Will the Middle Class Take It Anymore?

IF Kevin Phillips is right in "Boiling Point," President Clinton's broad-based energy-tax proposal couldn't come at a worse moment. The great midsection of the American electorate has already had its taxes hiked, its buying power undermined, and its government services chopped for more than a decade, Phillips says. How much more can average people take?

Recent polls would indicate they can take at least a little bit more if they're persuaded that the added taxes will actually do something about runaway government debt. This readiness of pinched middle-Americans to bear additional "sacrifice," imposed by yet another president who promised to spare them, underscores the political risks facing Mr. Clinton.

As Phillips puts it, "Bush's widely criticized breach of his own 1988 promise of `Read my lips - no new taxes' had established a new guideline for the 1990s: Breaking a tax pledge to the embattled middle class could be dangerous, even fatal. Failing to restore middle-class economic health and confidence could be just as dangerous." This, he says, is "the new challenge of American politics."

Phillips has built his reputation as a political prophet. His 1960s book "The Emerging Republican Majority" foresaw a Sun Belt-suburban voting block that would keep the GOP in the White House for most of 20 years. More recently, he set the stage for the unraveling of that Republican majority in "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (1990).

"Boiling Point" expands on that theme with a determined reiteration of economic statistics, survey results, and analysis that boils down to one conclusion: America's middle class, the socioeconomic backbone of its democracy, has rarely been more distressed. He builds a strong case that the tax system grew increasingly regressive through the '80s: The wealthy paid less in federal income taxes, while Social Security taxes, along with state and local levies, chomped into mid-level incomes. At the same time,

the price of such necessities of middle-class life as health care and higher education shot upward.

Phillips writes: "Only two and a half million people in America's top 1 percent of households, with annual incomes ranging upward from $250,000 and net worth typically well above a million dollars, were clearly on the winning side of economic polarization."

What do such trends portend? Phillips revels in sketching parallels between present-day America and past capitalist giants - like 19th-century Britain - that fell because of gross inequities in income distribution, the "financialization" of their economies, and too great a preoccupation with affairs beyond their borders. The similarities, especially with regard to the tendency of overripe economies to wallow in debt and financial paper pushing, are intriguing, but not convincing.

Phillips also joins with other influential voices counseling the replacement of "yesteryear's internationalism" with a "greater emphasis on domestic problems." But today's internationalism could move toward a more effective United Nations and a capacity for multilateral action that have no parallels in the past.

On the domestic front, Phillips's portrayal of the dilemmas facing middle-income Americans leaves little doubt why Patrick Buchanan drew so many early votes in last year's primaries or why Rush Limbaugh attracts crowds of listeners and viewers today. Lots of people feel they should be able to live better - and easier - than they currently can.

"Boiling Point," with its Jeremiah-like tone, offers no plans for reversing the decline described. Phillips's warnings, however, should help others get to work on that.

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