The Silent Plutocracy

By Taylor, Paul | Mother Jones, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Silent Plutocracy


Taylor, Paul, Mother Jones


The Silent Plutocracy

Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich

By Kevin PhillipS. Broadway. 496pages. $29.95. Reviewed by PAUL TAYLOR

Kevin Phillips is the skunk at the American capitalist tea party. For three decades now, he's been warning anyone who will listen that Wall Street snakes, corporate sharks, and their willing dupes from Washington, D.C., are taking the rest of us to the cleaners.

What makes Phillips such an unlikely town crier about the perils of plutocracy (government of, for, and by the rich) is his own political lineage. He first came on the scene in 1969 with a book that grew out of memos he'd written as a young strategist for Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. The thesis of that first Phillips best-seller, The Emerging Republican Majority, was that the civil rights movement and the cultural permissiveness of the 1960s had generated a middle-class backlash that would enable Republicans to capture two key voting blocs-Southern whites and Northern ethnics. His analysis was dead-on. Campaigning on his playbook, the GOP stayed in the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.

But Phillips has always been even more fascinated by economic tides than by cultural ones (though he is deft at identifying their intersections). He is a Main Street Republican who has watched with mounting indignation as his party, the economy, and his country have been overtaken by Wall Street. Phillips argues that the "financialization" of the economy-the fact that more economic activity is now generated by trading and speculating than by manufacturing-is a harbinger of an empire in decline. He also sees it as the root of the "quiet depression" in living standards that has afflicted the middle class in an era of supposed prosperity.

Wealth and Democracy, his fifth book on these matters, offers a sweeping historical chronicle of the ways in which speculative manias and survival-of-the-fittest ideologies, voracious robber barons, and complicit governments have conspired through the centuries to separate the middle class from its money. Few can match Phillips for the muscular mix of history, demography, analysis, and outrage he brings to his work. You may already know that the CEOs of large U.S. corporations earned 531 times as much as the average worker in 2000. But did you know that the share of the nation's wealth owned by the top 1 percent of Bostonians was 37 percent in 1848? …

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