Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, And The Politics Of Deceit In The House OF Bush: (A Book Review

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In this book, the prominent political-economist Kevin Phillips begins with a question: How is it that the son (George W. Bush 43) came to succeed his father (George H.W. Bush 41) as the President of the United States of America just eight years after the end of his father's term? With both men belonging the Republican party, this succession is fantastically unprecedented in American history, and as such, worthy of scholarly investigation.

Mr. Phillips's book is a serious treatment of the matter, avoiding the usual pitfalls of the political left and right. Mr Phillips does not take the position, for example, that George W. Bush's ascendancy to the White House is, more or less, the tale of the rise of a rich, lucky buffoon, as is the broad tendency on the left. Nor does he come close to following the broad tendency of the right in writing about the Bush clan. Phillips does not celebrate the supposedly heroic individual character traits of W., that, somehow, made him the 'right man for the job,' and thus a 'wartime president,' when 9/11 struck, and all that.

Like any serious scholar would do, Kevin Phillips approached his subject by trying to figure out where the Bush clan came from by examining their historical/geographical/sociological DNA. He begins with the rise of the Bush clan and their associates during World War One. Phillips tries to help us understand how these elite networks of people both shaped political, economic, and social forces which made modern America, and how the Bush clan and their associates were, themselves, shaped by the political, economic, and social forces which made modern America to the present day.

Now then, when asking the question (How is it that the son, George W. Bush --- belonging to the same Republican party as his father --- came to succeed his father, George H.W. Bush, as President of the United States, after just eight years after the end of his executive term), we are asking: Why did American voters accede to this? Why did they go along with this?

The suggestion is, of course, that American voters should have had more pause in returning a second generation Bush to the White House. Some would argue strenuously that 'American voters,' indeed, DID NOT vote in George W. Bush to the White House in 2000. But, for our purposes, let us put aside the controversial events surrounding the Supreme Court's installation of W. Bush in the White House in 2000.

Twenty years of Bushes in the White House, either as Vice President and President, is a fact, an extraordinary fact but a fact. One thing that's important to understand is that the two Bushes in the White House can be thought of as the fruition of a family ambition that actually had its origin with Prescott Bush, George W. Bush's grandfather, who had, himself, been a powerful U.S. senator. Prescott Bush had lamented the fact that he hadn't gotten into politics earlier than he did. Had he done so, he was convinced, he would have become President of the United States himself.

So we find that the Bush family is very similar to the Kennedy family in this way. JFK's ascension to the White House had been the culmination of the overwhelming ambition of Joseph P. Kennedy, the president's father. Joseph Kennedy, who, after a successful business career, had risen to be a quite prominent official in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, would not let it go. When his chance of becoming president fell by the wayside, he transferred his ambition, first, to his eldest son, Joseph jr., who died in a secret aviation mission in World War Two. Joseph P. would not be denied. He simply transferred his ambition to the next son in line, John, not taking 'no' for an answer. Joseph P. Kennedy directly managed his son's political campaigns, first for the House, then Senate, and then for White House. And, it seems to have been at Joseph P. Kennedy's insistence that Robert Kennedy, the president's thirty-three year old brother, was appointed Attorney General of the United States (1).

But in Kevin Phillips's political biography of the two Bushes, we don't find any indication that Prescott Bush directly imposed this ambition on any of his descendants. He didn't have to. To scale the heights of the American power system seems, in retrospect, to have been the natural and overwhelming direction of the family.

There are two basic questions we might ask.

1. Why did voters, in a country with a supposedly revolutionary tradition such as ours, in the United States, return a second generation of Bush to the White House after twelve years of a previous Bush as Vice President and President of the United States (not that voters didn't have a right to, of course)?

2. In any political biography in the United States, which culminates in the ascension to the Presidency of the United States, we might ask two questions: A) How was the ambition for the office formed in the person?; and B) How did the person develop the self-confidence to believe that he could both achieve the office and, presumably, perform competently in it?

With the two Bushes, Kevin Phillips looked at the historical/sociological/geographical DNA of the clan to find out how the presidential ambition was formed, and how the clan developed the confidence, over time, that not only could one (or more?) of their own achieve electoral victory for the office, but also, presumably, perform competently (by a narrow criteria to be sure) once in the White House.

Let's handle the first question first

Why did voters, in a country with a supposedly revolutionary tradition such as ours, in the United States, return a second generation of Bush to the White House after twelve years of a previous Bush as Vice President and President of the United States (not that didn't have a right to, of course)?

George W. Bush owed his electoral success to his ability to make himself politically amenable to the religious right. That is not controversial but there is something else --- there's always something else.

Mr. Phillips offered an interesting approach in pointing to an aspect of America's cultural history. Chapter Two deals with what he called "The Dynastization of America." Now, America set out on the road of the hardening of inequality of income and wealth distribution in the 1980s. That should not be controversial either.

Kevin Phillips also directs our attention to something a bit less well remembered about the 1980s: a popular fascination with aristocratic hierarchy. The Reagan years turn out to have been decisive.

Phillips wrote: "Democratic president Jimmy Carter, cultivating smallness and rejecting the imperial presidency of the sixties, had reduced highway speed limits, hinted at a national malaise, and worn a sweater in a national television speech urging energy conservation. President and Mrs. Reagan, in complete contrast, wanted to rebuild U.S. might, restore the economic incentives of the Roaring Twenties, and bring back fashion, high society (California-style), and conspicuous consumption.

"Their arrival in Washington began with inauguration festivities costing a record $16 million, an outlay that critics found redolent of both Edwardian England (it featured the dated formality of a morning "stroller suit") and Versailles (the lavish thoughtlessness of the affair). Following the inaugual hubbub, Ronald and Nancy Reagan became patrons of what one cultural historian described as an 'aristocratic movement' spanning the worlds of White House, communications media, fashion, department store, and museum.

Continuing..... "The Reagans and their California friends embraced a series of exhibitions and dinners organized under the aegis of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomingdale's, and Neiman Marcus and in honor of designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Oscar de la Renta, and Ralph Lauren. Pretentious in a manner that would have been rejected by the first-family Eisenhowers, Kennedys, and Nixons (albeit for different reasons), these affairs glorified the gowns of the Chinese Chang dynasty, the eighteenth-century ancien regime, the 1890s French Belle Epoque with its own eigtheenth-century revival, and the equestrian costumes of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English gentry" (Phillips, pp.53-54).

That is pretty self-explanatory, isn't it? What we are being reminded of, here, is that the Reagan Revolution (as his White House ascendancy is sometimes called) reacted decisively against Jimmy Carter's supposed sense of 'smallness' in domestic and international affairs. The Reaganites sought to lift America's spirits in this way. As we'll see, this example permeated the American culture in interesting ways.

Sidenote: The Reagan White House ascendancy roughly coincides with, coresponds with, and is usually associated with the inauguration of the one-percent, counter-New Deal revolution, which sought to restore both the profitability and respectability of the political-economic order of what we might call America's brand of market democracy (since, for many Americans, capitalism and democracy are almost synonymous).

The one-percent revival is sometimes called neoliberalism in the sphere of national and international economics, referring to the so-called 'free market orthodoxy' of the 'Chicago School.'

The one-percent revival is sometimes called neoconservatism in the sphere of national and international politics ---- a sort of 'get tough' attitude, to crudely oversimplify for the sake of convenience.

President Jimmy Carter's so-called 'malaise' must always be understood in the following context: Carter's presidency (1977-1981) coincided with the end of what many economic historians think of as the golden age of American capitalism, which started at the end of World War Two (1945) and ended somewhere around 1975 or so.

At the end of World War Two the United States was the only capitalist nation left standing. American industry enjoyed the field all to itself for thirty years because of this. Western Europe and Japan had had to rebuild, basically, by buying American stuff.

This started to change for America in the late 1960s, actually, and early 1970s, as Western Europe and Japan recovered and challenged America's worldwide economic hegemony. This period was seen as a period of crisis in American capitalism.

For various reasons we don't have to go into here, America's political and economic elite leadership decided that the problem was greedy labor unions. Several factors came together to lower the demand --- on the behalf of employers --- for labor in the 1970s: increased immigration from southern hemisphere; women entering the workforce; technological change (automation); and offshoring of jobs (made possible through containerization).

The Reagan administration also had some harsh disciplinary policies toward labor. For example, during this period, one out of twenty workers who voted for a union were ILLEGALLY fired. Some estimates put the number at one out of eight (2).

Between 1945 and 1975 management-labor relations in the United States went something like this: Workers asked for higher wages (and perhaps also more benefits) and management would refuse. Workers would go on strike and management would, in effect, say: 'Fine, go on strike. We can run this plant without you.' Then the management would bring in replacement workers (or scabs) with different levels of success. Eventually management would give up, pay the higher wages (and perhaps also give more benefits), and maintain their profit margin by raising prices.

American employers could afford to do this between 1945-1975 because of the hegemonic, oligopolistic position of American industry in the global market. But this cycle of rising wages and rising prices led to the great inflation, which is why Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, raised interest rates up to twenty percent in order to drive the inflation (excess money) out of the system.

Blue-collar, and especially unionized workers were largely blamed for the inflation. This blame, in part, during the Reagan Revolution, led to something of a reorientation of the centrist political consensus, moving it to the right (Remember the Reagan Democrats?).

Now back to our show!

Flowing from the new Reagan lavish White House style, television became, for large numbers of average Americans, a magical looking glass through which we could observe 'how the other half lives,' as it were. Kevin Phillips reminded us that the prime time soap opera, Dynasty, began being aired on the week of Reagan inaugural in 1981, along with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous shortly thereafter.

Its useful to make use of expert insight more directly here. Phillips quoted a cultural historian Debra Silverman. Here we go:

"There is a mutually reinforcing connection between popular opulent fashion and the dual roles of White House Nancy Reagan on one hand and the television fantasy of 'Dynasty's' Krystle Carrington on the other. In the weekly evening show, Krystle is the devoted wife of a rich and loving 'entrepreneur' and her sartorial splendor, like Mrs. Reagan's, is presumed to be the natural expression of her husband's competitive success in the marketplace" (Phillips, p.54).

There's more but I want to pause here for a moment. "... and her sartorial splendor, like Mrs. Reagan's, is presumed to be the natural expression of her husband's competitive success in the marketplace." With those words we have more than half of the answer to the question we're working on: Why did American voters 'elect' the son George W. Bush to the presidency almost right after they had elected the father George H.W. Bush?

To understand my meaning we have to make use of the analysis of an economist, Richard D. Wolff. First of all, real wages is the pay that a worker gets relative to the prices he has to pay for the things he needs to sustain himself (there was a time when this sustenance included the rest of his family as well but...). So we're talking about food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and so on. This means that, ideally, real wages, by definition, should keep up with inflation.

In the United States, says Professor Wolff, this was true for an unprecedented one hundred fifty years, from 1820 to 1970. Every decade during this period, real wages (as opposed to simple nominal wages) rose for workers. I won't go into it here, but basically, says Professor Wolff, the reason for this was a chronic shortage of labor. These rising real wages from 1820 to 1970 was based on the rising productivity of workers. By productivity one means the amount of stuff a worker can produce with his brains and muscles in a hour of work (3).

If we look at real wages (what the employer pays the worker relative to the prices he has to pay for things) and productivity (the amount of stuff a worker produces for his employer per hour of work), we're going to call the difference between the two PROFIT for the employer. And across the 150-year period (1820-1970) worker productivity rose due to: better education, literacy, better tools, technological change, better management techniques and the like.

If I pay you $5 an hour and you produce goods and services, each hour, that I can sell for $20, my gross profit is $15 each hour. You'll remember that I said that during the post war period, when labor unions were still relatively strong in the United States, both worker wages and consumer prices tended to rise in tandem. So, if our union won $7 an hour in wages, you, the employer, wanting to at least maintain your PROFIT MARGIN, would raise your prices to $22 dollars. Therefore, you will now sell the goods and services that we produce for you for $22, thus maintaining the $15 spread.

But remember, also, as I mentioned, the inauguration of Reagan signalled the twilight of labor unions in the United States.

In the 1970s the chronic shortage of labor came to an end for employers came to an end. It came to an end for the reasons we touched on before: 1) offshoring; 2) automation; 3) women entering the workforce; 4) increased immigration from the southern hemisphere. As a result of all of this you had MORE people looking for FEWER jobs. This meant that employers could now begin to pay LESS for labor, which they did by raising NOMINAL wages over time but keeping them below the rate of inflation. As a result, the REAL WAGE today is about the same as in was in 1978 (4). Social theorists call this wage repression.

Corporate profits started to explode in the 1970s, and continued to do so across the '80s, '90s, 2000s and today --- as employers held REAL WAGES for workers flat to trending slightly downward even as worker productivity rose steadily. Remember, we're calling the difference between real wages (what the employers gives the worker per hour of work) and productivity (the goods and services a worker can produce per hour of work, which he turns over to the employer to sell) PROFIT!

Here's the thing

The collective management of Corporate America (since most of the business in the United States is done overwhelmingly by corporations) convinced themselves that the reason for such staggeringly fantastic profits was their own collective entrepreneurial genius, as opposed to wage repression (5).

They convinced the rest of the country as well. Some time in the 1980s their public relations people started to advance the idea that these brilliant corporate executives were also the best kind of people to run government. What lazy, incompetent, inefficient government needed, we were told, was to be run by Wall Street and corporate 'leaders,' who were decisive, clear-thinking, and 'know how to get things done,' and so forth. At the same time the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was saying that government is not the solution to our problems, but that the state itself was the problem.

Then a curious thing happened

The spheres of government and business should be understood to be 'apples and oranges.' But its like someone genetically merged the two fruit to create the orapple (orange + apple). Corporate leaders were seen to be more competent and dynamic than government bureaucrats and politicians. Government procedure, with its obsession on the local, state, and federal level with budget-balancing, took on more and more of the coloration of a 'businesslike' arrangement.

Its almost as if prior success in Corporate America or Wall Street became a prerequisite for public office. The two Bushes certainly seem to have scrupulously attended to that dimension of their resumes.

Let's pick up the quote from the cultural historian Debora Silverman:

"'Dynasty' began programming during the week of the first Reagan inaugural in 1981, and exploited the confusion between fantasy and reality by occasionally featuring recognizable political figures, such as Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford, as guests at some of the extraordinarily lavish parties attended by the Carrington clan. 'Dynasty' has been complemented by a new popular show, 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,' which purports to tell true stories of the rich. 'Dynasty' fashions, along wtih perfume, jewels, accessories, and lingerie, are now marketed as department store signature items and advertised to consumers as a way to 'share the luxury,' 'share the treasures,' and 'share the magic' of the Carrington characters' staggering riches by buying their imprint" (Phillips, pp.54-55).

Share the luxury. Share the treasures. Share the magic. As I see it, this marketing campaign is and was an invitation to the average American to participate in the fantasy of corporate meritocracy, which I have argued in the past, is reinforced by certain elitist features of the American education system (6).

Let's wrap this up!

Second question: How was the ambition for the U.S. presidency formed in the Bush clan, specifically George H.W. and George W. Bush? How did they develop the self-confidence to believe that they could both win the office and perform competently in it, having achieved the position?

Kevin Phillips leads us to the answer in the opening pages of his book:

"In the United States,..., the twentieth-century rise of the Bush family was built on the five pillars of American global sway: the international reach of U.S. investment banking, the emerging giantism of the military-industrial complex, the ballooning of the CIA and kindred intelligence operations, the drive for U.S. control of global oil supplies, and a close alliance with Britain and the English-speaking community. This century of upward momentum brought a sequence of controversies, albeit ones that never gained critical mass---such as the exposure in 1942 of Prescott Bush's corporate directorship links to wartime Germany, which harked back to overambitious 1920s investment banking; the Bush family's longtime involvement with global armaments and the military-industrial complex; and a web of close connections to the CIA, which began decades before George Bush's brief CIA directorship in 1976" (Phillips, p.2).

And... "... the involvement of four Walker (7) and Bush generations with finance---in several cases, the investment side of the petroleum business---helps to explain their recurrent preoccupation with investments, capital gains, and tax shelters. George W. Bush's 2003 commitment to ending taxation of dividends was simply an extension of his father's frequent calls for reducing capital gains tax rates as the solution to any weakness in the national economy.... the family's ties to oil date back to Ohio steelmaker Samuel Bush's relationship to Standard Oil a century ago, while its ultimately dynastic connection to Enron spanned the first national Bush administration, the six years of George W. Bush's governorship of Texas, and the first year of his Washington incumbency. No other presidential family has made such prolonged efforts on behalf of a single corporation. Finally, there is no previous parallel to the relationships between the Bushes and the CIA and its predecessor organizations..." (ibid, p.3).

Many generations of meaningful participation in the management of these areas of national endeavor, as well as diverting the crises involved, gave the Bush clan the expertise and confidence, apparently, as well as the confidence, stoking the ambition to take the highest executive position in the administration of these areas of national endeavor: the CIA and intelligence apparatus; the energy sector; international banking; the military-industrial complex; and the whole Transatlantic Anglo-American relationship. If you are a Republican, having gone through such as extensive... apprenticeship, you might call it, the office of the President of the United States could, conceivably, seem a relatively short step away in terms of your competency, the depth and breadth of your political and economic connections worldwide, and even perhaps your sense of yourself.

Alright, I'm going to leave it there. Thank you for reading.

Notes

1. see PBS documentary The Kennedys.

2. Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton, 2007. p.150

3. There are numerous YouTube videos available in which you can hear the economist Richard D. Wolff presenting this analysis. But to pick out one almost randomly....

video title: Capitalism Hits the Fan Film Screening with Q&A with Professor Richard Wolff/The New School http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HTkEBIoxBA

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. see my hub "They Live in a World of Their Own." http://wingedcentaur.hubpages.com/hub/They-Live-in-a-World-of-Their-Own; and an article in The Atlantic by Ross Douthat "The Truth About Harvard" http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/the-truth-about-harvard/3726/; and "The Junior Meritocracy" by Jennifer Senior http://nymag.com/news/features/63427/

7. The Bush clan is the combination of two families, the Bushes and the Walkers, that's what the W. in George H.W. and George W. is for.


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graceomalley profile image

graceomalley 4 years ago

I think the entry of the religious right into politics is key in understanding Presidencys from Carter on. Carter appealed to conservative Christians because of his deep faith - the mistake was the assumption on the part of this group was that any 'real' Christian would espouse Right leaning economics. Many were disillusioned, and many questioned whether Carter could be a 'real' Christian once he was in office and making economic decisions. I think this confusion runs very deep, and is really not understood by those outside this community. As I see it, it all ties into the concept of 'freedom,' and the idea that left leaning economics limit personal freedom, and by extention chip away at individual choice. Stories about the sufferings of Christians under the Soviet system, and under Chinese communism, are still talked about in Christian circles, (with a great deal of feeling, and it sounds like a concern that this sort of persecution could happen here in the US too) and there is an identification of these totalitarian systems with any economic policy that sounds like 'socialism,' like for instance universal healthcare. It is coupled with a distain for the poor, which frankly can be shockingly blatent in Christian circles. At least, it shocks me. I do fall into the idea that when I am interacting with someone talking about faith matters, and the person seems like a lovely and caring human being, that they won't hold certain economic opinions. I've was shocked recently when one longtime Christian friend referred to the people in the family homeless shelter where I volunteer as "bums," and when another person commented that food stamps are just so that poor people can spend their money on cigarettes. Perhaps i too fall into the trap of thinking that if I connect with a person on a faith level, that they won't be what I consider to be a bigot.


wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! Author

Hi graceomalley!

It is undeniable that the Christian Right has been a crucial component of the 1970s-originated 'movement conservatism,' anti-New Deal, anti-beatnick, anti-hippies, 'flower power,' counter revolution of sorts.

Put another way: Every hegemonic block needs a social base to give it legitimacy (Antonio Gramsci). In the United States the hegemonic block that started organizing in the 1970s was the managerial class of the multinational corporations in general, and the big financial institutions in particular. We're also talking about the military-industrial complex (which Eisenhower warned us about) and the media conglomerates.

The social base which provided cultural and social legitimacy for it was the Religious Right, no doubt about it. The author Kevin Phillips certainly pays a lot of attention to the history of the rise of the Religious Right in his book about the two presidents Bush.

Indeed, we all know that the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 would not have even been close had it not been for the mass mobilization of the Christian conservatives.

Thanks for dropping around, graceomalley! See ya!

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