News Intelligence Analysis
March 17, 2006
Books of The Times | 'American Theocracy'
Tying Religion and Politics to an Impending U.S. Decline
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Kevin Phillips, a former Republican strategist who helped design that party's Southern strategy, made his name with his 1969 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," which predicted the coming ascendancy of the G.O.P. In the decades since, Mr. Phillips has become a populist social critic, and his last two major books "Wealth and Democracy" (2002) and "American Dynasty" (2004) were furious jeremiads against the financial excesses of the 1990's and what he portrayed as the Bush family's "blatant business cronyism," with ties to big oil, big corporations and the military-industrial complex.
His latest book, "American Theocracy," the concluding volume of this "trilogy of indictments," ranges far beyond the subject suggested by its title an examination of the religious right and its influence on the current administration to anatomize a host of economic, political, military and social developments that Mr. Phillips sees as troubling indices of the United States' coming decline. The book not only reiterates observations made in "Wealth and Democracy" and "American Dynasty," but also reworks some of the arguments made by the historian Paul Kennedy in "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," dealing with the role that economic factors play in the fortunes of great powers and the dangers empires face in becoming financially and militarily overextended.
All in all, "American Theocracy" is a more reasoned (and therefore more sobering) book than "American Dynasty," substituting copious illustrations and detailed if sometimes partisan analysis for angry, conspiratorial rants. But if Mr. Phillips does an artful job of pulling together a lot of electoral data and historical insights to buttress his polemical points, he also demonstrates a tendency to extrapolate sometimes profligately from the specific to the general, from the particular to the collective, especially when making his prognostications of impending decline.
As he's done in so many of his earlier books, Mr. Phillips draws a lot of detailed analogies in these pages, using demographics, economic statistics and broader cultural trends to map macropatterns throughout history. In analyzing the fates of Rome, Hapsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, Britain and the United States, he comes up with five symptoms of "a power already at its peak and starting to decline": 1) "widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay," along with social polarization and a widening gap between rich and poor; 2) "growing religious fervor" manifested in a close state-church relationship and escalating missionary zeal; 3) "a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science"; 4) "considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame" and 5) "hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach" in pursuit of "abstract international missions that the nation can no longer afford, economically or politically." Added to these symptoms, he writes, is a sixth one, almost too obvious to state: high debt, which can become "crippling in its own right."
Mr. Phillips methodically proceeds to show how each of these symptoms applied to great powers like the Dutch Republic and the British empire in the past, and how they apply to the United States today.
He reviews how deregulation, the implosion of American manufacturing, the rising cost of oil imports and substantial tax cuts have contributed to skyrocketing debt levels and trade deficits, and how the country's net international indebtedness has soared, he estimates, into the $4 trillion range.
He argues not altogether persuasively that the Bush administration was pushed toward war with Iraq by pressure from Republican constituencies: energy producers worried about dwindling oil supplies; financiers worried that OPEC could end the dollar's virtual monopoly on oil pricing; and fundamentalist Christians, convinced that recent developments in the Middle East were signposts on the road to Armageddon and the end-time.
Mr. Phillips adds that "the 30 to 40 percent of the electorate caught up in Scripture" has exerted a strong pull on the current White House and the Republican party, driving the country toward what he calls "a national Disenlightenment" in which science "notably biotechnology, climate studies and straight-talking petroleum geology," which warns of dwindling oil reserves and the need to find oil substitutes is questioned, even defied.
As Mr. Phillips sees it, "the Southernization of American governance and religion" is "abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state," while moving the Republican party toward "a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews," who all define themselves against the common enemy of secular liberalism.
The interpenetration of religion and politics, Mr. Phillips argues, not only poses a threat to democratic principles, but may also affect the course of history, as various precedents suggest: "Militant Catholicism helped undo the Roman and Spanish empires; the Calvinist fundamentalism of the Dutch Reformed Church helped to block any 18th-century Dutch renewal; and the interplay of imperialism and evangelicalism led pre-1914 Britain into a bloodbath and global decline."
In the case of America today, Mr. Phillips blames the Republican party and its base for spurring many of the troubling developments namely, "U.S. oil vulnerability, excessive indebtedness and indulgence of radical religion" that he says are threatening the country's future.
"The Republican electoral coalition," he declares, "near and dear to me four decades ago, when I began writing 'The Emerging Republican Majority,' has become more and more like the exhausted, erring majorities of earlier failures: the militant, Southernized Democrats of the 1850's; the stock-market-dazzled and Elmer Gantry-ish G.O.P. of the 1920's; and the imperial liberals of the 1960's with their Great Society social engineering, quagmire in Vietnam and New Economy skills expected to tame the business cycle."
Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. Phillips does not use his familiarity with G.O.P. politics to examine more fully the future of the Republican party. While he writes that "theological correctness stands to be a Republican Achilles' heel," he does little to flesh out this notion; nor does he do much to illuminate the factional splits within the party that have grown during the presidency of George W. Bush: from fiscal conservatives furious about this administration's deficit spending to pragmatic party regulars worried about the president's tumbling poll numbers to growing numbers of conservatives upset about the administration's decision to go to war with Iraq and its pursuit of Wilsonian foreign policy ideals.
In an afterword, Mr. Phillips suggests that the G.O.P. coalition is "fatally flawed from a national-interest standpoint" partly because it is dominated "by an array of outsider religious denominations caught up in biblical morality, distrust of science and a global imperative of political and religious evangelicalism," but he does not really explain why this development could lead to a Republican downfall. Perhaps he is saving that for his next book when the results of the midterm elections are known.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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NEW: A Review of:
'American Theocracy,' by Kevin Phillips
Clear and Present Dangers
Review by ALAN BRINKLEY
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 se
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.
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