Books by Phillips, Kevin

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03486-X.
In 1969, the author published The Emerging Republican Majority, which Newsweek called “The political bible of the Nixon Era.” The book laid out the “Sun Belt” (a phrase he coined) strategy he developed as a senior strategist for Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign, and argued that demographic and economic trends would reinforce the political power of what he termed the “heartland” states, setting the stage for long-term Republican dominance of national politics, just as FDR's New Deal coalition had maintained Democratic power (especially in the Congress) for more than a generation.

In this book he argues that while his 1969 analysis was basically sound and would have played out much as he forecast, had the Republican steamroller not been derailed by Watergate and the consequent losses in the 1974 and 1976 elections, since the Reagan era, and especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, things have gone terribly wrong, and that the Republican party, if it remains in power, is likely to lead the United States in disastrous directions, resulting in the end of its de facto global hegemony.

Now, this is a view with which I am generally sympathetic, but if the author's reason for writing the present volume is to persuade people in that direction, I must judge the result ineffectual if not counterproductive. The book is ill-reasoned, weakly argued, poorly written, strongly biased, scantily documented, grounded in dubious historical analogies, and rhetorically structured in the form of “proof by assertion and endless repetition”.

To start with, the title is misleading if read without the subtitle, “The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century”, which appears in 8 point sans-serif type on the cover, below an illustration of a mega-church reinforcing the the words “American Theocracy” in 60 and 48 point roman bold. In fact, of 394 pages of main text, only 164—about 40%—are dedicated to the influence of religion on politics. (Yes, there are mentions of religion in the rest, but there is plenty of discussion of the other themes in the “Too Many Preachers” part as well; this book gives the distinct impression of having been shaken, not stirred.) And nothing in that part, or elsewhere in the book provides any evidence whatsoever, or even seriously advances a claim, that there is a genuine movement toward, threat of, or endorsement by the Republican party of theocracy, which Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines as:

  1. A form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God's or deity's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities.
  2. A system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.
  3. A commonwealth or state under such a form or system of government.

And since Phillips's argument is based upon the Republican party's support among religious groups as diverse as Southern Baptists, northern Midwest Lutherans, Pentecostals, Mormons, Hasidic Jews, and Eastern Rite and traditionalist Catholics, it is difficult to imagine how precisely how the feared theocracy would function, given how little these separate religious groups agree upon. It would have to be an “ecumenical theocracy”, a creature for which I can recall no historical precedent.

The greater part of the book discusses the threats to the U.S. posed by a global peak in petroleum production and temptation of resource wars (of which he claims the U.S. intervention in Iraq is an example), and the explosion of debt, public and private, in the U.S., the consequent housing bubble, and the structural trade deficits which are flooding the world with greenbacks. But these are topics which have been discussed more lucidly and in greater detail by authors who know far more about them than Phillips, who cites secondary and tertiary sources and draws no novel observations.

A theme throughout the work is comparison of the present situation of the U.S. with previous world powers which fell into decline: ancient Rome, Spain in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Britain in the first half of the twentieth. The parallels here, especially as regards fears of “theocracy” are strained to say the least. Constantine did not turn Rome toward Christianity until the fourth century A.D., by which time, even Gibbon concedes, the empire had been in decline for centuries. (Phillips seems to have realised this part of the way through the manuscript and ceases to draw analogies with Rome fairly early on.) Few, if any, historians would consider Spain, Holland, or Britain in the periods in question theocratic societies; each had a clear separation between civil authority and the church, and in the latter two cases there is plain evidence of a decline in the influence of organised religion on the population as the nation's power approached a peak and began to ebb. Can anybody seriously contend that the Anglican church was responsible for the demise of the British Empire? Hello—what about the two world wars, which were motivated by power politics, not religion?

Distilled to the essence (and I estimate a good editor could cut a third to half of this text just by flensing the mind-numbing repetition), Phillips has come to believe in the world view and policy prescriptions advocated by the left wing of the Democratic party. The Republican party does not agree with these things. Adherents of traditional religion share this disagreement, and consequently they predominately vote for Republican candidates. Therefore, evangelical and orthodox religious groups form a substantial part of the Republican electorate. But how does that imply any trend toward “theocracy”? People choose to join a particular church because they are comfortable with the beliefs it espouses, and they likewise vote for candidates who advocate policies they endorse. Just because there is a correlation between preferences does not imply, especially in the absence of any evidence, some kind of fundamentalist conspiracy to take over the government and impose a religious dictatorship. Consider another divisive issue which has nothing to do with religion: the right to keep and bear arms. People who consider the individual right to own and carry weapons for self-defence are highly probable to be Republican voters as well, because that party is more closely aligned with their views than the alternative. Correlation is not evidence of causality, not to speak of collusion.

Much of the writing is reminiscent of the lower tier of the UFO literature. There are dozens of statements like this one from p. 93 (my italics), “There are no records, but Cheney's reported early 2001 plotting may well have touched upon the related peril to the dollar.” May I deconstruct? So what's really being said here is, “Some conspiracy theorist, with no evidence to support his assertion, claims that Cheney was plotting to seize Iraqi oil fields, and it is possible that this speculated scheme might have been motivated by fears for the dollar.”

There are more than thirty pages of end notes set in small type, but there is less documentation here than strains the eye. Many citations are to news stories in collectivist legacy media and postings on leftist advocacy Web sites. Picking page 428 at random, we find 29 citations, only five of which are to a total of three books, one by the present author.

So blinded is the author by his own ideological bias that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that a right-wing stalwart could produce an almost completely parallel screed about the Democratic party being in thrall to a coalition of atheists, humanists, and secularists eager to use the power of the state to impose their own radical agenda. In fact, one already has. It is dubious that shrill polemics of this variety launched back and forth between the trenches of an increasingly polarised society promote the dialogue and substantive debate which is essential to confront the genuine and daunting challenges all its citizens ultimately share.

March 2007 Permalink

Phillips, Kevin. Bad Money. New York: Viking, 2008. ISBN 978-0-670-01907-6.
I was less than impressed by the author's last book, American Theocracy (March 2007), so I was a little hesitant about picking up this volume—but I'm glad I did. This is, for its length, the best resource for understanding the present financial mess I've read. While it doesn't explain everything, and necessarily skips over much of the detail, it correctly focuses on the unprecedented explosion of debt in recent decades; the dominance of finance (making money by shuffling money around) over manufacturing (making stuff) in the United States; the emergence of a parallel, unregulated, fantasy-land banking system based on arcane financial derivatives; politicians bent on promoting home ownership whatever the risk to the financial system; and feckless regulators and central bankers who abdicated their responsibility and became “serial bubblers” instead. The interwoven fate of the dollar and petroleum prices, the near-term impact of a global peak in oil production and the need to rein in carbon emissions, and their potential consequences for an already deteriorating economic situation are discussed in detail. You will also learn why government economic statistics (inflation rate, money supply, etc.) should be treated with great scepticism.

The thing about financial bubbles, and why such events are perennial in human societies, is that everybody wins—as long as the bubble continues to inflate and more suckers jump on board. Asset owners see their wealth soar, speculators make a fortune, those producing the assets enjoy ever-increasing demand, lenders earn more and more financing the purchase of appreciating assets, brokers earn greater and greater fees, and government tax revenues from everybody in the loop continue to rise—until the bubble pops. Then everybody loses, as reality reasserts itself. That's what we're beginning to see occur in today's financial markets: a grand-scale deleveraging of which events as of this writing (mid-October 2008) are just the opening act (or maybe the overture).

The author sketches possible scenarios for how the future may play out. On the whole, he's a bit more optimistic than I (despite the last chapter's being titled “The Global Crisis of American Capitalism”), but then that isn't difficult. The speculations about the future seem plausible to me, but I can imagine things developing in far different ways than those envisioned here, many of which would seem far-fetched today. There are a few errors (for example, Vladimir Putin never “headed the KGB” [p. 192]: in fact he retired from the KGB in 1991 after returning from having served as an agent in Dresden), but none seriously affects the arguments presented.

I continue to believe the author overstates the influence of the evangelical right in U.S. politics, and understates the culpability of politicians of both parties in creating the moral hazard which has now turned into the present peril. But these quibbles do not detract from this excellent primer on how the present crisis came to be, and what the future may hold.

October 2008 Permalink