Decline and fall

Kevin Phillips, no lefty, says that America -- addicted to oil, strangled by debt and maniacally religious -- is headed for doom.

Topics: Republican Party, U.S. Economy, Books,

In 1984, the renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Barbara Tuchman published “The March of Folly,” a book about how, over and over again, great powers undermine and sabotage themselves. She documented the perverse self-destructiveness of empires that clung to deceptive ideologies in the face of contrary evidence, that spent carelessly and profligately, and that obstinately refused to change course even when impending disaster was obvious to those willing to see it. Such recurrent self-deception, she wrote, “is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’”

Though the last case study in “The March of Folly” was about America’s war in Vietnam, Tuchman argued that the brilliance of the United States Constitution had thus far protected the country from the traumatic upheavals faced by most other nations. “For two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis, as have Italy and Germany, France and Spain,” she wrote. Then she suggested such protection could soon give way: “Under accelerating incompetence in America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable.”

For all her prescience, it seems likely that Tuchman, who died in 1989, would have been stunned by the Brobdingnagian dimensions of American folly during the last six years. Just over 20 years after she wrote about the Constitution’s miraculous endurance, it’s hard to figure out how much of the democratic republic created by our founders still exists, and how long what’s left will last. The country (along with the world) is in terrible trouble, though the extent of that trouble is both so sprawling and multifaceted that it’s hard to get a hold on.



It’s not just that America is being ruled by small and venal men, or that its reputation has been demolished, its army overstretched, its finances a mess. All of that, after all, was true toward the end of Vietnam as well. Now, though, there are all kinds of other lurking catastrophes, a whole armory of swords of Damocles dangling over a bloated, dispirited and anxious country. Peak oil — the point at which oil production maxes out — seems to be approaching, with disastrous consequences for America’s economy and infrastructure. Global warming is accelerating and could bring us many more storms even worse than Katrina, among other meteorological nightmares. The spread of Avian Flu has Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, warning Americans to stockpile canned tuna and powdered milk. It looks like Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon, and the United States can’t do anything to stop it. Meanwhile, America’s growing religious fanaticism has brought about a generalized retreat from rationality, so that the country is becoming unwilling and perhaps unable to formulate policies based on fact rather than faith.

At any time, of course, one can catalog apocalyptic portents and declare that the end is nigh. Obviously, things in America have been bad before — there has been civil war, depression, global conflagrations. The country seems to have exhausted its ability to elect decent leaders, but some savior could appear before 2008. One doesn’t want to be hysterical or give in to rampaging pessimism. Books about America’s decline in the face of an ascendant Japan filled the shelves in the 1980s, and a decade later, the country was at the height of power and prosperity.

Yet just because America has endured in the past does not mean it will in the future. Thus figuring out exactly how much danger we’re in is difficult. Are things really as dire as they seem, or are anxiety and despair just part of the cultural moment, destined to be as ephemeral as the sunny mastery and flush good times of the Clinton years? It’s human nature to believe that things will continue as they usually have, and that we’ll once again somehow stumble intact through our looming crises. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which the country regains its equilibrium without first going through major convulsions.

So how scared should we be?

Kevin Phillips’ grim new book, “American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century,” puts the country’s degeneration into historical perspective, and that perspective is not conducive to optimism. The title is a bit misleading, because only the middle section of the book, which is divided into thirds, deals with the religious right. The first part, “Oil and American Supremacy,” is about America’s prospects as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, and the last third, “Borrowed Prosperity,” is about America’s unsustainable debt. Phillips’ argument is that imperial overstretch, dependence on obsolete energy technologies, intolerant and irrational religious fervor, and crushing debt have led to the fall of previous great powers, and will likely lead to the fall of this one. It reads, in some ways, like a follow-up to “The March of Folly.”

“Conservative true believers will scoff: the United States is sue generis, they say, a unique and chosen nation,” writes Phillips. “What did or did not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Britain is irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought they were unique and that God was on their side. The revelation that He was apparently not added a further debilitating note to the later stages of each national decline.”

There’s a sad irony to the fact that Phillips has come to write this book. His 1969 book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” both predicted and celebrated Republican hegemony. As chief elections and voting patterns analyst for the 1968 Nixon campaign, he is often credited for the Southern strategy that led to the realignment of the Republican Party toward Sun Belt social conservatives. Today’s governing Republican coalition is partly his Frankenstein.

Phillips has been disassociating himself from the contemporary GOP for some time now — his last book, “American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush,” attacked the presidential clan as a corrupt threat to American democracy. His concern with the growing power of religious fundamentalism was evident then. As he wrote in the introduction, “Part of what restored the Bushes to the White House in 2000 through a southern-dominated electoral coalition was the emergence of George W. Bush during the 1990s as a born-again favorite of conservative Christian evangelical and fundamentalist voters. His 2001-2004 policies and rhetoric confirmed that bond. The idea that the head of the Religious Right and the President of the United States can be the same person is a precedent-shattering circumstance that had barely crept into national political discussion.”

Since then, there’s been much more attention paid to the role of evangelical Christians in the Republican Party. In “American Theocracy,” though, Phillips brings something important to the discussion — a global historical perspective on the relationship between growing religious zeal and the end of national greatness. “[T]he precedents of past leading world economic powers show that blind faith and religious excesses — the rapture seems to be both — have often contributed to national decline, sometimes even being in its forefront.”

To tell the story of the impending end of American supremacy, Phillips ranges through history and across subjects, going into detail about seemingly tangential matters like the production of whale oil in 17th century Holland. It can be a slog — Phillips is sometimes a dry writer who builds his arguments by slapping down numbers and statistics like a bricklayer. (At least he’s self-aware — at one point in his section on religion, he notes, “By this point the reader may feel baptized by statistical and denominational total immersion.”) Much of what he writes in individual chapters has been covered elsewhere in numerous books about peak oil, the religious right and economic profligacy.

But Phillips’ book is very valuable in the way he brings all the strands together and puts them in context. He has a history of good judgment that affords him the authority to make big-picture claims: In 1993, the New York Times Book Review wrote of him, “through more than 25 years of analysis and predictions, nobody has been as transcendentally right about the outlines of American political change as Kevin Phillips.” Other recent books foresee American meltdown; James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” deals with some of the same gathering threats as “American Theocracy.” Kunstler is a far more engaging writer than Phillips, but he’s also more prone to doomsday speculation, and he sometimes seems to relish the apocalyptic scenario he conjures. It’s Phillips’ sobriety and gravitas that gives “American Theocracy” ballast, and that makes it frightening.

The first section, “Oil and American Supremacy,” covers the history of oil in American politics, both foreign and domestic, and what it means for America when oil starts running out. The subject of peak oil has been extensively covered elsewhere, yet it remains on the fringes of much of the political debate in America, despite its massive implications. Essentially, peak oil is the point at which more than half the earth’s available oil has been extracted. “After this stage, getting each barrel out requires more pressure, more expense, or both,” writes Phillips. “After a while, despite nominal reserves that may be considerable, more energy is required to find and extract a barrel of oil than the barrel itself contains.” Before that point comes, scarcity will drive prices to unheard-of levels. If that happens, the entire American way of life — the car culture, agribusiness, frequent air travel — will become untenable.

Experts differ about when we might pass the peak, but as Phillips notes, “even relative optimists see it only two or three decades away.” Unfortunately, the United States is uniquely unable to grapple with the mere idea of life after cheap gasoline, because the country’s entire sprawling infrastructure was built on the assumption that oil would remain plentiful. Writes Phillips, “[B]ecause the twenty-first-century United States has a pervasive oil and gas culture from its own earlier zenith — with an intact cultural and psychological infrastructure — it’s no surprise that Americans cling to and defend an ingrained fuel habit The hardening of old attitudes and reaffirmation of the consumption ethic since those years may signal an inability to turn back.”

The end of previous empires, Phillips explains, also corresponded with the obsolescence of their dominant energy source. The Netherlands was the “the wind and water hegemon” from 1590 to the 1720s. In the mid-18th century, Britain, harnessing the newly discovered power of coal, became the leading world power, only to be left behind by oil-fueled America. “The evidence is that leading world economic powers, after an energy golden era, lose their magic — and not by accident,” he writes. “The infrastructures created by these unusual, even quirky, successes eventually became economic obstacle courses and inertia-bound burdens.”

“American Theocracy’s” middle section deals with religion. Once again, the book’s value lies not in any new revelations — Phillips mostly relies on the work of other reporters and analysts — but in the context provided. In his sweeping overview, he misses some subtleties. He writes, for example, “Opponents of evolution — successful so far in parts of the South — are indeed busy trying to ban the teaching of it and textbooks that support it in many northern conservative or politically divided areas.” That’s not quite true — Darwin’s foes might dream of the day when he’s expunged from the schools, but right now, their focus is on having creationism or “intelligent design” taught alongside evolution, not in place of it.

That’s a relatively small point, but it’s indicative of the rather cursory treatment Phillips gives to the dynamics of the movement he decries. He’s much more interested in what it portends — a kind of soft theocracy that itself is an indication of an empire in decline. What he’s talking about is not a Christian version of Iran, but a country ruled by an evangelical party whose electoral machinery is integrated into a network of fundamentalist churches.

Again, the most fascinating part of this section lies in Phillips’ comparisons of America with past global powers — the intolerance of Christian Rome, the militant, expansionist Catholicism of 17th century Spain, the theocratic Calvinism of the mid-18th century Netherlands and the evangelical enthusiasms of Victorian Britain. Toward the end of the Netherlands’ worldwide dominance, he writes, “Dutch Reformed pastors called for national renewal and incessantly attacked laziness, prostitution, French fashions, immigrants and homosexuals.”

Phillips’ final section, about national debt and the increasingly insubstantial nature of the United States economy, follows the model of the rest of the book, offering a summary of others’ research on the subject, followed by historical analysis. What concerns Phillips here is not just the country’s staggering national debt — although that concerns him plenty — but also the shift from a manufacturing to a financial-services economy, which he calls financialization. Instead of making things, Americans increasingly make money by moving money around. Finance, he writes, “fattened during the early 2000s — this notwithstanding the 2000-2002 collapse of the stock market bubble — on a feast of low interest enablement, credit-card varietals, exotic mortgages, derivatives, hedge-funded strategies, and structured debt instruments that would have left 1920s scheme meister Charles Ponzi in awe.”

Unless the United States proves immune from the economic laws that have heretofore prevailed, this arrangement is unsustainable. As former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker wrote last April in the Washington Post, under the placid surface of the seemingly steady American economy, “there are disturbing trends: huge imbalances, disequilibria, risks — call them what you will. Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot. What really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or capacity to do much about it.”

Again, as Phillips shows, the historical record provides warnings: “Historically, top world economic powers have found ‘financialization’ a sign of late-stage debilitation, marked by excessive debt, great disparity between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline.”

Looking at the possible crises facing the country, Phillips writes of the “potential for an incendiary convergence if — a big if, to be sure — several of the worry-wart camps prove to be correct  I can’t remember anything like this multiplicity of reasonably serious calculations and warnings. It is as if the United States, like the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes’s ‘One-Hoss Shay,’ is about to lose all its wheels at once.”

For someone who is profoundly uneasy about America’s future right now, there’s something perversely comforting about reading this from a figure like Phillips. It suggests that one’s enveloping sense of foreboding is based on something more than the psychological stress of living under the Bush kakistocracy. A feeling that the world is falling apart is usually associated with neurosis; now, it’s possible that it’s a sign of sanity.

But if Phillips is correct, the coming years are going to be ugly for all of us, not just blithe exurbanites with SUVs and floating-rate mortgages. With oil growing scarce and America unable or unwilling to even begin weaning itself away, we could see a future of resource wars that would inflame jihadi terrorism and bankrupt the country, shredding what’s left of the social safety net. As Phillips notes, a collapsed economy would leave many debt-ridden Americans as what Democratic leaders have called “modern-day indentured servants,” paying back constantly compounding debt with no hope of escape via bankruptcy. The prospect of social breakdown looms. The desperation of New Orleans could end up being a preview.

Desperate economic times are not good for democracy. The Great Depression, which ushered in the New Deal, was an anomaly in this regard. In an Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman wrote, “American history includes several episodes in which stagnating or declining incomes over an extended period have undermined the nation’s tolerance and threatened citizens’ freedoms.” During the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of families lost their land due to a combination of rising interest rates and falling crop prices, the Posse Comitatus, a far-right paramilitary network, made exceptional recruiting inroads. One poll had more than a quarter of Farm Belt respondents blaming “International Jewish bankers” for their region’s woes.

The right’s ideological infrastructure has only grown stronger since then. Kunstler may not have been exaggerating when he told Salon, “Americans will vote for cornpone Nazis before they will give up their entitlements to a McHouse and a McCar.”

Eventually, like Spain, England and the Netherlands, the United States, shorn of imperial fantasy, may evolve into something better than what it is today. But terrible times seem likely to come first — years of fuel shortages, foreign aggression, millenarian madness and political demagoguery. A Democratic president could stop exacerbating the country’s problems and could reconcile with the rest of the world, but it’s unclear how much he or she could really turn things around. America’s economic and energy foundations are too badly eroded to be restored anytime soon. Besides, redistricting and the overrepresentation of rural states in the Senate mean that the GOP will remain powerful even if a decisive majority of Americans vote against it. Zealous conservatives in Congress and the media will almost certainly mount an assault on any future Democratic president just as they did on Bill Clinton. Governmental deadlock, as opposed to flagrant recklessness and misrule, is probably the best that can be hoped for, at least for the next few years.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear to everyone that the United States had suffered a hideous blow, but few had any idea just how bad it was. It didn’t occur to most people to wonder whether the country’s very core had been seriously damaged; if anything, America had never seemed so united and resolute. Almost five years later, with Bush still in the White House, a whole cavalcade of catastrophes bearing down on us and a lack of political will to address any of them, the scope of Osama bin Laden’s triumph is coming sickeningly into focus. He didn’t start the country on its march of folly, but he spurred America toward bombastic nationalism, military quagmire and escalating debt, all of which have made its access to the oil controlled by the seething countries of the Middle East ever more precarious. Now the United States is careening down a well-worn road faster than anyone could have imagined.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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