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Book Reviews : Political Last Updated: 25 Mar. 2008 - 7:18:47 PM


Posted in: Political
American Theocracy
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29 Jun. 2006 - 12:18:00 AM

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Phillips concludes by saying that, “my last three major books – Wealth and Democracy (2002), American Dynasty (2004) and American Theocracy (2006) – could be said to represent a trilogy of indictments, something that I never imagined when I started writing The Emerging Republic Majority back in 1966.”

Kevin Phillips, who was a well-known Republican strategist, identifying the emergent Republic majority in the 1960s has, like many former liberal Republicans, come to understand that the current domination of the U.S. Republican Party by a mainly Southern coalition dominated by Christian Evangelists, and the oil and defense industries, no longer serves the interests of the United States and is alienating many former Republican voters.  In his opinion the spiritual heartland of the modern Republican Party is the old Confederacy and the border States, such as Texas.

While at first sight American Theocracy is about a number of negative factors, U.S. national indebtedness, the decline in individual economic security, American dependence on imported oil and the folly of many of the policies endorsed by the religious right, this book is fundamentally an argument for the emergence of a Democratic majority in the United States; strangely echoing Phillip’s 1966 book, The Emerging Republic Majority.  Phillips sees the two electoral victories of George W Bush were due to fraudulent manipulation of voting machines) as being due to special circumstances, in particular Clinton’s immoral behavior and the after effects of 9/11.  In contrast, Gore Vidal recently claimed in an interview with The Independent (London – 23 June 2006) that “the election was stolen in both 2000 and 2004, because of electronic voting machinery which can be easily fixed.  We’ve had two illegitimate elections in a row.”

According to Phillips the doctrinaire policies of the religious right have alienated many of their fellow Americans, a claim which is supported by a number of prominent recent defections to the Democrats, such as Mark Parkinson’s, who was previously Kansas Republican party chairman (The Observer, London 25 June 2006).  Many Republican moderates are now known as Rinos, or Republicans in Name Only.  Some of the Republican right wing are actually pleased that the moderates are leaving, a factor which will only accelerate the decline in Republican fortunes that Phillips documents.  According to Phillip’s analysis Bush’s declining ratings in the opinion polls are due to a combination of factors, rather than merely to public opposition to the continuing Iraqi debacle. 

Phillips argues that the electoral geography of the United States has been totally revised in the last 150 years, with the South now being Republican and the North East States becoming solidly Democrat.

Phillips does not however explore what the political consequences of such a Democratic majority could be, but he does highlight the fact that the Democratic Party needs to hold the center ground in American consciousness and that it needs to maintain the allegiance of voters in the swing States of the Mid-West and the States bordering the South, rather than rely on its liberal supporters in New England, New York and California.  If his analysis is correct then Hillary Clinton would be the wrong Democratic Presidential candidate for 2008, as she is too strongly identified with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party (although she may be a viable Vice Presidential candidate, partnered with a Centerist Republican).

This book is therefore aimed at the strategists in the Democratic Party and interested Americans, it is essentially a manifesto for a Democratic victory in 2008.  It is also essential parochial in tone, written for an American, not an international audience, but this is a common-place of most American writing on politics today.  Americans appear to be so bewitched by the problems that their society faces that they cannot see that many of their problems, such as oil depletion and climate change, are common to all nations. 

If one can project Phillips’ conclusions, I would conclude that a victorious Democratic Presidential candidate will represent the middle ground in American politics, supportive of strong moral values (an area where Clinton so obviously failed), American interests and rebuilding America’s reputation in the world, reducing national indebtedness and rebuilding its educational systems and its industrial base.  It is also possible that a politically supported universal medical system could be introduced, similar to Canada’s, given the negative consequences to business and individuals (other than doctors and the health industry) of continuing the present system.  It is also likely that the bloated and baroque military will be trimmed dramatically, as its budget is a major factor in national indebtedness, and the Chinese will not want to finance the U.S. Army for ever; it is notable that the defense industry has been a major financial support of the Republican Party.  Phillips’ believes that Democratic prospects would be undermined by any attempt to create national policies which are dictated by the liberal wing of the Democrat Party, neither party can afford to move too far from the center ground if it is to gain power.

While I believe that Phillips’ conclusions about the present American political alignments are fundamentally correct, I believe that his underlying analysis of the issues facing America today are less than satisfactory and that his historical parallels are forced.  But the historical parallels are unnecessary in terms of his primary arguments and, in my opinion, mainly serve to remind American readers that that in the words of Kipling’s Recessional

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.

Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For the reader who is interested in a recent historical consideration of the impact of the decline of Empires read Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World (2006).

Phillips, in his analysis of current American problems, essentially addresses three issues, firstly the influence of religion on the modern Republic Party, secondly the massive indebtedness of the United States and thirdly its continued dependence on the declining resource of imported oil.  In dealing with these issues he also raises the associated problems of the religious right’s influence on the U.S. Administration’s Middle Eastern policies, although, unlike John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose article The Israel Lobby appeared in The London Review of Books (23 March 2006),  he does not focus on the influence of the Israeli lobby on U.S. policy, rather seeing this in terms of the interests of Evangelical, or “Born Again”, Christians.  For non-American readers Phillips’ accounts of the influence of the religious right offer many insights.  For from the secular prospects of Western Europe and Canada, the fact that large numbers of Americans believe in that the Bible is literally true, and that Christ will soon come for a second time, is unbelievable, the sort of religious dogma that one may be find in a country like Saudi Arabia or Iran.  Europeans, particularly the British, sometimes make the mistake of thinking that Americans are just the same as us, Phillips shows that large numbers of Americans occupy a different planet.  It may well be that American religious fundamentalists are as big a problem as the fundamentalists of the Middle East.  In fact it may well be that the Republican fears of Islamic fundamentalism are a reflection of their supporters’ own views, in some cases they mirror each other.  After all, as Phillips points out, it was an American who has suggested the judicial killing of homosexuals, not a wild-eyed Taliban Mullah from Afghanistan.  At recent international conferences on AIDS, women’s rights and similar issues, as Phillips notes, American delegates have often found themselves allied to the representatives of fundamentalist Islamic States, rather than with the European States, or Canada.

Phillips’ information on declining oil supplies quotes recent books, such as  Matthew R Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (2005).  If you are interested in topics such as peak oil and the amount of crude oil reserves in the world there are more authoritative sources, but Phillips does introduce some useful insights when he highlights the extent to which America is still an “oil economy”.  His main points are that there is a lack of general awareness amongst the American public that alternative energy sources are now essential and that America cannot afford the financial and political consequences of its increasing dependence on imported oil.

It is the rising cost of oil imports, both because of the increasing volumes of oil being imported into the United States, and the increasing price being paid per barrel.  The increasing price per barrel is in large part a consequence of the disastrous Iraqi adventure, and the use of force against Iran would see yet another major increase in oil prices. American consumers have become used to the idea that they have a right to unlimited supplies of cheap gasoline, the coming realities will undermine that belief.

It is, however, the cost of oil imports, which leads to Phillips’ greatest concern, the rapidly rising indebtedness of the United States.  It is this section, together with the chapters on the impact of the religious right on the Republican Party, which make me strongly recommend this book.  Phillips’ account of the national and individual indebtedness is of a disaster than is in the process of happening, a financial train-wreck which will have global implications and which could see a collapse similar to that of the Weimar Republic in the 1930s, or at least a major period of depression.  Something that I will explore in my forthcoming book The World in Crisis.  In brief the United States is the world’s largest debtor nation, kept solvent by the massive purchase of U.S. Government bonds by the Central Banks of East Asia, particularly China.  As Britain learnt in 1945, indebtedness to a foreign power (the U.S. in Britain’s case) can be very harmful, the national food ration was reduced after victory had been achieved, as Britain was so indebted, and could not afford all the imports it needed.

The reserve status of the U.S. Dollar has been in relative decline over the last decade, as central banks have increased their holdings of Euros and other currencies.  A little noticed effect of the Dubai Ports affair was that the U.A.E. sold Dollars from its national reserves and increased the proportion of its reserves held in Euros.  There has also been pressure within OPEC to price oil in Euros, or in a basket of currencies, pressure that will only increase as the U.S. Dollar declines against other currencies, such as the Euro, the Yen and the Yuan.  As the reserve status of the U.S. Dollar declines the United States will be unable to print currency in order to pay for its imports from non-Dollar countries, instead it will need to earn the Euros and Yuan to pay for its essential imports.  However, as Phillips clearly points out, America has, unlike Europe, hollowed out its manufacturing capacity, in the pursuit of the global ambitions of its corporations, and has financialized its economy, so that profits are made by finance companies, not manufacturers.

Phillips also provides ample evidence of the growing personal indebtedness of individual Americans and the encouragement, from the President down, that American receive to consume, one obvious example which Phillips cites was G W Bush’s instructions to Americans after 9/11 to consume to help the national economy.  Phillips believes that the U.S. housing market has served to underpin consumer spending and that the housing market has the makings of a financial bubble, he says that declining house values would have a serious effect on U.S. employment and the whole economy.  As I mentioned earlier, although Phillips does not say so explicitly, I believe that this implies that there will be a major financial collapse as the U.S. markets adjust to realities, which implies a major recession.  As Bill Clinton is said to have observed, “it’s the economy stupid.”  I will cover the impact of long-term economic circles in my forthcoming review of Timo Hamalainen’s National Competitiveness and Economic Growth.

Having defined the three “big” issues, it is interesting to consider the issues that Phillips does not explicitly deal with, the most notable one being the impact of climate change; although he notes that the religious right dismisses the concept because it is not mentioned in the Bible (but then neither are aircraft, or naval task forces, and they seem comfortable with those realities).  Neither does he seriously address the growing abuse of human rights (torture and the bombing of civilians), the use of American military power, and the growing strength of international opposition to U.S. foreign policies, a subject dealt with in detail by Noam Chomsky’s recent book Failed States (2006), which will also be the subject of a future review.  He suggests that China will assume the mantle of global hegemony, but does not consider the possibility of the emergence of a multi-polar world in which countries like India, Venezuela, Brazil, Iran and Russia see an increase in their relative importance in the world.

In conclusion I strongly recommend this book.  Although it (and its companion volumes) may not deal with all the problems currently faced by the United States, it contains a great deal of useful information, much of it will be new, especially to the non-American reader.  Phillips concludes with the clearest explanation of the likely rise of the Democratic Party at the expense of the increasingly “righteous” and religious Republic Party.  Phillips writes clearly and with real passion, I enjoyed this book.



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