As the 1980s drew to a close social critics across the political spectrum widely expressed expectations that the 1990s would redress the preceding decade's tilt in favor of business, wealth and free market pieties. Kevin Phillips, drawing on a theory about political cycles in American history which he had previously used to successfully predict the country's electoral realignment in the late '60s, certainly made that case in 1990's The Politics of Rich and Poor.
That theory identifies a pattern of twenty-eight to thirty-six year cycles in American history, each dominated by a particular party and its politics, which holds the White House and sets the tone for national politics through most of the period. Republican periods (1860-1896, 1896-1932, 1968-?) begin with the party taking a populist stance, typically against inflation and big government (as after the Civil War and World War I, and again by the late '60s), which gives way to a runaway enthusiasm for laissez-faire policy, attended by a worship of business and wealth, with a substantial element of Social Darwinism in the mix (as seen in the Gilded Age, the 1920s, the Reagan years). The less advantaged groups (typically those in rural areas, the interior, and primary industries, as well as labor and the poor generally) inevitably suffer, while the speculative excesses of an ever-more irresponsible financial sector lead to a general crisis. The result is a political backlash which comes to a head when the speculation brings on a crisis, leading to an era of more egalitarian attitudes and policies (the Progressive Era, the New Deal), and some downward redistribution of wealth.1
Of course, this last phase of the cycle never occurred in the '90s, or the 2000s, conservative policies continuing, with the expected effects: deindustrialization, financialization, speculation, debt, inequality. A possible explanation for this would seem that we ended up with two Republican cycles back to back again, just as we did between 1860 and 1932, but Phillips has not advanced such a theory in his later writings, and it is hard to see how he or anyone else could have. When this happened, it was the case that the Republicans were out of power when the crisis came to a head in 1893 (Democrat Grover Cleveland was President instead), permitting them to play the role of opposition, with the help of a more moderate line encompassing an element of economic populism (as with McKinley and Roosevelt). Nothing of the kind has been seen in the post-1968 cycle.
A more likely possibility is that Phillips may have been too quick to call the cycle over. After all, as of 1988, or even 1992, the Republican reign would have gone on only two decades, a rather shorter period than seen in the past - a run up to 2004 still plausible. One might imagine that the unusual circumstances of the War on Terror can account for the second Bush II administration. Yet, the Obama administration fell far short of a "New" New Deal, and might fairly be considered to have continued the cycle into an unprecedented fifth decade, even after the economic shock of 2008, while when running against Obama in 2012, the Republicans remained very much the party of Reagan, rather than taking a moderate line.
It seems quite plausible that if a pattern had indeed prevailed in American politics for the past two centuries, it has since been broken, with the proponents of conservative policies stronger than ever, and just as with the linearity evident in the differences among the Republican heydays, an entirely different analytical approach seems required to explain the fact.
Phillips' own analysis offers clues. One is in the pattern he has identified, which has Republicans and conservatives prevailing in three of the four last cycles. This seems suggestive of the "default setting" of American politics, a matter also indicated by the limited extent to which the United States deviated from such policies at even the most liberal points in its history (by comparison with not just Western Europe, but even Britain and Canada), as the much more limited extent of its welfare state demonstrates. The backlashes against conservative policy frequently produced much more rhetoric than substantive change, the Progressive Era, notably seeing very little action, and this generally in line with the interests of the country's economic elites, as Gabriel Kolko showed in his study of the period, The Triumph of Conservatism.2 One might, in fact, argue that the cycle was less about swings from left to right and vice-versa than swings within the right, from elitist right-wing politics to a somewhat more populist variant of the same (and that not usually for long), with the liberalism of the New Deal era exceptional rather than really representative of the dynamic, a function of the unusual circumstances of the Great Depression, World War II and the early Cold War.
The circumstances of the late twentieth century offered little reason to expect a repeat. Phillips did believe that declinist worry would be a significant source of pressure for reform. However, the stagnation of both Japan and (to a lesser extent) Western Europe, which removed that pressure, were a significant boost to American complacency in the '90s and after. At any rate, the fact remained that conservative policies were not confined to the United States, or even the English-speaking countries, but evident across the industrialized world - including Japan and West Germany. They were increasingly evident, too, in the old citadels of Communism, the Soviet Union and China, with the collapse of the one and the opening up of the other resulting in the whole world being swept up in the neoliberal wave. The extent to which neoliberal globalization actually limited the freedom of any one state to pursue heterodox economic policies may be debatable, but that it made them seem a much less viable path cannot be contested. Additionally, while, as Phillips notes, the late phases of conservative rule historically tend to see the Democrats swing rightward, it does seem to have been the case that American liberalism was in an especially poor position at the end of the twentieth century, considerably diminishing the pressure on the right to take a more populist position. The result is that meaningful redress of the issues raised by Phillips' book appears dismayingly unlikely nearly a quarter of a century later.
1. A fuller description of Phillips' theory can be found in my earlier review of the book.
2. In that book Kolko systematically examines the achievements of Progressive-era reformers to contend that these actually represented triumphs of business. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, for instance, were a matter of making American agricultural exports acceptable to European importers; national insurance regulation was a way of escaping state regulation which provided shelter to the smaller, local firms against which they competed; and the Federal Reserve was created to guarantee the availability of the liquidity business desired.
Review: The Politics of Rich and Poor, by Kevin Phillips
The Culture of Contentment and the Election of 2012
In Defense of Futurology
Review: Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank
Review: Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges
Reliving British Decline?
Niall Ferguson on Decline
Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire