Sunday, May 13, 2007
On Kevin Phillips's new book
Business Times - 10 May 2007
Is the Republican/Bush coalition falling apart?
The Iraq War and soaring oil prices, among other things, are producing an electoral backlash
By LEON HADAR
IN 1968 a young Republican Party strategist, Kevin Phillips, helped engineer the presidential election victory of his party's nominee, Richard Nixon. Indeed, that year's electoral Republican success was attributed in large measure to the 'Southern strategy' which Mr Phillips had outlined.
He had called on the leaders of the Grand Old Party (GOP) to try to recruit to their ranks an important electorate group: voters in the Southern states, the majority of whom who were continuing to vote for the Democratic Party since their part of the country was defeated in the Civil War by Republican president Abraham Lincoln.
Mr Phillips explained that as more Americans were moving to the South and the West and more resources were shifting to these parts of the country, its electoral significance would increase while its conservative and 'traditional' values would acquire more influence.
If the Republicans exploited these historic changes to their favour, they could become the ruling political party in America, Mr Phillips concluded. In fact, Mr Phillips' experience as a Republican political operator served as a basis for his book, The Emerging Republican Majority, now considered a political science classic. It predicted that the Republicans, by applying his 'Southern strategy' in the 1970s and 1980s and transforming the GOP from a politically centrist group into a conservative political party, would be able to achieve an electoral realignment that would help maintain Republican control over the White House and Congress for several generations.
Mr Phillips proved to be right on the money in terms of predicting the shifting voting patterns in the US presidential elections. Republican politicians, riding on huge conservative electoral waves originating in the South (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush) ended up controlling the White House for 28 years, compared to a shorter Democratic reign (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) of only 12 years.
And the Republican 'revolution' of 1994 that produced conservative Republican domination of Congress suggested that the party and its conservative base would be able to dominate Washington for many years to come.
The Democratic Party was regarded more and more as a minority party whose leaders had no choice but to adopt some elements of the 'Southern strategy' as they discovered that they could only win the White House by selecting Southern candidates (Mr Carter and Mr Clinton). If anything, the electoral triumphs of Mr Bush and his Republican party (in 2000, 2002, and 2004) only helped to sustain the expectation that the Republican majority would be with us for quite a while.
And the fact that both Mr Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, were from the South (Mr Cheney had represented Wyoming in Congress but then moved to Texas to work in the energy business) as were several of the leaders of the Republicans in Congress (including the 'revolutionary' Newt Gingrich) seemed to have confirmed that Mr Phillips' 'Southern strategy' was still in place. Moreover, Mr Bush, who was not only a Southerner but also a 'born again' devout Christian and an energy business executive, seemed to fit with the rest of Mr Phillips' thesis - that in addition to the expanding Southern base of the Republican Majority, the GOP would draw much of its support from religious voters as well as from an electorate whose economic interests are tied directly or indirectly to the energy business (producing oil; manufacturing cars; using cars).
In many ways, the state of Texas, which includes the largest concentration of this kind of voters that the Republicans need in order to maintain their political power, has become a symbol of the powerful Republican majority.
So it is interesting that in a book that was published on the eve of the 2006 Congressional races, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Mr Phillips, the former Republican strategist, is predicting that the electoral changes he had helped engineer are now endangering American prosperity and security as well as weakening the commitment of the American people to the liberal political tradition of the Founding Fathers, including the separation of religion from government.
Mr Phillips blasts President Bush and the entire GOP for pursuing the politics of ideological extremism and religious fanaticism combined with fiscal irresponsibility and unchecked greed.
In the last chapter of the book, 'The Erring Republican Majority,' Mr Phillips contends that these politics and the reality they have produced in Washington - the role of oil in distorting American energy and foreign policy; the destructive influence of radical Christianity on politics and government; the rising levels of debt that both the government and the public have been accumulating - explain in many ways the decision to invade Iraq. A Texan oil executive who apparently turns to Jesus for religious and political guidance, President Bush was able to arouse and mobilise his electoral base by promoting a crusade against Islamo-Fascism, of 'Us' versus 'Them' in a region of the world where the original Crusades occurred, financed through expanding fiscal deficits (paid for by central bankers in Asia) and whose geo-strategic goal was to achieve control of the oil resources of the Middle East.
According to Mr Phillips, these policies embraced by a US president who was elected by the Republican majority are not only threatening long-term US political and economic interests. There are also signs that the Iraq War, soaring oil prices and the growing influence of the Christian Right are starting to produce an electoral backlash which has already brought about the loss of Republican control of Capitol Hill and, in all likelihood, would ensure that the Democrats take over the White House in the coming presidential election.
Mr Phillips' critique of the Bush administration's policies is devastating and he is not very optimistic about the ability of the American people and their leaders, even under a Democratic administration and Congress, to move in another direction.
He compares the US to former empires, including the British. By overextending their military in the pursuit of global messianic goals rooted in religion, through the accumulation of debt, the expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor, and the gradual erosion in the foundations of the moral order, they were bound to decline as they face challenges from new rising powers.
Instead of trying to revive production and the US manufacturing sector, Washington has encouraged speculation and debt that helped to advance the interests of the financial sector, Mr Phillips argues. The latest example has been the creation of a low interest rate boom in real estate with the ballooning of the prices of homes, allowing householders to take out some of that increase through low-cost refinancing.
But the problems facing the housing market suggest that these policies are not sustainable and they are already creating anxiety among the American middle class. Hence, the combination of accumulating debt by government, business and consumers and the growing current account deficit that is being financed by foreigners is an economic-political time bomb that will explode sooner or later.
The failure to achieve the US hegemonic goals in the Middle East, including the long-term control of the energy resources there, would only contribute to the weakening of the American geo-strategic and geo-economic power and are already eroding the ties between the members of the Republican coalition, especially between a frustrated and struggling middle class and the Wall Street types and energy executives who have benefited from the Republican policies.
All of these things could turn the Republican majority into a minority, says Mr Phillips.
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