Former GOP Strategist Kevin Phillips on the Roots of American Revolution and Future of U.S. Politics

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With the Republican Party in a state of turmoil following Mitt Romney’s loss three weeks ago, we begin today’s show with a guest who was once one of the most influential Republican strategists. In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote the groundbreaking book, "The Emerging Republican Majority." Newsweek described the book as the "political bible of the Nixon administration." After a series of best-selling books on the Bush family, Wall Street and the American theocracy, Phillips is looking back at the roots of the American Revolution in his new book, "1775: A Good Year for Revolution." "What happened that set the United States in motion in the mid-1770s is still relevant in some ways, because what it showed was that you sometimes have to have a lot of very disagreeable politics to make progress, that you don’t get anywhere by having all kinds of nice slogans and by trying to barter every difference with a cliché and pretend that all’s well and the United States is in wonderful shape," Phillips says. "The United States is not in wonderful shape, and it needs to get back some of that spunk that it had when people were willing to talk very bluntly about harsh and tough measures." [includes rush transcript]

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Video squareStoryMar 21, 2006Fmr. GOP Strategist Kevin Phillips on American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: With the Republican Party in a state of turmoil following Mitt Romney’s loss three weeks ago, we begin today’s show with a guest who was once one of the most influential Republican strategists. In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote the groundbreaking book, The Emerging Republican Majority. Newsweek described the book as the, quote, "political bible of the Nixon administration." Phillips helped popularize the Southern strategy that helped Republicans win the backing of white Southern voters by appealing to racism against African Americans. Phillips later became a fierce critic of the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Phillips has gone on to write a number of best-selling books, including Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, and Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism. Well, he is just out with a new book; it’s called 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, which debunks the notion that 1776 was the most crucial year of the American Revolution.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Kevin, it’s great to have you back. I mean, we had you on certainly during the Bush years as you wrote about American dynasty. You, such a significant figure in Republican politics going back to the Nixon White House and your development of the Southern strategy. But you have certainly changed your mind over the years about what’s good for democracy in the United States. And before we go back to 1775—I mean, this book is fascinating, and I think it’s very much also a book about movements—your thoughts about where the Republican Party is today?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think the Republican Party today is not very sure of what it is. It is a little bit too interested in upper-bracket America. But I think the party system as a whole has drawn away from its moorings. You have a Democratic president supporting the bailouts of banks. The history of the Democratic Party, under Jefferson, Jackson and FDR, was to crack down on the banks. So I think you have both parties today don’t stand for very much aside from self-interest, and they’re mostly involved in hustling money from the 20 or 30 richest zip codes in the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kevin Phillips, one of the things, to go to your book, that you say is that one of the grandest political realignments that occurred, the emerging republican majority—that is, a small-R republican majority—occurred during the revolution. Could you elaborate on that and the significance of that for what you’ve said now about the political realignments both in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party today?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the importance of 1775 was something that always tantalized me as someone who spent a lot of time on different realignments, not just in the emerging Republican majority but in other books that discuss the Republican realignments in the 1890s and under Lincoln. And it seemed to me that if you looked at the realignments of American political parties, it was time to look at the underlying realignment of how you took colonists out of the orbit of a monarchical system and an empire and gave them the sense and determination to become what was the—obviously the first power in the Western Hemisphere, but the first offshoot of Europe, so to speak, to become independent and set up on its own. And I know a fair amount about it, but as I was drawn into it, it became a fascination.

What happened that set the United States in motion in the mid-1770s is still relevant in some ways, because what it showed was that you sometimes have to have a lot of very disagreeable politics to make progress, that you don’t get anywhere by having all kinds of nice slogans and by trying to barter every difference with a cliché and pretend that all’s well and the United States is in wonderful shape. The United States is not in wonderful shape, and it needs to get back some of that spunk that it had when people were willing to talk very bluntly about harsh and tough measures.

And one thing I learned out of 1774, because—actually, starting then—and 1775 was that there was a lot of tough fighting and harsh politics that underpinned the sort of happy image of the 4th of July, when we all came together and became this wonderful country that never disagreed internally, was never radical, never had a harsh politics. It’s time to sort of go back and think about confronting realities again.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go back, the Southern strategy—and especially for young people who might not be familiar with what it is that you developed, that you laid out—what it was and how it has changed and what you think needs to happen now?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, first of all, the Southern strategy is something that has become a cliché as opposed to an identification of anything that was ever flat-out there. The first Southern strategy was Barry Goldwater’s in 1964, and it was basically to try to win the South by not enforcing or not even enacting the civil rights laws. The Republican strategy in 1968 was what we called to win the Outer South. The Outer South were the states that George Wallace wasn’t going to be able to take into the third-party orbit. And that in fact is what happened. And once Wallace—and that particular instance was shot in 1972, but once Wallace faded away, you basically got the South, from the Republican standpoint, because the psychological changes hadn’t been made, and then when there was no longer a Wallace party, those votes went Republican in 1972.

But one of the things that everybody was aware of was that you had to enforce the civil rights laws, if only for realistic politics. Not talking about the morality, but if you didn’t enforce the civil rights laws, the Democrats would be able to wiggle back to their old straddle, which was, "Well, maybe we will, and maybe we won’t, and you remember us, we were the party that, you know, fought for four years for the Southern way." Republicans didn’t fight four years in the Civil War for the Southern way; the Democrats had.

So, what it means today, though, in my opinion, is that the Republicans have the South most of the time. They don’t have to bid in a very hard way for it. On the other hand, as the black vote gels in certain places, a marginal state like Virginia is enough to make the difference. That gives the Democrats a new set of voters that didn’t work for them before. The black votes that they put together in the '70s and ’80s and ’90s rarely won. Now they're more effective.

AMY GOODMAN: On election night, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly announced the white establishment is now the minority. He made the comment during an interview on Fox News before the final election results were known.

BRET BAIER: So what’s your sense of the evening? I mean, you look at these exit polls. You look at the, you know—

BILL O’REILLY: My sense of the evening is if Mitt Romney loses in Ohio, the president is re-elected.

MEGYN KELLY: How do you think we got to that point? I mean, President Obama’s approval rating was so low. And obviously this is hypothetical: we don’t know who’s—who’s even winning right now, never mind who won. But how do you think it got this tight?

BILL O’REILLY: Because it’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it—and whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things. And which candidate between the two is going to give them things?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and his assessment of why President Obama would win. Kevin Phillips?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I don’t think he’s perhaps the most penetrating analyst of the American political system. First of all, you’ve always had the Republicans talking about how the Democrats were trying to buy votes with welfare and so forth. And you always had the Democrats talking about how the electorate was changing out from under the Republican Party. So they each have their shtick that they do.

Demographics are always changing. When I was first involved in politics, it was: When the young people vote, that’s going to change everything. I’m sorry, it didn’t. Women voting in much larger numbers—maybe it’s changed, maybe it hasn’t, but not in a way you can count on. The whole welfare thing that the Republicans pulled out of the air this time, that’s a very old charge—the buying of elections.

And what was, to me, so unimpressive about the sort of O’Reilly analysis was the lack of a thought process. I mean, this country is facing an enormous economic and financial crisis. The notion that you can reform the tax system to give more tax breaks to the people at the top and that’s somehow going to light a fire under an economy that’s weakening in a lot of places is, I think, ridiculous. The sense they got out of the 2010 election that this was a screaming mandate for what the Republican leaders imagined they wanted to do, which was, I think, silly, that was an anti-Obama, anti-failure-of-the-Obama-economic-policies vote. It certainly wasn’t a mandate for this bring-back-the-fat-cat tax theories. So, they just—they just wrongly interpret it, and then they get themselves in trouble, and they flounder.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. Why this book now? And what is it about 1775, where you say that should be the date, the year, that people know?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, why this book now—let’s be blunt here. I got to the point, and I have several times in my life, where I couldn’t face thinking about all these politicians and pretending that I thought they had the solutions to too much. So I decided in 2008 that I wasn’t going to sit through another sequence of analyzing the politics and worrying about that. I wanted to go back to something I thought was more substantial. And I had done a book 10 years earlier called The Cousins’ Wars, which was about the three English-speaking civil wars. So I decided, I’m going to go back and look at the revolutionary period. I’m going to look at the first realignment. I’m going to look at the period of American history where you had really a pretty substantial number of great men, which is not exactly overwhelming at the moment.

So, why did I write this book? It was partly, frankly, as an escape hatch, so I could think about better things and better days and better people. So, I think it’s an important book. I think it’s got an important message. But I do have to say that one of the reasons I wrote it was to think about these people and not the people—I mean, just to pick up on Bill O’Reilly point, how any party could have watched the Republican primaries and the clowns that ran in these races and had the sense that the world was waiting for their ideas, I can’t imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to point out, Kevin Phillips was a major Republican political strategist, to understand where he’s coming from. Describe 1775.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: 1775 was the year in the early American Revolution where all the real groundwork was laid for independence—not 1776, which had the Declaration of Independence but consisted of a period where the revolution had been really underway for quite some time, and the British were counterattacking, and they were landing in New York and New Jersey in June and July 1776. And what made it so important to have the Declaration of Independence that year was so that you were independent and you could ask for aid from France and Spain and so forth, because the British were going to make it impossible for New Jersey and New York to vote for the Declaration of Independence when their troops were there, but they would before.

It’s a little cynical, but 1776 is very much overblown, what happened, and it’s difficult to just sum it up in a couple of sentences. But the First Continental Congress met in 1774, the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Most of the framework of the new nation to be the federation was laid. They set up the Army, they set up the Navy in July of 1775. There was a declaration from Congress, the clauses of taking up arms. And after King George got to see this, basically he said, "You’re rebels," and issued the proclamation of the American colonies being in rebellion in August of 1775. So, this is what was happening. This is the big period. By the time 1775 ended, there was no longer a single fort in the 13 colonies that was held by the British except the fortifications of Boston, of Boston Neck. Royal governors had fled. The colonies had little governments all over the place. Whether it was provincial congresses or committees set up by the First Continental Congress in 1774 to monitor trade boycotts, the government was there.

People don’t get to hear about this. They hear about this romantic sense of 1776, and it was sort of a love fest; we all didn’t really have to rebel too much, because we all did it together, and we have this wonderful language in this wonderful document—that at the time nobody cared about. And it’s just covered up the whole realistic thing. And that’s what I think is relevant today. You do not get realistic arguments out of these two sides with their clichés and their parties’ historical positions, which are not relevant to a crisis. They’re things they do to get their electorate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you say is also significant about 1775 is how that year makes clear the enormous impact of ethnicity and religion in the way in which people chose sides. Do you think that’s still relevant? Does that help us to understand how political identities in the U.S. are formed even now?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think it’s still relevant. I don’t think that the religious part of it is as pervasive now as it was in 1774 and 1775, when churches were much more of a guideline to how people voted. Now, I say that very well aware of the fact that there’s some churches still trying to play that game in a big way, but they’re not the mainstream churches, basically. The mainstream churches are not as active in politics. You don’t automatically have Lutherans taking sides against German Catholics or Anglicans against Congregationalists. You did 200 years ago. That was a very important set of yardsticks for mobilizing people, and there were just endless examples of it that I could give.

Today what you have—and I did put in one little footnote on in Ohio in 2006. The Republican Party was taken over by the religious right, and they were basically trying to take over the state. And the notion that this doesn’t exist today is a great mistake. But are the mainstream churches as pervasive as they were 200 years ago? Not remotely. Not remotely.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of movements in 1775 and how they might compare today, like Occupy or even the tea party movement?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, there was much more of an economic and cultural and political crisis, that people were aware of it in 1774 and '75. And there's sort of been anesthetics put over the crisis that we’re in right now. I would make a very strong argument that the United States is a declining power. I’ve said this in a number of previous books. It’s one thing I didn’t want to just have to keep repeating. I think it’s still true. I don’t think that the average American disbelieves it; I think they’re very worried about it. But it’s not discussed. It’s not raised. Pressure groups get condemned by editorial pages and so forth, and activists who aren’t all nicey-nice all the time get condemned. But if you look at 1774 and 1775, these are the people who carried the ball.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before we conclude, Kevin Phillips, I wanted to ask you, one of the things that you’ve also pointed out is that the Democratic Party has now shifted—I mean, you’re not only critical of the Republican Party but also of the Democratic Party—that it’s shifted away. It’s always been—it was previously the party of the people, but that’s no longer the case. Can you account for what explains that realignment?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think that what you have in politics, which so much depends on money, is that the Republicans and Democrats both depend on big money, but they depend in substantial part on different slices of it. There’s a big overlap. But if you look, for example, at the richest zip codes in New York and Boston and Chicago and Philadelphia, L.A. and San Francisco, all very rich areas, these are Democratic. The voice of the Democrats from the big cities with the major bank and financial concentrations, they’re so—Democrats are so strongly identified with these people and with certain industries, that they are very much for wealthy America, too. And it’s amazing to me how Obama was so able to posture as being for the middle class and against the rich—only with a Mitt Romney in there, Mr. I-Don’t-Want-to-Pay-Taxes and his vulture capitalism; otherwise, the Democrats would have had to say, you know, "What have we done for you recently? Really, well, not a whole lot. But we’re a lot better than these people." That’s what they had to say subliminally.

But, for example, the Democrats—it’s my understanding that Obama didn’t carry a single county in West Virginia, which is sort of a stereotype of a poor state. Now, for the Democrats not to be able to carry that, while they’re racking up huge contributions out of the zip codes in these cities I’ve just described, tells you about what the Democrats represent, too, which is another slice of rich America. And you’re not going to get anybody coping with this crisis who doesn’t say—and they stand up loudly and say it, and Warren Buffett says it—these people have to pay a lot more taxes. They have a lot more responsibility. The financial scandals were the most unindicted set of major scandals in American history—Democratic administration. Long way from Franklin D. Roosevelt there.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Kevin Phillips, for being with us. 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is his book. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at a case that continues to fester. It’s the story of the Central Park Five, five young men who were railroaded into jail, served up to 13 years in prison, and have yet to be compensated 20 years after they were arrested, wrongfully imprisoned. Stay with us.

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