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Washington, Wall Street, and the Frustration of American Politics
By Kevin Phillips
Little, Brown and Company, 1995, 231 pages

The failures in Washington go "far beyond simplistic talk of gridlock," writes Kevin Phillips in this bestselling polemic on American politics. The deepening ineffectiveness of the government is part of a larger "reversal of fortune" where political and economic influence has shifted from the grassroots of America to a new "guardian class" in Washington. Since the 1940s, Phillips says, Washington has become increasingly dominated by an interest-group elite which is now so deeply entrenched and so resistant to change that the proper functioning of government is impossible. By way of example, he points out that the District of Columbia bar had fewer than a thousand members in 1950; today it has over 60,000. The number of journalists in Washington soared from 1,500 to 12,000 over the same period. Since 1970, congressional staff has nearly doubled. And one recent estimate put the number of lobbyists in Washington at 91,000.

The Founding Fathers warned of the dangers of an overgrown capital. Jefferson noted that when government is "drawn to Washington as the center of all power," it renders "powerless the checks provided of one government on another," and becomes "as venal as the government from which we separated." Phillips believes that the natural order of American politics and the unique genius of the system is that "bloodless revolutions at the ballot box" every generation purge the government of failed establishments and create new ones. Quoting Jefferson, he holds that "each generation has the right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness." Although it is high time for Washington to undergo one of its periodic renewals, the concentration of interest-group power and today's "Permanent Washington" make that impossible. Today, he asserts, our capital has become a city "so enlarged, so incestuous in its dealings, so caught up in its own privilege that it no longer seems controllable or even swayable by the general public."

Phillips draws a number of portentous historical analogies between Washington and other great capitals that have seen the rise and fall of power. He points to the degenerative corruption that pervaded such cities as Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Hapsburg Madrid and The Hague. "There is no point in mincing words," he charges, "aging great-power capitals often become parasitic cultures" and today's Washington "is beginning to resemble those wayward governmental centers of previous declining empires." He describes four "pillars" of the American political system which were "once ingredients of its youthful success" but have now become "weak foundations in old age": 1) the traditional separation between the legislative and executive branches; 2) the two-party system; 3) America's patchwork system of local governments and bureaucracies; and 4) the judicial and legal system which today "has saddled the country with a globally unique and crippling weight of judges, jurisprudence, lawyers, litigation, and rights."

In the final chapter of the book, Phillips outlines a "blueprint for a political revolution" in the form of ten proposals: 1) decentralize and disperse power away from Washington; 2) modify the Constitution's excessive separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches; 3) shift representative government more toward direct democracy and open up the outdated two-party system; 4) curb the Washington role of lobbies, interest groups, and influence peddlers; 5) diminish the excessive role of lawyers, legalism, and litigation; 6) Remobilize national, state, and local governments through updated boundaries and a new federal fiscal framework; 7) regulate speculative finance and reduce the political influence of Wall Street; 8) confront the power of multinational corporations and minimize the effects of globalization on the average American; 9) reverse the trend toward greater concentration of wealth and make the tax system fairer and more productive; and 10) bring national and international debt under control.

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.