- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

AMERICAN THEOCRACY: THE PERIL AND POLITICS OF RADICAL RELIGION, OIL, AND BORROWED MONEY IN THE 21ST CENTURY

By Kevin Phillips

Viking, $26.95, 480 pages

REVIEWED BY: A.G. GANCARSKI

“This book is dedicated to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2004 elections,” writes Kevin Phillips.

Book dedications can be overly crytic. Not in this case. To Mr. Phillips’ credit, he has written a book worthy of his dedication.

“American Theocracy,” true to Mr. Phillips’ recent form, is yet another attempt by the author to communicate the aspirations and insights of what his old boss, Richard Nixon, would have called the “eastern liberal establishment.”

Lincoln Chafee Republicans, assuming they exist, will warm to the book’s arguments, which essentially scapegoat Sunbelt Republicanism for many of the nation’s problems.

Specifically, Mr. Phillips is most concerned with a triumvirate of America’s problems: “U.S. oil vulnerability, excessive indebtedness, and indulgence of radical religion.” Certainly, the author will garner more favorable publicity from “The Daily Show” than “The 700 Club” with his latest denunciation of Bush family Republicanism and the “theocons” that helped to establish it as a political force. Presumably, that’s exactly how he wants it.

Of course. Mr. Phillips, the strategist for Nixon’s successful election campaign, is best known for his landmark 1969 volume “The Emerging Republican Majority.” He argued that changing voting patterns favored the Nixonian “southern strategy” and that Republicans would be well advised to cultivate Southern Republicans as an instrumental part of the base.

But soon after President Nixon resigned, Mr. Phillips began to voice concerns about the shifts he correctly anticipated years before. By the 1980s, the author routinely disparaged the emergent Republican coalition. And in the present day, his former biases have crystallized into enduring animus. Unhappily here, Mr. Phillips’ need to score points by insulting Republican voters gets in the way of many of the salient points he makes.

Mr. Phillips’ concerns about so-called “theocons,” such as former Attorney General Ashcroft, take center stage for the bulk of the book. In the authorial reckoning, Republican foreign policy resembles nothing so much as the fevered plots of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series, intended as a direct sop to those Republicans who go to “megachurches” and take televangelists like Hal Lindsay and Jack Van Impe at face value.

To appeal to that constituency, according to Mr. Phillips, President Bush “has often coded his remarks to heighten Biblical resonance” while “seizing the fundamentalist moment.” Much of the text is given to an analysis of why that strategy served the president as well as it did: In summary, the author asserts that Southern Republicans aren’t particularly bright, and are easy prey for appeals to “perverse fundamentalist tendencies” in the service of “apple-pie authoritarianism.”

In issuing his anti-Sunbelt screed, all of the shortcomings of the Phillips style are spotlighted in bleak relief. At its worst, his analysis is windy and discursive, and his prose flows as turgidly as the Anacostia River. That said, if readers can stomach the scores of pages blaming Southern Republicans for a disproportionate share of our nation’s current challenges, they can find some genuinely useful observations.

Mr. Phillips’ most salient arguments concern the debt load carried by the United States. The veteran commentator argues that it is “untenable to isolate public from private debt,” and that “emerging debt and oil dangers” will endanger American entitlement programs.

Asserting that “much of the real world cannot be discussed in Republican national politics,” Mr. Phillips contends that “U.S. global supremacy could drain away more in the next five to twenty years than anyone thought possible” because our nation is leveraged to the hilt and has no overt strategy for dealing with what appears to be an impending default.

Challenges that face policy makers in the current term, according to Mr. Phillips, include the “froth in housing markets,” much of which has been used to defray the full impact of consumer deficit spending. “If household America slowed consumption,” the author argues, the effects could be “incendiary.”

There is no shortage of useful insights regarding the challenges America faces in Mr. Phillips’ latest. If only he had avoided the temptation to scapegoat Southern Republicans, perhaps those insights could be taken at face value.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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