THE BLOG
03/24/2006 10:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Altercation Book Club: American Theocracy

Altercation

But first, this: "All televisions tuned to FOX news" or somebody gets a load of quail shot in the kisser." (We can't have the president, er, vice-president hearing anything the RNC hasn't already cleared...)

The American Theocracy, by Kevin Phillips

The American people are not fools. That is why pollsters, inquiring during the last forty years whether the United States was on the right track or the wrong one, have so often gotten the second answer: wrong track. That was certainly the case again as the year 2005 closed out.

Because survey takers do not always pursue explanations, this book will venture some. Reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) religion, and a reliance on borrowed money--debt, in its ballooning size and multiple domestic and international deficits--now constitute the three major perils to the United States in the twenty-first century.

Shouldn't war and terror be on the list? Yes--and they are, one step removed. Both derive much of their current impetus from the incendiary backdrop of oil politics and religious fundamentalism, in Islam as well as the West. Despite pretensions to motivations such as liberty and freedom, petroleum and its geopolitics have dominated Anglo-American activity in the Middle East for a full century. On this, history could not be more clear.

The excesses of fundamentalism, in turn, are American and Israeli, as well as the all-too-obvious depredations of radical Islam. The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs, and the last two presidential elections mark the transformation of the GOP into the first religious party in U.S. history.

The financialization of the United States economy over the last three decades--in the 1990s the finance, real-estate, and insurance sector overtook and then strongly passed manufacturing as a share of the U.S. gross domestic product--is an ill omen in its own right. However, its rise has been closely tied to record levels of debt and to the powerful emergence of a debt-and-credit industrial complex. Excessive debt in the twenty-first-century United States is on its way to becoming the global Fifth Horseman, riding close behind war, pestilence, famine, and fire.

This book's title, American Theocracy, sums up a potent change in this country's domestic and foreign policy making--religion's new political prowess and its role in the projection of military power in the Middle East Bible lands--that most people are just beginning to understand. We have had theocracies in North America before--in Puritan New England and later in Mormon Utah--but except in their earliest beginnings, they lacked the intensity of those in Europe, such as John Calvin's Geneva or the Catholic Spain of the Inquisition.

The United States is too big and too diverse to resemble the Massachusetts Bay Colony of John Winthrop or sixteenth-century Geneva or even nineteenth-century Utah. A leading world power such as the United States, with almost three hundred million people and huge international responsibilities, goes about as far in a theocratic direction as it can when it satisfies the unfortunate criteria on display in Washington circa 2005: an elected leader who believes himself in some way to speak for God, a ruling political party that represents true believers and seeks to mobilize the churches, the conviction of many voters in that Republican party that government should be guided by religion, and on top of it all, White House implementation of domestic and international political agendas that seem to be driven by religious motivations and biblical worldviews.

These three threats could stand on their own as menaces to the Republic. History, however, provides a further level of confirmation. Natural resources, religious excess, wars, and burgeoning debt levels have been prominent causes of the downfall of the previous leading world economic powers. The United States is hardly the first, and we can profit from the examples of what went wrong before.

Oil, as everyone knows, became the all-important fuel of American global ascendancy in the twentieth century. But before that, nineteenth-century Britain was the coal hegemon and seventeenth-century Dutch fortune harnessed the winds and the waters. Neither nation could maintain its global economic leadership when the world moved toward a new energy regime. Today's United States, despite denials, has obviously organized much of its overseas military posture around petroleum, protecting oil fields, pipelines, and sea lanes.

But U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East has two dimensions. In addition to its concerns with oil and terrorism, the White House is courting end-times theologians and electorates for whom the holy lands are already a battleground of Christian destiny. Both pursuits, oil and biblical expectations, require a dissimulation in Washington that undercuts the U.S. tradition of commitment to the role of an informed electorate.

The political corollary--fascinating but appalling--is the recent transformation of the Republican presidential coalition. Since the elections of 2000 and especially of 2004, three pillars have become increasingly central: (1) the oil-national security complex, with its pervasive interest; (2) the religious right, with its doctrinal imperatives and massive electorate; and (3) the debt-dealing financial sector, which extends far beyond the old symbolism of Wall Street. In December 2004 The New York Times took up the term "borrower-industrial complex" to identify one profitable engine of exploding consumer debt.

That name does not quite work, but we can hardly use a term like the credit-card/mortgage/auto-loan/corporate-debt/federal-borrowing industrial complex. This is a problem still searching for its Election Day Halloween mask. In any event, the rapid ballooning of government, corporate, financial, and personal debt over the last four decades goes a long way to explain why the finance sector, debt's toll collector, has swollen to outweigh the manufacture of real goods. We are in the midst of one of America's most perverse transformations.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from AMERICAN THEOCRACY by Kevin Phillips

Copyright © Kevin Phillips, 2006, more here.

Misc:

This GM offer may prove the final nail in the coffin of private-sector unions in America; a victim of the class-war being waged by the extremely rich against the rest of us.

Washington Post's Domenech calls Coretta Scott King "a communist" here. Paul McLeary has more here. So does war monger, Todd Gitlin.

Chait again, here, wondering, (implicitly) why the heck John Podhoretz has a job anywhere now that his father can't ruin anyone's literary career anymore.

In part 2 of an interview, former Cold Warrior and CIA consultant, now historian of American militarism and author of Blowback, Chalmers Johnson, brings up the curious question -- now that we live far beyond our means -- of what "bankruptcy" might mean not for Argentina, but for the last standing Superpower. It's a sobering subject you may hear far more about in the coming, "peak oil" years. (Part 1 of the interview can be found here.)

I read a transcript of the Charlie Rose show from Monday night on Iraq. Here are some of the most interesting quotes:

GEORGE PACKER: But one thing I saw in Iraq is there are these enormous bases that do have the look of permanence. And I don't quite understand why that hasn't been cleared up by the administration, what are our intentions in the long run in Iraq?

JESSICA MATTHEWS: But if you include yourself, Fouad, forgive me, but you were wrong.

FOUAD AJAMI: You're absolutely -- you're absolutely just, you know, picking of a lot of things. We're not here to discuss my view.

JESSICA MATTHEWS: No, no, no, but I'm talking about...

FOUAD AJAMI: I'm perfectly willing to come, and Charlie can go back over what I've said at his desk about Iraq and my doubts about Iraq, my nervousness about Iraq. I was a 9/11 person, and this is what engaged me at the time. When the administration did a switch and moved into Iraq, I simply did the only thing I felt I could do; I followed my country into Iraq and decided this is where this war is being played out.

So your idea that somehow I was beating the drums of war is wrong.

JESSICA MATTHEWS: No, I remember sitting next to you at this table.

FOUAD AJAMI: I never signed -- I never signed the Project for the New American Century.

FOUAD AJAMI: I never belonged to any group that urged the war. When the war came, I did what I as a citizen of this land, I thought I would not second-guess the war. I would not second-guess the soldiers on the ground. I would not second-guess the generals.

It was very easy for everyone now to be this sort of -- to be the armchair occupier of Iraq. It`s been very easy. That I would not do, because I thought that was irresponsible. So that's the answer to you.

LES GELB: There's no question that it's helped to weaken America's standing in almost every other country in the world. It's just added to the notion of an America out of control, an America that doesn't know how to deal with the world. It hasn't enhanced American prestige and power. It's weakened it.

Fouad: This was forbidding difficult. This was a forbiddingly difficult undertaking, and the burden on anyone who smashes and bashes the administration today and recounts his mistake is to tell us how we get -- how we come up with something better.

JESSICA MATTHEWS: I think it was an ignoble war, because we went in, in a mixture of ignorance and arrogance. Ignorance not just about the particular country and about its history and its people and its language, as Fouad said, but ignorance of having forgotten or maybe not knowing the history of previous interventions all over the world -- by us, by the British, by others -- of what it takes to try to create institutions that underpin democracy. They're home grown things. They don't get transferred overnight.

And I think it's an unfair test to ask of the Iraqis to take a country that has no government, no institutions that work, to somehow reclaim it, because in effect they can`t reclaim it, because the government, such as it is, is really American. I mean, who is conducting foreign policy there? Our ambassador. Who has -- who runs the army and all of -- the central role of the statement, the monopoly of force? The Americans.

So I think Les is right. The war has cost us deeply in credibility, in respect. It has made us feared, because as a unilateral power, even our closest allies don't trust what our next instincts would be. And it was a war that was launched with a good deal of dishonesty about why we were going. And I think it's important not to forget that. So the cost, of which I believe we have seen only a little bit so far, will be decades of our relations in the Middle East.