The Bizarre Physics of American Politics

PendulumKevin Phillips is a very keen political observer. Today, he is one of the Republican Party’s harshest critics. But he used to work for Richard Nixon where he was partly responsible for the racist “southern strategy” that has worked so well for Republicans ever since. In 1989, after Bush the Elder had become president, Phillips wrote, The Politics of Rich and Poor. He quite rightly recognized that Bush had skated in on the tail end of the conservative ascendancy that started with Reagan’s 1980 election as President of the United States.[1] And so he predicted that things would swing back in the other direction in the 1990s.

He sees politics about movements. That’s true to some extent. But of course, most people don’t see themselves as parts of movements. They vote the way they vote, and that helps some political movements and hurts others. So in 1989, Phillips wrote:

Politics is a process of movement and countermovement. Only for so long will strung-out $35,000-a-year families enjoy magazine articles about the hundred most successful businessmen in Dallas or television programs about the life-styles of the rich and famous.

And indeed, by 1989, that show had reached its peak and it was on its inevitable decline to late night punchline, even if it did survive all the way to 1995. But the country was ready to leave the world of “greed is good” and move back to a more normal world of, “You know, those Wall Street guys really are a bunch of assholes.”

Phillips even predicts a pretty big swing back, “The 1990s could easily be another watershed decade.” Yes. Yes, they could have been. After all, the Reagan years had brought the top marginal tax rate down from 70% to 28%. That’s one big mother fucking pendulum swing. So what kind of counter swing did the left have in store? Well, the “left” nominated the Democratic Leadership Council candidate Bill Clinton, a man so liberal he had been hugely successful in Arkansas. And he pushed back, alright!He pushed that 28% top marginal tax rate (actually 30% by that point) all the way back up to just over 39%! He ended welfare as we knew it, which is a nice way of saying that he fucked the poor. And, of course, he bombed the shit out of the world.

And then came Bush the Younger. He lowered the top tax rate down to 35%. He took us into at least one unnecessary war. He ran on stopping gay marriage and used the “political capital” he had made to privatize Social Security. (Thankfully, he failed.) He ran an administration with so much crony capitalism that the fascist states of the 1930s would have been envious. But again, the people had had enough! The pendulum was ready to swing back the other direction. So the “left” nominated Obama, another New Democrat, who would have felt right at home in the Reagan White House. And after four years and two elections, Obama managed to raise that top income tax rate back up to where it was under Clinton. Except… It only applied to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 it had been under Clinton. And Obama’s big success—his legacy—is a conservative healthcare plan that simultaneously gives conservatives what they want and an excuse to claim that the plan is, “Socialism!”

There is a bizarre kind of physics that goes on in modern American politics. When the pendulum sings to the right, it swings way to the right. But on it’s return trip to the left, it barely makes it past the equilibrium point. It is no secret why this is. The Republican Party has convinced itself that the nation is made up of a bunch of conservative extremists. And the Democratic Party has convinced itself that they are right.

[1] I don’t actually agree with this interpretation of history. I have a more radical, although numbers based, story to tell. I’m working on a book about it. But in terms of electoral politics, what he is saying is roughly true; it’s just that the cause is wrong.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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