American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips, Read by Scott Brick, Penguin Audio, 2006
Every so often I get the craving to read political texts. The problem with this urge is that I have no interest in picking up the edited transcript/ghost written crap put out by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, the frankly embarrassing Dinesh D’Souza, or the “Look at me! Look at me! Look at MEEEE!” shrillness that passes for the corporeal form of Ann Coulter. That’s what’s on offer on the right side of the spectrum.
Too frequently when I read a lefty’s political book of any kind, I find it dully confirming a great number of my already held prejudices and regurgitating things I read on the blogs months ago. Rarely do any of these books enlighten or educate me in any real fashion. Oh, I may pick up an anecdote here or there or may recall one or two unfamiliar facts to buttress my earlier beliefs, but it’s hardly the same as learning. What a revelation then Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, a book I entirely put into the category of prejudice bolstering anti-fundamentalist GOP tract.
I had always meant to read the book, the conjunction of religion and power an all too often unacknowledged aspect of American politics. By this I mean, people may discuss how Republicans court the religious right and kowtow to the fundamentalist line on all sexual matters (gays, women’s rights, abortion), but exactly how much of the GOP platform is dictated by the Religious Right is hardly ever outright discussed (outside of the same mentioned lefty blogs).
When the author ranks fundamentalist Jewish and Christian sects on the same level as Jihadism and refers to the GOP as America’s first religious party, you’d be tempted to believe that the author was a Democrat, or even an unaffiliated liberal. How surprising then to find that Phillips was a member of the Nixon Administration and author of the seminal electoral text The Emerging Republican Majority. He has also written extensively on a range of historical subjects from the presidency of William McKinley to the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War in The Cousins War.
Phillips’ range of comparison is convincing, illustrating the collapses of the Roman Empire, the Spanish Hapsburg Empire, the Dutch naval empire, and the well-known British Empire with intricate detail, demonstrating how financial strain, badly managed resources, and religious intolerance were sizable factors in each one, aggravating already existing problems.
Which is to say, Phillips brings an impressive historical scope to his analysis of where the American Empire is headed. In short, disaster. Having made the case of how those problems were instrumental, he then bluntly lays into modern American political culture with bruising clarity and straightforwardness demonstrating over the past several decades how get-rich-quick attitudes and short-term gain have sacrificed long-term stability, most commonly abetted by the Republican Party and their corporate backers and Taliban-like fundie ground troops.
Perhaps the most common criticism against Phillips’ book is the eye-rolling toward the notion that Bush and the GOP lead us into the Iraq quagmire based on oil dreams. It always strikes me as patently ridiculous that anyone could argue that other motivations were as strong as that single one. After all, weapons of mass destruction and democracy fostering could be even more strongly argued for North Korea or Iran, yet neither of those is sitting on oil reserves the size of Iraq’s.
Part of how Phillips demolishes arguments that counter the rather obvious one he makes — oil was the primary and overwhelming motive for war in Iraq — is to consult the historical record. Even his detractors can’t argue that the man is not thorough. In considering the American economy’s relationship with oil, Phillips returns to the industry of whaling and starts from there, building his case for the energy industry’s outlandish power from the ground up. In considering imperial designs on the Fertile Crescent, he returns to Rome, though most of his global focus rests on the British Empire and their colonial inheritors of hegemony.
“Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath,” Phillips quotes an oil analyst from a couple of years ago. “You can’t ask for better than that.” And while Iraq remains a central front in this particular petro-war (it being of significant note that in 2000 Baghdad switched from the dollar standard for oil export to the Euro, a move reversed post-invasion), Phillips points out the recent clustering of semi-temporary American military bases and/or the presence of U.S. military advisors near Kazakhastan, Colombia, the Caucasian republic of Georgia, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Sao Tome, Indonesia, the Strait of Malaca, the Balkans, and any other region that just so coincidentally happens to run along oil and gas pipelines or be possessed of sizable oil fields. Such maps, one historian notes, bear a striking resemblance to the global span of imperial Britain’s protected collieries.
It is one of the book’s ironies to learn that the likely greatest failure of the British Empire was its heavy dependence on coal and its refusal to adjust its coal-based infrastructure and mindset. This spectacular myopia lead them to sort of overlook and underestimate petroleum. King Coal would always rule, they believed.
Such mindsets were behind another feature of declining empire, the overtaking of actual manufacturing as a base of the economy in favor of finance-based speculative markets. Heavy borrowing, stock-trading, futures markets, all of these non-productive types of wealth accumulation and management have come to dominate the American business sector, with solid manufacturing jobs being shipped out to slave-wage-labor third-world sweatshops. As wealth becomes more and more speculative and less and less based on solid material growth, empires overextend themselves and the merest of financial catastrophes balloon.
This is well illustrated by Phillips’ consideration of personal, corporate, and government debt, handily summarized by American’s net savings for the first time in history showing a negative balance. We now, as a nation and as family units, spend more than we earn. While it’s clear Phillips abhors this practice at the individual level, he is ruthless in his excoriation of the architects of such economies, epitomized in the person of former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan. Phillips stops just short of suggesting Greenspan should be burned in effigy in the streets or tarred and feathered, but such notions probably aren’t far from his mind.
But nowhere in the book is Phillips more scathing and venomous than in lambasting the hucksterism of the Religious Right, a group he compares unfavorably with radical Muslim clerics, as well as frauds and opportunists looking to cash in on the credulous. Tying this into the petroleum dilemmas, Phillips takes us inside what the Coors Beer family fortune has wrought, the staffing of “the principal units charged with resources stewardship (the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior and Energy)” with cronies from:
the GOP’s business-religious axis: the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Council for National Policy…, and, more marginally, the Coalition on Revival (bridging the theological gap between the rapture believers and the Christian Reconstructionists who believe a theocratic type of government must be built before Jesus will return).
As if you needed a better reason not to drink the Coors family’s shitty beer.
With the third group in that category, the Council for National Policy, Phillips takes special attention toward Tim LaHaye, a hilariously inept favorite here on this site, and quotes one analysis of the novels LaHaye “co-wrote” with draftsman Jerry B. Jenkins as “And God so loved the world that He sent World War Three.” Phillips considers his influence to have “warped the Republican party” which is putting it mildly to say the least and heaps scorn on this sizable GOP constituency. You can almost hear the sneer when he notes that such among the faithful believe as soon as a sperm fertilizes an egg — “pop” god slips in a soul.
That Phillips is a Republican attacking Republicans does not mean that he has suddenly become sympathetic to liberal ideas; he merely embraces science over religious tenets in decision making. He also doesn’t appear to have any reactions to the hot button issues of conservative fundamentalists (abortion, evolution, climate change, sex education). It’s refreshing to hear a GOP man discuss favorably how union labor lifted the American population by and large into the middle class, whereas today’s current money markets are pushing in the opposite direction. It is likewise a sign of his rationality that he finds fault with the Reagan years lust for deregulation which allowed for all kinds of economic mischief.
To read American Theocracy is to have your eyes opened repeatedly with an erudition more entertaining political tracts lack. When the author mixes these three dangerous strands of his book together, the result promises a combustible future on this continent.
Phillips has no great praise for Democrats in general, but to hear his concerns, his favorable impressions, his economic insights and views on what is needed to save America from ruinous collapse, you’d think you were hearing someone slightly to the right of Ralph Nader.
And if that ain’t a sign of how warped the Republican Party has become, I don’t know what would demonstrate it better.
Scott Brick reads the book with a voice that frequently rises with outrage. When he touches on religious fundamentalism, at points he almost shouts and his voice drips with a poison I’d only heard previously when authors read their own works of cultural analysis. It’s one of the more profoundly partisan readings I’d heard by, for all I could previously discern, an objective presenter of the material. His voice sounds a profound wake-up call; in that, he is pitch perfect.