The Big Idea

The Erring Republican Authority

Kevin Phillips is wrong about everything. Why is he taken so seriously?

Kevin Phillips

In 1969, an obscure Republican political strategist named Kevin Phillips published a nerdy, statistics-laden book titled The Emerging Republican Majority that offered a Machiavellian analysis of how the GOP could use the issue of race to win over working-class Democrats and ensure future political dominance. In the years since, almost every aspect of that description has been turned around. Phillips long ago left behind both obscurity and conservatism, becoming one of our most ubiquitous political commentators and one of the most left-wing. His biennial books have become illogical, dizzying screeds. And his diagnoses, predictions, and advice to Democrats have been consistently, embarrassingly wrong.

Phillips’ faults are on full, gaseous display in his latest jeremiad, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. The book was  No. 1 on Amazon before being released and has already been widely praised by liberals, who continue to welcome Phillips as a fresh convert to their side decades after his defection from the right. Alan Brinkley, a distinguished historian who should know better, last week praised American Theocracy in the lead essay of the New York Times Book Review as “frighteningly persuasive” and “a harrowing picture of national danger … that none should ignore.” Time calls the book “indispensable.”

Let me help dispense with it. Phillips’ argument is that oil dependency, Christian fundamentalism, and excessive debt are destroying the country. He is not wrong that these are dangers. But he wildly misunderstands, distorts, and overstates all of them.

The Phillips method is to begin a chapter with a boldly stated thesis: America invaded Iraq to seize its oil. Having gotten your attention, he departs on a pompous, pedantic history tour: tar in the Bible, medieval mineralogy, Italian olive oil, the Basque whaling trade, the British carve-up of the Middle East, the rise of the automobile, and so on. Thirty pages later, having presented no evidence and answered no objections (So, why did the oil companies oppose the Iraq war?), he restates his claim more hyperbolically: “During the first George W. Bush administration, that reliance [on automobiles] dictated an attempt to turn the Persian Gulf into an American filling station so as to maintain high energy consumption.” At least Michael Moore tries to make us laugh when he says stuff like this.

Phillips is no more coherent on the book’s chief subject, “theocracy.” He contends that the GOP has become America’s first openly religious party, in thrall to Christian “premillenialists” who think the end is nigh. Bush has indeed allied himself with his party’s evangelical wing. But while Karl Rove’s pander-to-the base strategy got Bush narrowly re-elected, the entente hasn’t truly served Bush or the religious right. The appearance of extremism on issues of church-state separation and stem-cell research has helped dig a deep hole for the president and his party, alienating secular and libertarian Republicans uncomfortable with the revival-tent atmosphere. And evangelical power appears to have peaked. Since the Terri Schiavo debacle, the religious right has mainly embarrassed itself by battling evolutionary theory. Phillips doesn’t recognize any of this. Nor does he seem to grasp that end-times “Rapture” fantasies and the quest for oil cannot both be the hidden explanation of everything Bush does.

When it comes to economics, Phillips has still less of a clue. The tip-off that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about comes in the section about oil, when he tries to explain that not all “proven” reserves are available. Drilling may become uneconomic, Phillips notes, if more energy is required to find and extract a barrel of oil than the barrel contains—”at least until the price of oil rises.” Sorry, but if it costs more than a barrel of oil to make a barrel of oil, a higher price won’t help.

This sort of comment at least prepares us for the obtuseness that follows. Phillips is surely right, if impressively unoriginal, to argue that too much debt is a bad thing. But why must it mean that America is headed the way of Rome? Reagan ran larger deficits in GDP terms than Bush has done, but a more fiscally prudent successor reversed them. Phillips’ declinism relies on fatuous anti-market prejudices familiar from his earlier work: that a healthy economy must be based in manufacturing, that free trade and globalization impoverish us, that foreign ownership is treacherous, that industrial policy works, and that a robust financial sector means trouble. 

The hostility to Wall Street implicit in the last notion is part and parcel of a condescending, aristo-populism that recalls Gore Vidal without the twinkle. In the Phillips worldview, plutocrats exploit the American proletariat, which supports the policies that keep it miserable out of false consciousness—the poor hicks actually believe Christ is coming to save them. But any potential Marxist rigor swiftly dissipates into a haze of Syriana—paranoia about the Bush dynasty and the CIA, Skull and Bones, the House of Saud, and the discredited October Surprise conspiracy. Have I mentioned that Phillips is an appalling writer? His prose is cliché-ridden, self-referential, maddeningly repetitive, and dull enough to kill weeds.

Once upon a time, Kevin Phillips crunched a lot of numbers to give shrewd, if cynical, political advice to Republicans about capitalizing on white fear of black people. Since switching sides, he has proposed various ways for the liberals to knock down the conservative majority he helped to build. Democrats would be wise to beware of geeks bearing such gifts.