College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
Reviews American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
Kevin P. Phillips
New York: Viking, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Back in the mid-1960s, I took temporary leave from my home and native land in order to partake of the adventures available at a large, cosmopolitan, American university. The impact was tremendous. Civility was there, but without the necessity of hypocritical politeness. Americans were not burdened with a colonial mentality. Debates were frequent and, in them, something other than self-indulgence seemed genuinely at stake. Personalities were strong and, among my teachers and colleagues in the Department of Political Science, there was a robust entrepreneurial spirit. A sort of academic free-for-all was underway, and the best and the brightest were uncompromisingly and unapologetically “on the make.” At the same time, there was an extraordinary generosity in all things. Competition was encouraged, but no one took joy from another’s defeat; respect for opponents was (mostly) part of an exciting and challenging game. It was an environment that I miss to this day.

Within the various contests about matters of principle, policy and practice, one stands out. Though the lines were occasionally blurred, practitioners of the craft of political studies fell into two broad groups – empirical researchers (commonly associated with the methodology of “behaviouralism”) and normative philosophers (frequently linked to the preoccupations of traditional theorists such as Leo Strauss and just as often connected to variations on themes developed by Karl Marx). The first were characterized as vaguely liberal; the second were internally divided between conservatives and radicals.

From the empiricist perspective, normative political philosophy amounted to little more than meaningless speculation about remote abstractions such as “justice” that had no relevance to practical politics. In order to be meaningful in their minds, a concept had to be operationalized and made susceptible to verification through the scientific method of observation and testing. In a personal letter from one of America’s foremost judicial behaviouralists to one of its leading normative theorists, the empiricist accused the philosopher of seeking the mantle of traditionalism and becoming “Pope Leo II,” a scathing rebuke and an odd one, for Leo Strauss was a transplanted German Jew.

At home at the University of Chicago, Strauss accused the allegedly scientific study of politics as follows: “it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.” By this he meant that empiricism falsely distinguishes between facts and values and concentrates on the former, with the result that it can address only the most superficial elements of politics such as public opinion, voting behaviour and so on, while genuinely important matters, including contemplation of the good society and the nature of political wisdom were ignored. Worse, it was associated with a facile liberalism that quickly descended into moral relativity, which he took to be the first and almost irreversible step to nihilism. According to Strauss, only when a political scientist can describe injustice with the precision that a medical doctor can describe cancer will it merit its claim to scientific legitimacy. Until then, it is not a science. It is merely a poor imitation.

Strauss and the traditional normative theorists were largely drawn to Plato. Had they been aware of it, empirical political scientists would have laughed aloud at Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates and his intellectual life in “The Clouds.” Instead, they merely dismissed traditionalists as irrelevant and Marxists as dangerous.

Leo Strauss is dead now. He has been dead for more than thirty years. But he will not go away. This revered scholar, an intensely private man whom some chose to call “secretive,” had been a friend to some of the twentieth century’s leading intellectuals, but was not a popular celebrity in his own time. He was a student of both Husserl and Heidegger. He was a friend of Raymond Aron, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alexandre Kojeve and R. H. Tawney. His doctoral degree was completed under the guidance of Ernst Cassirer. In one especially desperate time, he accepted the patronage of British socialist Harold Laski. He was, however, primarily an itinerant teacher who did not win regular, respectable employment until he joined the University of Chicago’s political science department in 1949. He was fifty years old. Now, he is famous.

Leo Strauss has come to the notice of the attentive public because of his students and assorted camp followers. George Grant was among the first Canadians to recognize his genius and to learn from him the importance of taking Martin Heidegger’s ruminations on technology seriously if we are to understand much about the twentieth, to say nothing of the twenty-first, century. For those who noticed, Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein (2001) incorporated Strauss as the model for the character, Davarr, while basing the book’s title character on Allan Bloom, perhaps Strauss’ most successful intellectual protégé.

Bloom’s extraordinarily successful book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987) brought some of Strauss’ thinking into the public domain. The volume was essentially a polemic directed against contemporary liberal culture and its indifference to eternal verities and scholarly concerns with words like the “truth.” It seemed, however, to be surprisingly soft on some elements of society that had been known to distress traditional political philosophers. The concentration of capital in the hands of a few dominant corporations, which had previously been blamed for undermining high cultural norms and contributing to the banality of mass society, was left unchallenged. The vast social changes unleashed by contemporary technology were twitted, but the institutions of scientific and technological control were untouched. Corporate establishments—private or public—that hovered at or near the apex of power were seemingly exempt from Straussian criticism, at least in its Bloomian manifestation.

Other portents of trouble followed quickly. Among Strauss’ “disciples” were American neoconservative thinkers such as William Bennett, Steve Cambone, Dick Cheney’s erudite wife Lynne, Irving Kristol and his amiable boy-child Bill, Samuel P. Huntington, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Normal Podhoretz, Gary Schmitt, Abram Shulsky, James Q. Wilson and Paul Wolfowitz – all of whom have held or still hold influential positions in right-wing “think tanks” or directly in Republican administrations.

According to Jim Lobe, what these crafty crusaders took from Strauss’ classes in philosophy was nothing less that a three-pronged plan to take over the world.

The first principle in play was based upon a variation of Socrates’ iniquitous concept of the “noble lie,” a strategy whereby a natural elite would “manufacture consent” for their policies by a process of systematic deceit. According to Strauss analyst Shadia Drury of the University of Calgary—a powerful centre of Straussian thought in its own right—Strauss shed Plato’s concern that the ruling elite possess exemplary moral characteristics. He believed merely that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right—the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.” The doctine of “perpetual deception” seems to have won some support in the Bush White House.

The second principle was the “power of religion.” Contemptous of secular humanism, liberalism and the democratic fall-out from the Enlightenment, Strauss retained a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature. “No bloody or unbloody change of society,” he pronounced, “can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint.” This opinion owes much to the Old Testament notion of “original sin.” It serves as justificatory rhetoric for illegal wiretaps and expanding prison populations. Strauss, however, was no slouch when it came to pragmatic means to ensure social control. Where the state’s exclusive right to employ legitimate violence was ineffective or uneconomical, religion was available as the soft side of the coinage of social control. Fretting over the subversive consequences of liberalism, relativism, moral decadence and political dissent, Strauss is heralded as a primary peddler of “the opiate of the masses.”

Finally, Strauss is credited with restoring a concern for national pride, or at least the efficacy of the national security state. Following Machiavelli in one of the famous Florentine’s more dismal moments, Strauss wrote: “Because man is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed. Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united—and they can only be united against other people.” As Drury explains, this leads directly to an aggressive, belligerent foreign policy and the need for perpetual war. Thus, Strauss “maintained that if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured.” Welcome to the interminable “war on terror”!

The intellectual cabal that has taken the ideas of Leo Strauss and shaped (some might say distorted) them into a comprehensive ideological cover for a new world order does not, of course, see itself as comparable with the mass of humanity. Others are in need of illusions; they are realists. Others are inherently vicious, depraved and malign; they are virtuous or, better, beyond good and evil—embodiments of the twenty-first century Neitzschean Übermensch, but without the decorous sense of proportion and restraint. Others are fodder for wars of foreign aggression in the interest of promoting order and security at home; they understand the pragmatics, but they also have a messianic vision of a world made over in the image of the United States, though a United States no longer committed to what some naïfs take to be traditional American values. As the quintessential “Superman” occasionally put it: “truth, justice and freedom” (which need no longer be the slogan for the “American way”).

All of which brings us, at long last, to Kevin Phillips. Phillips might justifiably take umbrage (he is author of over a dozen books and a frequent writer and commentator on political matters), but I would classify him more as a political actor than a reflective intellectual. He certainly won fame at a young age for his political acumen. At only twenty-eight, he became the principal architect of the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” which not only helped win the US presidency for Richard M. Nixon in 1968, but put together an unlikely coalition (though, perhaps, no more unlikely than the Democratic Party’s union of convenience among northern liberals and southern conservatives) of privileged northerners, anti-civil rights southerners and, in time, religious fundamentalists, anti-trade unionists, and the various beneficiaries of a high tech boom that enriched the “Sun Belt” (the phrase is Phillips’), and that has kept Republicans in the White House for twenty-six of the subsequent thirty-eight years. Though some contest the idea that the Southern Strategy was decisive, it may not be coincidental that the only subsequent Democratic presidential victories came when Democratic candidates from southern states (Jimmy Carter from Georgia and William Jefferson Clinton from Arkansas) topped the ticket.

Phillips’ skill as a strategist had much to do with his perceptive analysis of demographics. The old industrial north was in decline. Investment and skilled workers were retracing the paths followed by Black workers in the 1920s and 1930s. They were heading south and south-west where economic development was beginning to flourish. As the economic centre shifted geographically, the political centre shifted ideologically, and Phillips gave a persuasive account in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority which predicted decades of solid conservative electoral victories. He was largely correct in his analysis, and would likely have been more correct had the Watergate scandal not removed President Nixon from office. Conservatism in power did not distress Mr. Phillips. Like more young men of his age than we choose to remember (he was not a 1960s counter-cultural kind of guy), he had been unnerved by tumultuous social change, violence in the streets and the destabilizing of American society. He believed in what he was doing, and he did it well.

Kevin Phillips’ problem was that he was no ideologue, or at least not one with the pretentions of the Straussians. Bit by bit, he became disillusioned with the party he helped rebuild after the Goldwater debacle of 1964, and with the tactics that purged Washington of the eight years of Kennedy-Johnson liberalism. Gone were the advocates of voting rights for blacks, enhanced social assistance programs and mighty investments in such public goods as scientific research, mass education, and even high culture and the arts. As late as 1982, the Wall Street Journal still referred to him as “the leading conservative electoral analyst.” Still, he had begun to turn. When George H. W. Bush won the White House, Phillips’ moral compass had already started to shift.

In case anyone missed it, his book American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004) confirmed the transition. In it, Phillips followed the Bush family through its business and political dealings. The family wove together corporate activities including profitable relations with both Haliburton and the bin Laden family, work in the area of national security and intelligence (Bush, Sr. was head of the CIA), oil, banking and baseball (Bush, Jr.—thanks in part to the bin Ladens—was head of the Texas Rangers baseball team) to bring what one observer called a “dangerous alliance between the Bushes' business interests … and the formation of national policy” with the result, Phillips declared, that “No other family that has fulfilled its presidential aspirations has been so involved in the ascendancy of the arms industry and of the 21st-century American imperium—often at the expense of regional and world peace and for their personal gain.”

Now, he is off again. Instead, however, of excoriating the dubious connections and evident misdeeds of a single family devoted to its own advancement, Phillips attempts to explain the success of the Straussians generally, and to identify the main points of potential crisis for what he disarmingly and somewhat hyperbolically calls the “American Theocracy.”

As the subtitle suggests, Phillips is aghast at what he once helped to produce. Far from restoring domestic order, providing prudent fiscal management and exercising a responsible leadership role in the world, the United States has goaded itself into a succession of policy decisions that are plainly pathological. The New York Times says that Phillips has produced “a nightmarish vision of ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibilty, rampant greed and dangerous shortsightedness.” What is more, it observes that, unlike the current spate of breathless polemics from both sides of the ideological divide, Phillips brings meticulous research, thoughtfulness and no small amount of insider savvy to his task. His analysis has merit.

Whatever it was that Strauss may have had in mind, according to Phillips, this was not it. Whether he will ultimately be held accountable for the behaviour of those he inspired is a conundrum for a later generation to address. For the moment, Phillips’ account asks more pressing questions. If Straussians promoted three principles to lead them to their political triumph, Phillips identifies what he sees as the three problems that will be their undoing. His only hope is that they do not bring their nation and a good part of the planet down with them.

First, there is America’s slavish devotion to fossil fuels. Although the forty-third president has recently taken to the podium to criticize the US dependence on oil, very little is being done to wean the American economy off coal, petroleum and natural gas. As well, energy alternatives such as ethanol bring their own problems and, in other domains such as electricity production, innovation is sluggish. Oil, in Phillips opinion, is the largest problem. It accounts for much of the instability and bloodshed in the Middle East. We shall probably never know precisely which factors and in precisely what proportion played a part in causing either Iraq war but, as one analyst put it with devastating candor: “Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath. You can’t do better than that.”

Second, there is the religious right. The prominance of evangelical politicians in close proximity to the “bully pulpit” is plain for all to see. Whether it is Pat Robertson urging foreign assassinations or slightly less strident preachers calling down the wrath of God on homosexuals and stem cell researchers, fundamentalists are not only holding up a common front against moral decline and the theory of evolution, but they are also showing great skill in organizing voters to slay secular dragons across the land. When one remembers that Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was once the public face of politically involved people of faith and the Berrigan brothers were front and centre in the US anti-war movement, the contrast to the current situation is not merely striking, it is singularly depressing. As Strauss might have wished, the separation of church and state is no longer an unbridgable gap, and it is being filled with people who have no interest in progressive ideas, other than to stifle them.

Third, and most bizarre, there is the state of US financial affairs. Republicans have long vituperated against “tax and spend” liberal Democrats who, in the interest of buying the votes of the poor and of minorities with unaffordable “entitlements,” place Americans in an unsustainable tax position. Never mind that US taxes are low by any standard among developed nations, nor that health care costs are about twice as high as Canada’s while providing far less comprehensive service, the shrill voices of free marketers continue to denounce “socialized medicine” as costly, inefficient and inferior. What is especially weird is the ease with which Republicans are able to keep up the pretense that they alone are to be trusted with the people’s purse. During his eight years in office, President Ronald Reagan ran up a national debt that surpassed the total debt accumulation of all administrations from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. Moreover, by George W. Bush’s standards, Reagan was a parsimonious penny-pincher. The American national debt at the time of writing stands at over $8.4 trillion, and has been rising at an average rate of $1.74 billion a day since September, 2005. As for the war in Iraq, MSNBC chief economics correspondent Martin Wolk (no liberal Democrat by any standard) reports that the tab is growing by $200 million daily and is projected to reach $400 billion, with an eventual negative fiscal impact of $2 trillion, even if the US manages a staged withdrawal and exits within three years.

Few of Kevin Phillips’ arguments are new, and some complain that there are plenty of other issues that pose equal or greater threats to the United States and the world. To my mind, environmental degradation stands at the top of the list, with issues such as the disparity between rich and poor (domestically and internationally), potential pandemics, ethnic and religious strife and a host of other problems following close behind. Still, Phillips should not be unduly chided. He sought to write a book, not an encyclopedic Jeremiad. Others complain that he has not set out an adequate course of therapy. Again, he should not be unduly reprimanded. He sought to provide a diagnosis, not a program of clinical intervention and rehabilitation.

What he has accomplished is the creation of a fairly comprehensive and decently grounded account of what happens when radical ideologues take office. Again, whether Leo Strauss’ musings about Plato’s Republic can be reliably said to have inspired the current crop of American leaders, or whether they just misunderstood the quiet old philosopher and have unjustly tarred him with their broad brushes is temporarily beside the point. What may make us feel fortunate is that Kevin Phillips is a practical and realistic political actor and analyst who jumped the Straussian ship as it began to take on water. Staying afloat and keeping his senses, he is now letting nearby vessels know something of what is amiss. Together with others among the ill-fated crew, his shouts may awaken the sleeping passengers and rally others still “doing their duty” to steer the ship of state back to a safe harbour, or at least to plan for a successful salvage operation if the boat runs aground.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology