The Politics of Grievance

Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips; drawing by David Levine

“Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”1 Henry Adams derived that earthy insight from a favorite author, Blaise Pascal. In his copy of the Pensées, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams marked this passage: “Tous les hommes se haissent naturellement l’un l’autre.”2 Pascal goes on in the same fragment to describe zeal for the common good as a pretense.

I first heard this doctrine from a less lofty oracle. Early in the 1968 presidential campaign, an aide to John Mitchell told me “the whole secret of politics—knowing who hates who.” The young Kevin Phillips was widely credited with Nixon’s “southern strategy” in that year; but he had many strategies, for different parts of the country. I was impressed by Phillips, and devoted six pages of the book I was working on to the predictions he made well before the 1968 election:

Sure, Hubert will carry Riverside Drive in November, La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?…Wallace is helping, too—in the long run…. We’ll get two thirds to three fourths of the Wallace vote in 1972…. I’d hate to be the opponent in that race. Teddy better wait twelve or sixteen years…. When Hubie loses, [Eugene] McCarthy and [Al] Lowenstein backers are going to take the party so far to the Left they’ll just become irrelevant. They’ll do to it what our economic royalists did to us in 1936.3

Phillips was the perfect man for Nixon. He is a connoisseur of grievances, and profoundly uninterested in ideology: “This is not a movement in favor of laissez-faire or any ideology; it is opposed to welfare and the Establishment.”4 When I asked him what a Nixon government would be like, he answered in the categories he understands: “Irish and Jewish, just like Nixon’s law firm.”5

Now Phillips has written a book about Reagan’s government. What was it like? “Beverly Hills and Wall Street” is the answer he gives, with the familiar growl. He is at pains to dissociate Reagan’s party from the one he helped steer to victory in 1968. Nixon had a grudge against the rich (why should they escape his multitiered animosities?), and that is the kind of grudge that endears a man to Phillips: “His empathy with insecure, postwar middle-class America had stood out in his famous Checkers speech of 1952, which blended wariness of the rich with reference to his wife Pat’s ‘good Republican cloth coat.’ ” Phillips’s real contribution to the Republicans was not the southern strategy, based on racial hatred, but the incorporation of that into a broader form of right-wing populism. At the end of the last century, Populists united a muckraking press and regulating political reforms in an attack on economic privilege. But the original allies of populism had become part of the Establishment by 1968. The old muckrakers had…

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