Commentary Magazine


Arrogant Capital, by Kevin Phillips

The Radical Center

Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street, and the Frustration of American Politics.
by Kevin Phillips.
Little, Brown. 231 pp. $22.95.

The voters are angry—and so is Kevin Phillips. In this, his most recent political tract on the misguided course of American politics, Phillips marches us through a tour of Washington’s corroded institutions and corrupt dealings, huffing and puffing all the way.

Arrogant Capital sports the enraged populist tone familiar to readers of Phillips’s two previous books, Boiling Point and The Politics of Rich and Poor. Page after page, Phillips describes the current political landscape in a headache-inducing barrage of overheated rhetoric. Thus, Washington is an “interest-group fortress” resembling other “overbearing, overstuffed seats of power” run by a “powerful elite.” Everywhere there are “parasites,” “power-brokers,” “courtiers,” and “opinion-molding networks.” On Capitol Hill, “gunslingers, card sharks, and faro-dealers” engage in a kind of back-scratching that amounts to “Potomac incest.” American political power is controlled by a “guardian class” who have turned the capital into a city of “cliques, relationships, clubs, coalitions, lunch groups, networks, and cabals.”

Phillips’s book is peppered with portentous historical analogies to other great capitals that have seen the rise and fall of political power. In his entirely deterministic view of history, with its cycles, waves, tides, counterwaves, ebbs, and flows, “Imperial Washington” is heading the way of ancient Athens, Alexandria, and Pergamon. The new twist on this theme is that the 1990′s may be a time for revolution. Just as the 1790′s saw a revolution in constitutional government, and the 1890′s witnessed a surge of progressive ideas, so the final decade of this century may pave the way for a radical restructuring of our political system.

Whether one is persuaded by this history lesson or not, the more important part of Arrogant Capital lies in its description of what Phillips takes to be the major sources of public discontent with Washington politics, followed by what he believes to be the necessary remedies. To him, the American constitutional system is outdated. The separation of powers that was designed to alleviate 18th-century fears about despotism today fosters a self-perpetuating, interest-group centrism. High-dollar lobbying dominates decision-making, and the influence of “financiers,” speculators, and the Federal Reserve Board preempts any genuine economic reform (i.e., higher taxes on the wealthy).

As special interests have made representative democracy impossible, what is needed is a system of national referenda to give citizens more control over their government and end the duopoly of two-party rule. As for the federal bureaucracies, they should be shipped out of Washington to various sites around the country, lowering the concentration of government activity in a single city. Direct democracy, conducted largely by citizens outside of Washington, may be the only way to reform our failed system.

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If these ideas sound familiar, it is because they are not new. Nearly all of them were central to Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign. Nearly all of them have been the staples of populist (and often demagogic) crusades against Washington. And nearly all of them have begun to receive favorable treatment from anti-establishment Republicans, some of whom believe this neopopulist formula is the best way for their party to reclaim the trust of the voters and, in the process, the White House.

But one need only scratch the surface of Phillips’s direct-democracy agenda to see that there is a lot more bluster than substance to it. Consider what I take to be the four central ideas in his blueprint for reform:

1. End divided government. Like many other critics of contemporary politics, Phillips finds the notion that our government should be rigidly divided among separate but equal powers an antiquated idea. His chief complaint is that maintaining three different branches of government allows interest groups to exploit any gap, blocking policy at will.

Yet he provides little evidence for this claim. Despite all the noise about gridlock, the federal government has in recent years managed to pass much legislation over the opposition of special interests. Even the last session of Congress, notorious for the supposedly unprecedented level of obstruction that was mounted against the Clinton administration’s agenda, nevertheless passed a substantial tax increase, the NAFTA free-trade agreement, the Brady bill, and a controversial crime measure, all of which were subject to intense opposition from lobbies. And even under the Bush administration, when the executive and legislative branches were held by opposing parties, many sweeping new programs were enacted, again over the efforts of well-organized lobbies.

Of course, the separation of powers makes it easier to stop many bills from becoming law. But Phillips never argues that the country would have been better off if those bills had passed. Instead, he offers a few unpersuasive arguments that a more united, collaborative form of government would increase responsibility, decrease fingerpointing, and lead to more efficient economic management. Yet that certainly has not been the experience of countries like Canada, Britain, Italy or many other nations with parliamentary systems of the kind Phillips favors.

2. Create a system of national referenda. Like Ross Perot, Phillips would like to see an amendment to the Constitution according to which major issues of national policy would be decided by ballot initiative and referenda. The possibility of one day conducting this process electronically seems to excite him even more. But whether done by ballot or modem, national referenda raise many troubling questions Phillips never seriously entertains.

The most obvious has to do with foreign policy, and whether citizens should be allowed to direct the course of that policy by an up-or-down vote. Another is how to prevent a system of national ballot questions from devolving into brute majoritarianism. (This was Alexander Hamilton’s concern during the constitutional convention in Philadelphia.)

Even if these issues are set aside, Phillips deludes himself and his readers in suggesting that national referenda would remedy popular revulsion over current politics. Many states already use the referendum and initiative process—with mixed success—to make decisions about tax cuts and increases, education funding, and so on. But increasingly, voters in these states are being asked to express opinions on subjects ranging from gay rights, to euthanasia, to whether bait can be used in bear hunting.

Surely some voters have strong opinions on these matters. But should the entire country engage in high-profile national debates about them and others of that kind? And would that actually give citizens more control over the process? What we know about state-ballot questions is that each stage of the process, from signature collection to advertising, has become increasingly professionalized and controlled by the very political consultants, special-interest lobbying campaigns, and professional opinion experts that were part of the problem in the first place.

3. Move executive offices out of Washington. As with most of Phillips’s other suggestions, what sounds good in a political speech looks rather different when one considers the effect it would have.

Phillips believes that moving the Department of Agriculture to Des Moines and the Interior Department to Denver, or having Congress spend half its session in a Western city, would “spread the influence mongers thinner.” The more likely outcome would be the further growth of already huge federal agencies and an expansion of the lobbyist culture to places that are still happily without it. Choosing where departments would be relocated would alone create a bidding war not seen since Texas won the (now-defunded) Supercollider project.

Transferring agencies out of Washington, in the end, is a game of moving boxes on an organization chart. It does nothing to address the sheer size and scope of the federal government. If the Department of Housing and Urban Development is full of waste and fraud now, it is not likely to be otherwise once reestablished on the south side of Chicago.

4. Curb the role of lobbies, interest groups, and lawyers. This is surely the most unobjectionable proposal Phillips has to offer. But it turns out he has no real insight into the problem he proposes to fix. Thus, he goes through shopworn statistics about the growth of lawyers and lobbyists, but does not or cannot explain why this growth occurred.

In the case of interest groups, part of the reason has to do with campaign-finance laws, which make it financially more advantageous for groups to contribute to a candidate than for individuals. In the case of Washington lawyers, part of the answer lies in the explosive growth of regulation, especially in the highly technical and legalistic fields of health care and telecommunications. But in both cases, Phillips sees only the individual lobbyist or lawyer who, in his view, is charging too much by the hour. His solutions inevitably involve some new federal law that would cap, restrict, or tax such income.

Phillips’s overriding preoccupation with how much money people are making blinds him to the more serious and detrimental influences on Washington politics. He can write for pages in conspiratorial tones about Wall Street investment firms, Republican Team 100 donors, and Federal Reserve bank presidents. But he has hardly a word to say about the teachers’ unions or the trial lawyers’ association, which exercise far more power over Congress’s legislative agenda.

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If there is a unifying weakness in Phillips’s scenario, it is that his solutions are almost entirely procedural rather than substantive. It is revealing and fitting that for the epigraph to his final, summary chapter he quotes two men: Thomas Jefferson and . . . David Gergen. Like Gergen, Phillips wants to think about Washington while avoiding any serious consideration of ideological or policy differences. He is convinced that a system with fewer battles will be a better system.

And that is what makes Phillips’s brand of populism so empty. Throughout this book, he mourns the passing of once-in-a-generation elections that can revolutionize government and shift the direction of the country. But the revolution he seeks already occurred. That was during the 1980′s, when liberalism fell to Reaganism.

The legacy of that revolution continues to be debated now. Phillips, however, is not interested in the battle of ideas that has shaped the last decade of politics. He is interested only in the raw, undifferentiated anger of the public which, while very real, is misread by him as a profound populist statement. The result is a book about our nation’s political system that rails endlessly against a series of bogeymen—lobbyists, lawyers, insiders—without ever focusing on what the federal government actually does, let alone on what might actually be done to improve it.

About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.




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