Alan Brinkley reviews
Kevin Phillips's new book American Theocracy
in the Times Book Review. Based on Brinkley's review, it would appear that Phillips has misdiagnosed America's problems - or at least has decided to dwell on some secondary issues.
According to Brinkley, Phillips cites three forces that threaten our future: our dependence on oil, Christian fundamentalism, and debt. Now obviously having to import 2/3 of our oil is a problem, but clearly less of a problem than that faced by Europe and Japan who import nearly all their oil. And certainly we take our energy needs very seriously in formulating our foreign policy.
But does oil really dominate our Mideast policy? I'd say Israel is the
dominant force in our Mideast policy, and oil serves merely to moderate that policy by giving Arab nations some leverage so that our foreign policy does not completely
favor Israel. While Phillips seems to lay blame for the Iraq war on oil interests, the more likely culprit is the pro-Israeli coterie
in Cheney's office and the Pentagon (one of the main hawks at the Pentagon has been indicted
for sharing state secrets with Israel). Indeed, during the run-up to the war, G.H. Bush's old guard were desperately trying to derail
young Bush's plans. It's seems pretty clear that the impetus for the war came not from the more traditional Bush family circles but rather from the new breed of neo-cons brought into the administration. So Phillips seems a bit off on this one.
His next villain is even more unlikely. While the agenda of the religious right might be viewed with some concern by many Americans, they hardly constitute the most serious demographic threat to our nation's future. It's pretty bizarre, in fact, that in a nation where 1 out of 3 births are illegitimate
and a materialistic mind set led to negative savings
Phillips finds people who oppose extra-marital sex and debt are found to be such a menace. Phillips, born and raised in Connecticut and an Ivy-Leaguer through and through, no doubt is horrified by the coarseness of the Evangelical masses, just as his Puritan cultural-forebears were horrified by the Scots-Irish immigrants who poured into the American frontier. Unfortunately, his snobbery prevents his noticing the far more ominous demographic time-bomb ticking away all around him in the millions of legal and illegal immigrants who are permanently altering our nation's very fabric. At least based on Brinkley's review, one gathers Phillips hasn't a word to say whether a continuous stream of over a million third world peasants might present some long-term consequences. No, he's too busy worrying that should fundamentalists get too powerful America could end up as a theocracy with prayer in public schools, abortion illegal, and married women largely consigned to housework - in other words, 1950's America. Wouldn't that be a disaster.
His third worrisome trend is certainly a real one - the growing pile of debt we are bequeathing ourselves. But the debt itself is really not so much of a concern. Our problem is that the debt is being financed by foreign governments. Otherwise, the national debt is really just a form of transfer payments from those citizens who do not own government bonds to those who do. Not ideal, but easily reversible via tax policy. But when we owe money to foreign interests, then we have no recourse. So our real problem is our absurdly high and growing trade deficit, which is fueled by our insatiable consumer tastes. For reasons that I suppose I'll have to read the book to understand, Phillips blames this on Evangelicals, even though 5 minutes watching Pat Robertson (probably an eternity to Phillips) would make it clear that conservative Christians view debt and credit-card consumerism as sinful behavior.
I'm sure the book is a lot better than this review makes it out to be, with a lot of solid backup for his arguments, but I doubt Phillips has a real intuitive feel for the populace. He nailed it with his prediction way back in the day that the growing Sunbelt would be good news for Republicans, but perhaps he never really understood why. With his latest book, he seems to be consistently missing the mark: worrying that our foreign policy is influenced by a critical energy source rather than by a single, small, (real) theocracy in the Mideast; or that our way of life is threatened by millions of religious, tradition-minded Americans as opposed to the yearly onslaught of millions of non-English speaking, low achieving immigrants who aren't assimilating; or that it's the large budget deficit in and of itself as opposed to our eroding manufacturing base and massive trade deficit that threatens our future.