Clear and Present Dangers
Review by ALAN BRINKLEY, the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost at Columbia University.
March 19, 2006
Four decades ago, Kevin Phillips, a young political strategist for the Republican Party, began work on what became a remarkable book. In writing "The Emerging Republican Majority" (published in 1969), he asked a very big question about American politics: How would the demographic and economic changes of postwar America shape the long-term future of the two major parties? His answer, startling at the time but now largely unquestioned, is that the movement of people and resources from the old Northern industrial states into the South and the West (an area he enduringly labeled the "Sun Belt") would produce a new and more conservative Republican majority that would dominate American politics for decades. Phillips viewed the changes he predicted with optimism. A stronger Republican Party, he believed, would restore stability and order to a society experiencing disorienting and at times violent change. Shortly before publishing his book, he joined the Nixon administration to help advance the changes he had foreseen.
Phillips has remained a prolific and important political commentator in the decades since, but he long ago abandoned his enthusiasm for the Republican coalition he helped to build. His latest book (his 13th) looks broadly and historically at the political world the conservative coalition has painstakingly constructed over the last several decades. No longer does he see Republican government as a source of stability and order. Instead, he presents a nightmarish vision of ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed and dangerous shortsightedness. (His final chapter is entitled "The Erring Republican Majority.") In an era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, "American Theocracy" may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years. It is not without polemic, but unlike many of the more glib and strident political commentaries of recent years, it is extensively researched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.
Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.
The American press in the first days of the Iraq war reported extensively on the Pentagon's failure to post American troops in front of the National Museum in Baghdad, which, as a result, was looted of many of its great archaeological treasures. Less widely reported, but to Phillips far more meaningful, was the immediate posting of troops around the Iraqi Oil Ministry, which held the maps and charts that were the key to effective oil production. Phillips fully supports an explanation of the Iraq war that the Bush administration dismisses as conspiracy theory — that its principal purpose was to secure vast oil reserves that would enable the United States to control production and to lower prices. ("Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath," an oil analyst said a couple of years ago. "You can't ask for better than that.") Terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, tyranny, democracy and other public rationales were, Phillips says, simply ruses to disguise the real motivation for the invasion.
And while this argument may be somewhat too simplistic to explain the complicated mix of motives behind the war, it is hard to dismiss Phillips's larger argument: that the pursuit of oil has for at least 30 years been one of the defining elements of American policy in the world; and that the Bush administration — unusually dominated by oilmen — has taken what the president deplored recently as the nation's addiction to oil to new and terrifying levels. The United States has embraced a kind of "petro-imperialism," Phillips writes, "the key aspect of which is the U.S. military's transformation into a global oil-protection force," and which "puts up a democratic facade, emphasizes freedom of the seas (or pipeline routes) and seeks to secure, protect, drill and ship oil, not administer everyday affairs."
Phillips is especially passionate in his discussion of the second great force that he sees shaping contemporary American life — radical Christianity and its growing intrusion into government and politics. The political rise of evangelical Christian groups is hardly a secret to most Americans after the 2004 election, but Phillips brings together an enormous range of information from scholars and journalists and presents a remarkably comprehensive and chilling picture of the goals and achievements of the religious right.
He points in particular to the Southern Baptist Convention, once a scorned seceding minority of the American Baptist Church but now so large that it dominates not just Baptism itself but American Protestantism generally. The Southern Baptist Convention does not speak with one voice, but almost all of its voices, Phillips argues, are to one degree or another highly conservative. On the far right is a still obscure but, Phillips says, rapidly growing group of "Christian Reconstructionists" who believe in a "Taliban-like" reversal of women's rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a "myth" and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine. A much larger group of Protestants, perhaps as many as a third of the population, claims to believe in the supposed biblical prophecies of an imminent "rapture" — the return of Jesus to the world and the elevation of believers to heaven.
Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the world around signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of the apocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that the Bush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouraged them to see the president's policies as a response to premillennialist thought. He also suggests that the president and other members of his administration may actually believe these things themselves, that religious belief is the basis of policy, not just a tactic for selling it to the public. Phillips's evidence for this disturbing claim is significant, but not conclusive.
THE third great impending crisis that Phillips identifies is also, perhaps, the best known — the astonishing rise of debt as the precarious underpinning of the American economy. He is not, of course, the only observer who has noted the dangers of indebtedness. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, frequently writes about the looming catastrophe. So do many more-conservative economists, who point especially to future debt — particularly the enormous obligation, which Phillips estimates at between $30 trillion and $40 trillion, that Social Security and health care demands will create in the coming decades. The most familiar debt is that of the United States government, fueled by soaring federal budget deficits that have continued (with a brief pause in the late 1990's) for more than two decades. But the national debt — currently over $8 trillion — is only the tip of the iceberg. There has also been an explosion of corporate debt, state and local bonded debt, international debt through huge trade imbalances, and consumer debt (mostly in the form of credit-card balances and aggressively marketed home-mortgage packages). Taken together, this present and future debt may exceed $70 trillion.
The creation of a national-debt culture, Phillips argues, although exacerbated by the policies of the Bush administration, has been the work of many people over many decades — among them Alan Greenspan, who, he acidly notes, blithely and irresponsibly ignored the rising debt to avoid pricking the stock-market bubble it helped produce. It is most of all a product of the "financialization" of the American economy — the turn away from manufacturing and toward an economy based on moving and managing money, a trend encouraged, Phillips argues persuasively, by the preoccupation with oil and (somewhat less persuasively) with evangelical belief in the imminent rapture, which makes planning for the future unnecessary.
There is little in "American Theocracy" that is wholly original to Phillips, as he frankly admits by his frequent reference to the work of other writers and scholars. What makes this book powerful in spite of the familiarity of many of its arguments is his rare gift for looking broadly and structurally at social and political change. By describing a series of major transformations, by demonstrating the relationships among them and by discussing them with passionate restraint, Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome, but that none should ignore.
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost at Columbia University.