Kevin Phillips has just reinforced his status as the nation's most heretical Republican with the publication of his 13th and boldest book, American Theocracy. He began his career as a key Nixon strategist who foresaw the electoral importance of the switch in loyalties of a once Democratic South along with the emerging Sunbelt to the growth of the Republican Party. However, Phillips started to stray from the emerging Republican orthodoxy during the reign of George Bush I when he called attention to startling levels of inequality in his 1989 book, The Politics of Rich and Poor.
But his withering criticism of George I's policies are mild in comparison to American Theocracy's scorching analysis of George W. Bush's administration. In American Theocracy, Phillips outlines three ominous and convergent developments:
1) the ascendance of an oil-national security complex;
2) the mounting electoral influence of the Religious Right; and
3) the hollowing-out of real production in the US economy in favor of a debt-driven financial sector.
Phillips argues that the Republican Party he once supported has become the vehicle for "a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless, credit-feeding financial complex." The Republican Party, Phillips flatly declares, "has become the first religious party in US history," with frightening doctrines of "preventive war" abroad and even greater wealth for the chosen few at home.
Under Bush, Phillips would argue, the Republican Party seems to increasingly stand for a unique merger of theocracy with plutocracy (undemocratic rule by the richest).
Phillips was interviewed in Milwaukee, Wisc., on his recent book tour by the husband-and-wife team of Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter.
Q. We're curious how the coalition of economic and religious conservatives has managed to hold together for so long.
Phillips: It's been very difficult for people in the business community, not so much on matters of compassion, but because of science, the general sense that they [the Bush administration] don't know what they're doing, you can't assume that their foreign policy is founded on some serious objective, that it may have some odd streak. [This interview was conducted prior to the Bush administration's latest saber-rattling against Iran.]
There is a growing doubt, also [among] people in the oil business. They look at the administration's position, which is favorable to them when they want to do something on policy, but they can't discuss the issue of peak oil and whether we're running out of oil. Petroleum geology is meaningless, because you can't discuss it with people who think the world was created seven thousand years ago.
Q. But how has this coalition held up so long? Why are sophisticated business people with an economic agenda willing to buy into such a tight social agenda?
Phillips: 9/11. They bought into it when Bush's approval ratings were up there at 68% or 72% and getting tax cuts, and basically when conservatives in Congress weren't restive. And all of a sudden they are very restive because they see the whole ball of wax getting away from them.
Q. Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter With Kansas?, argues that recently the Republicans successfully depicted Democrats as cultural elitists and inserted cultural issues in place of economic concerns. Is Frank's analysis consistent with yours?
Phillips: To some extent. Where we would disagree is the minute you take a look at Kansas on a religious basis ... When you take them all together, you have about 75% of Kansas Christians belonging to non-fashionable churches that are evangelical. A lot of these people don't really care about economic issues today because they're thinking about the Rapture [Jesus' return to Earth amidst crisis] and the End Times.
About 45% of American Christians believe in Armageddon, and almost that many believe that the Antichrist is already alive. I would guess that among Republican voters, .. it's about 55%, because they include such a high ratio of the evangelicals and fundamentalists. They don't care about the atmosphere or the deficits. Because when Christ comes back, they're going into a whole new ball game.
Q. You offer extensive evidence that oil was absolutely central to Bush's decision to precipitate the war with Iraq. Why have the major media in the US been so unwilling even to contemplate this possibility?
Phillips: I don't really know why. I think it's easier for me to theorize about why Bush doesn't ... But the prestige press in the US hasn't wanted to go there particularly. They don't want to document what people all over the Mideast and Europe already think. I would just guess the people who run the networks don't want to discuss control over oil as a critical factor behind the war. It would take a lot of luster off our supposed integrity in these things.
Q. The Democrats are rubbing their hands with glee over their prospects in the November elections. Are the Democrats able to project a compelling alternative to Bush's policies?
Phillips: Once or twice a decade, the Democrats seem to manage. I'm not sure if this will be the year. But if it's not, they have a big problem. As you've heard several times at least, in an eight-year sequence, there tends to be a "six-year itch" in the mid-term election of the second term. This is historically when the party in power loses a number of seats. Now if the Democrats simply gain just 2 Senate seats and 10 in the House, they will be painted as losers because of the historic pattern, and bad doubly because Bush is so vulnerable.
Q. Within the evangelical movement, how would you describe those who are least committed to the right-wing vision, and what are their issues and doubts that might be open to a progressive appeal?
Phillips: There is a distinct liberal minority, but it is pretty small. ... These are people who worry that the Jesus that cared for the poor has been replaced by a Jesus who drives a Cadillac for Jerry Falwell.
If you had a 10% shrinkage in the evangelical vote, it would make a big difference. If I were a strategist for the liberals, I would do a lot to create doubts about the whole coherence of what Bush does and his view of religion as Bush-centric. You could find all these quotes from Bush saying, "God wanted me to run for president," and stuff like that. ... He's religiously narcissistic.
Q. President Bush's favorability ratings have dropped to 33% and yet he seems to be pursuing essentially the same hard-line foreign and domestic agenda as before. What is his strategy behind that?
Phillips: I'm not sure it's a coherent strategy. The view that George Bush has is that he was put in the presidency for a purpose and that this is this larger role he plays. There's one quote in the book, which I can find easily, ... something that George W. said to a private meeting of old-order Amish in Pennsylvania. He said, "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
Q. Milwaukee and America continue to undergo an accelerating deindustrialization and more outsourcing of white-collar jobs. Why aren't the issues of outsourcing and job security emerging with more salience this election year?
Phillips: Well, they get attacked by business conservatives, and academic mainstream liberals call opposition to outsourcing "reactionary protectionism" and so forth. It's only a minority in each party, with somewhat different language, that tries to stick up for the Middle Americans. That's something a liberal will do, and that Pat Buchanan has done.
I don't think we're very far, given the size of the current account deficit [the trade deficit with other nations, which hit a record $725.8 billion in 2005], from that really flipping and becoming a major issue. The last part of the book discusses how manufacturing has been replaced by finance as the main thing we do, and the big thing boosting finance has actually been debt.
And this debt of course lies so heavily on the families in the middle. If [the Democrats speak out on this forcefully] though, the Democrats will have to figure that they will get a lot less money from the financial people who are also the biggest donors by far, so it's a real problem for them that way.
Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter are Milwaukee writers and activists. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.