Prescience is as prescience does: Kevin Phillips has been right for a long time now

In 1969, Kevin Phillips, then a political analyst working for President Richard Nixon, wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority,” a book predicting that the political and racial strife of the 1960s would culminate in a national political reversal that would transform the American political landscape, lead to an upsurge of Southern power, and result in Republican control of the U.S. government. The Watergate scandal that broke out just a few years later may have slowed things down, but any observer of contemporary American politics would have to acknowledge that Phillips’ forecast has come true today.

In the years since, Phillips has delved into American politics and economics in a dozen books and hosts of columns and op-ed pieces, all meticulously researched and documented. Over the years, Phillips has moved away from the Republican Party — or perhaps he would argue that it’s moved away from him.

In an era when political punditry is dominated by sound bites, and when the most influential social critics are comedians, Phillips is an anachronistic throwback to the Enlightenment notion that ideas matter, that debate should be founded on evidence and analysis, and that minds can be changed by facts.

His newest book, “American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century” (Viking, $26.95), makes a tightly argued case that increasing religiosity and its consequences (a rising belief that the United States has a unique divine mission, as well as a systematic disregard for science and reason); a deep dependency on oil resources that are certain to play out (and a dangerous interweaving of oil interests in American politics and policy); and unprecedented levels of national and personal indebtedness present urgent threats to the United States.

On Tuesday evening, Phillips delivers the annual Wilson W. and Ann D, Wyatt Lecture at Bellarmine University’s Frazier Hall. In advance of his appearance in Louisville, LEO reached Phillips for a telephone interview. 

LEO: Over the last four decades, you’ve written a dozen deeply researched, highly prescient books dealing with various aspects of American politics, culture and economics. I think it’s safe to assert that you’re widely viewed as one of the most authoritative, knowledgeable observers of the American scene. As you were working on “American Theocracy,” what did you learn that you found especially surprising or alarming?
KP: Quite a few things. I’ll take them in sequence. In terms of oil, the thing that surprised me most was the idiosyncratic nature of the energy successes of the United States and the previous leading world economic powers — Britain with coal and the Dutch with wind and water. It made me more skeptical about the likelihood that the United States could survive with its current degree of power if a different energy resource regime emerges. That is, if we can’t rely on oil, or if oil is divided up by a much larger group of nations, we’re going to be in trouble. The tie to the idiosyncratic nature of oil is so strong in this country that we’re sort of trapped in that one.

LEO: When you refer to the idiosyncratic nature of our relationship to oil, you’re talking about the way oil and oil politics are embedded in our economics and culture, right? That is, the way oil has shaped the transportation infrastructure and economic development — highway policies, exurban residential sprawl and that sort of thing?
KP: Yes, that and the great length of time in which the U.S. has seen oil be a factor in wars. The first example was when the Confederates raided a West Virginia oil field in 1863. We tend to think this relationship with oil only goes back to World War I, but in fact in the U.S. oil was important well before that. Oil is much more deeply engaged in the emergence of the United States as a power than we tend to realize. Also, I was very surprised when I got into the discussions around Hubbert’s Peak and the entire peak oil discussion. I had vaguely heard of it, but I hadn’t realized how strongly that argument had developed between, say, 1998 and 2004.

LEO: Your argument that the United States would have difficulties adapting to a new energy regime is based on historical parallels between the current state of the United States and the demise of the Dutch and British empires. Could you describe the analogy?
KP: Well, the Dutch made a terrific thing out of wind and water. Shipping and the design of ships were things they did very well. That was wind and water. They were able to enlarge the land area of Holland and make it very difficult to invade them because of the way they could set up fortresses and surround them with water. They drained a fair amount of the Zuyder Zee and transformed it into productive land. They put towns where there hadn’t been towns before. Their windmills were basically little industrial plants of the wind age. The American Declaration of Independence was drawn on a piece of parchment that was made in one of the famous Dutch windmills that was used for paper manufacturing. During the 18th century, windmills became dated quite rapidly. The Dutch had no coal to speak of — they were essentially captive to an economy that emphasized wind and water in their various forms.
 So as coal came of age, the Dutch slipped. You can see in the history books, accounts of how their commerce was slipping, their fisheries were slipping, their shipbuilding industries, their science. Essentially, at a certain point in time, developments shifted to things associated with coal — railroads and steam engines. Now the British were so caught up in coal that they didn’t have much interest in oil during the 19th century, whereas in the U.S., there were oil seeps in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. So in the U.S., we were much more familiar with oil. And of course there was whale oil, an industry that was centered in Massachusetts. So we had oil expertise. During the Civil War, for example, we were exporting oil to Europe. In fact, a decade after the war, Ulysses S. Grant talked about the important role oil played for the Union in being able to get foreign currencies and gold from Europe in lieu of the cotton we no longer had because it was blockaded in the South. This long relationship with oil was something I didn’t expect to find, and I was quite fascinated when it started taking shape.

LEO: What did you learn in the area of religion?
KP: With religion, the first surprise was the extent to which radical religion — in the theological sense — has been a major factor in the U.S. from the beginning, and never really stopped. The notion that the decline of the mainline churches began in the 1960s just isn’t true. The mainline culture hasn’t wanted to emphasize it, so it hasn’t really been emphasized. And I think the number of books written that have suggested that the radical denominations were growing at times when it wasn’t fully realized have added up to a pretty persuasive case.
 The second thing I found in terms of religion that surprised me was how many of the former leading world economic powers had had problems with religious excess. If I had had to go through just based on my knowledge of four or five years ago, I think I would have said this was true of Spain, and to some degree Rome. In point of fact, I was surprised at how much it was true of both Holland and Victorian England. 

LEO: And in terms of the third prong of your argument, indebtedness and the increasing importance of the financial services sector, as opposed to the manufacturing sector of the American economy?
KP: I didn’t realize the numbers were so stark in terms of the change in the contribution to GDP of the manufacturing sector and then the financial services sector. In 1950, manufacturing accounted for almost 30 percent of GDP and the financial sector about 11 percent. In 2003, those numbers had reversed. Manufacturing accounted for just under 13 percent of GDP and the financial sector for over 20 percent. Those numbers hadn’t been put together in one place, and I hadn’t seen them in that degree of evolution before. Now I understand why there’s the great desire to put nonsense like hamburgers into the manufacturing statistics and so forth.

LEO: As you describe the convergence of these factors — the end of the oil energy regime, the rising religiosity of the nation, and the implications of rising debt and the decline of the manufacturing sector, they come together in a kind of devastating collision. I think many of us have imagined these issues might come to a head in mid-century, but your discussion argues that we may be looking at disruptive shifts in a much shorter time horizon — over the next 10 to 15 years, say.
KP: I think that’s right. There was a Pentagon study of negative scenarios that might occur if things develop badly. They have the whole question of global warming starting to seed resource wars by 2015. Now, that’s sort of a worst-case scenario. But I would think that once you take into account issues like debt and the dollar, oil, the current account deficit, global warming, and so on and so forth, you’re getting a long laundry list of six or seven things. I suspect it only takes two or three to really go sour, and they add up to a huge problem.

LEO: You address those three broad issues in the book, but the book is called “American Theocracy.” Does that suggest that you’re particularly concerned the rise of religiosity in American politics? Why does the title focus on that particular dimension?
KP: I think it’s the least recognized ingredient, considering its importance. There have been plenty of books written about oil and about debt. I don’t think the mainstream political and publishing worlds have given that degree of examination to these religious factors. So that was the one I thought deserved attention. Now, the use of the term “theocracy” is obviously debatable. You’re never going to have, in a large country like the U.S., the same sort of thing you could get in small polities that were created by the migration of 50,000 true believers. There’s just no parallel. But the amount of change we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years in the role of religion in American politics is pretty strong.  Some people are saying, “Yes, that’s true, but it could only have happened under George W. Bush, and when he’s gone that won’t be the case any longer.” Not necessarily. It depends on what happens during the mid-term elections and how many fairly far-out judicial appointments he gets a chance to make.

LEO: Many secular folks, liberals and conservatives alike, don’t take the rise of religious rhetoric in politics seriously. There’s a tendency to assume this rhetoric is essentially a kind of cynical pandering that’s accompanied by a wink and a grin. You offer a lot of evidence that we should be taking these people seriously, that they’re not latter-day Elmer Gantrys, that they are true end-of-days believers who are preparing for an imminent Armageddon.
KP: There’s actually a lot of reason to take the importance of that constituency in the Republican electorate very seriously. Think of all these Web sites, and the enormous sales of the “Left Behind” series. I think we have to take them very seriously.

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