A review of Post-Conservative America:People, Politics, and Ideology in a Time of Crisis, by Kevin P. Phillips
The title of Kevin Phillips's hew book, Post–Conservative America, points backward as well as forward. In his first book,The Emerging Republican Majority, Phillips claimed to understand the stuff of which a conservative America could be made. He promised to plot a winning electoral strategy for the Republicans based largely on an analysis of demographics and ethnic groups. This analysis revealed the remains of traditions stemming from a common pattern of religious and nationalistic roots-"tribalisms," he sometimes calls them-now secularized and economized. These remains, Phillips thought, might be marshalled into a national conservative ideology.
Phillips appeared as something previously unheard of, a "conservative populist," who pointed the way to underpinning a Republican presidency with a more conservative Congressional delegation. If it was not to be made up of a majority of Republicans, this Congress might at least be an expression of popular ideological commitment. This commitment would replace the interest group representation so favored by elites, especially in academia, which had served the Democratic party so well. The Republicans had been increasingly successful in capturing the Presidency after World War II. Phillips held that Congressmen who were "polarized" as liberals or conservatives would provide better material to work with for Republican presidential politics.
Whatever the merits of his analysis, Phillips's conservative program has never been completely accepted, and his populism has never been altogether clear. His analysis, moreover, raises doubts that he has any fixed principles, principles that could be recognized as conservative, or even as within the framework of American politics. Phillips himself encourages such doubts in this latest book. He describes his analysis of American politics as "rather populistic, a vaguely neo-Marxian brand of conservative analysis."
Phillips now sees America in danger. Post-Conservative America is designed to spearhead a war to save America's "post-conservative" identity. He approaches the problem not as a political partisan, but rather as one separated from society, and unattached to any of its politically important divisions. This puts him in the position of ministering to society with the esoteric skill of a lawyer turned social scientist. (Phillips is, in fact, a lawyer.) He describes America as a phenomenon whose essence has varied, determined anew in each instance by several critical electoral upheavals: 1832, 1860, 1896, 1932. Phillips marks out a 28-36 year cycle for America, although he argues that America's cycles are really epicycles. These epicycles are fixed on those greater curves which, when on the rise, mark Western civilization's progress through periods of economic inflation and political advance.
As a would-be guide to the post-conservative realignment, Phillips argues that his opportunity has not been preempted by a realignment in the recent past. He maintains that the 1980 election was a hollow victory, not a realization of the ambitions of delayed conservatism. The great opportunity-greater than most people realize-for his Emerging Majorityproject was lost because of the "Watergate Warp." A Nixon who truly represented an "articulate, populist-tinged conservatism" would have won with an even larger majority, which might have ensured control of Congress for the Republicans. He would then have had complete mastery, dominating a moribund Democratic party which had become unresponsive and oppressive. But the Watergate Warp caused the opportunity for a conservative alliance with populist antielitism to slip away during the 1970s.
When the 1980 election came, campaigners saw a deeply despairing and frustrated American voter. This frustration and despair was caused not just by Jimmy Carter's ineptitude, Phillips argues, but by a much more general disaffection that had grown up about America's institutions and government policies. This made almost inevitable a campaign strategy responding to forces which had been fermenting out of the new communications-based, postindustrial America since the 1960s. These were the "forces of cultural anomie, religious fundamentalism, economics (including economic apprehension), nationalism and even frustration." The Reagan campaign then made the matter even worse. It radicalized the middle class to the point where the 1980 campaign had many similarities to European, even Weimar German, politics.
By 1980, America was "Balkanized." It consisted of what Philips has always thought to be the worst material for politics-separate groups with distinctive prejudices, lacking any common ideology of national life. Balkanization means not just geographic conflicts such as the one for which Phillips's earlier analysis is famous-conflicts between sun belt and frost belt-but also those created by economic, political, ethnic, and even sexual differences. To these Phillips adds the divisions that are generated by government itself, by the separated powers of the Constitution. In short, America's unity of ideological outlook is sadly decayed. The real opportunity to capture a true conservative populism, Phillips believes, passed with the 1970s. Still, despite errors and lost opportunities, he finds in populism grounds for hope. Though Phillips's populism is ideological, he is not clear as to the basis for its program. It does not appear to be essentially economic, despite its emphasis on economic analysis. Nor does Phillips take religion seriously as a ground of populism. As it develops, Phillips is not really interested in populism itself. His real interest is in what he calls the "Gross National Psychology" of populism. He is not concerned with what is true, but with what people think is true. As in his other writings, Phillips is indifferent to the factual bases for the opinions of participants in political life. Thus the dissatisfactions Phillips recounts are merely epiphenomena for him; he concludes that those who voted for Reagan were motivated above all "by a desire for bold measures to be taken."
In Post-Conservative America Phillips makes a halfhearted effort at noneconomic analysis of America's Balkanized situation. He gives an account of popular dissatisfactions with the loss of empire and of religious/moral conviction, and concludes with a hackneyed complaint about our separation of powers. It is his judgement that something like parliamentary democracy is preferable, and it is dear that Phillips's populism exists only as a yearning for a Gross National Psychology mat is an almost medieval unity of belief.
Thus Phillips's path has led him from a promising early enthusiasm for the people, a conservative populism which challenged a stale paternalism, to his own nightmare vision of frustrated Balkanization. His attacks on the Constitution supply a final confirmation that his populism is little more man a wish for a bold march into a future of ideological unity. They show that he puts little value on what must be the essence of any sound populism, the people's right to consent to their government. This government, in turn, must have a firm basis in principles of natural right. Phillips's call to overthrow the Constitution aims only at weakening a stable structure and enthroning transitory majorities. His theme is old, not new. After all plebiscitary democracy was the theme of the radicals in the 1960s, and England was their Camelot. It is sobering to observe that the successors of those radicals are now loudest among those who admire the promise of a postconservative America.
Phillips may best serve the country he dearly loves by providing a target for his critics' fire. His populism, founded as it is upon a science of History, goes against the grain of American politics. The principles of human nature embodied in the Declaration of Independence, for example, are permanent, and not functions of a cycle of ideology. Further, the principles of the Constitution, as interpreted in Federalist 10, encourage precisely the kind of Balkanization Phillips laments. Others may object to Phillip's insistence that America is caught in a historically determined reaction to loss of empire.
The reader is thus led to hope that Post-Conservative America may serve its audience primarily by angering it. It is even possible mat Phillips himself will react against it, and that his next book may be a renewal of what was perhaps a more wholesome early direction. On the other hand, if the book is well received, the portent is ominous. Already it has been received favorably by those who see it as revealing the true and violent character of conservatism. Others see it as a good example of empirical social science. For these audiences, the sad truth will be that they accept without discomfort a work whose principal thesis confirms Solzhenitsyn's worst assessments of the West. Phillips is a scientist of history, whose description of our decline into a frustrated barbarism and nihilism is also an advocacy of our steadfast acceptance of nothing more than boldness. The fact of Phillips's respectability seems to verify Solzhenitsyn's observation: "There seems to be little doubt, as many now realize, that what is going on in the USSR is not simply happening in one country, but a foreboding of the future of man. . . ."