... I was in Washington in the '60s, you came right after, helped elect Richard Nixon, we were both in our 30's then, very young 30's, what's been the biggest change in Washington since we were young men there?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think the entrenchment of money in ways you can't even begin to count. It used to be that when a new wave politically came to Washington they swept it out. And that was certainly true with Lincoln, it was certainly true with FDR. It couldn't happen even in the '60s, in my opinion. There's no way to sweep now. The whole structure was just a pyramid of ... of economic influence mongering.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the new McCain Feingold ban on soft money will have any positive impact on this?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Oh, it'll have some positive impact, but in many ways, it's gonna be another version of the lawyers and accountants full employment act.

BILL MOYERS: So what do we do?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Keep fighting. I think there are signs that it's turning now. To me one of the most important milestones will be if people, and I include the media here, have the courage to document and put on the front page what they won't really touch now, which is ...

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: All the examples of the Bush family's role in the rise of Enron. Here, we're running around, we're blaming these accountants, these tricksters that were in Enron, but George W. and George H.W., his father, were very much involved in the whole rise of Enron's influence and power in this country. But you ... you don't see that. People in the press have a lot of trouble touching these issues right where the rubber hits the road.

BILL MOYERS: Well, when you've got anchors making eight, nine, ten million dollars a year, when you've got a handful of huge media corporations owning over half of the outlets in this country, do you expect much populism from those people?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: No. And that's the fundamental problem. How do you get dynasties to talk about other dynasties? I think it's a real difficulty. Unfortunately, that means that some of us have to start talking about stuff we'd rather not do all the time because if you don't make a lot of friends by doing it ... it's tough, but a dynasty is a dynasty is a dynasty and these problems are there, and this incredible amount of money is ... is just staring this country's historical role in the face

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that the pro-wealth policies of the right, the conservatives, have endured so much support among working Americans and low income Americans?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, all I can say is if I were a Democratic senator, I would go on and make a speech that might remind Democrats of stuff they haven't heard in a long time. You get professors who are dedicated liberals and they go on and they make these speeches and nobody pays any attention. You have to basically go in there and do a number. You have to go in there and just stand there and describe who supports somebody, who is paid for and who has done this, that and the other.

If the Democrats wanted to take all these issues out and run 'em up the flagpole, there is still plenty of people ready to salute. That's why we have some of these close votes. But you've got to be willing to do it. And I understand why a lot of them don't want to do it. But, you know, who's gonna do it? Ralph Nader couldn't do it. His friends dropped him when he talked about all of this.

BILL MOYERS: Are you going to join the Democratic Party?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: No, I don't think the Democrats have done anything that I should say, warrants... but I'm certainly and independent more than a Republican at this point. John McCain is the one lifeline and one of his aides left because he didn't seem to want to carry the flag and that's a big question mark.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Kevin Phillips.




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