American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips - a Review

I found this book to be full of frightening insights about the future of our country. Phillips makes a good case that the United States exhibits symptoms similar to those of other major powers as they went into their final decline. If you are optimistic about the future of the country, then you should read this book. On the negative I found the book a bit ponderous. Phillips is over thorough in his arguments marshalling extensive evidence that tends to overwhelm a reader. The book could have been half its size without being any less convincing, at least to those (like this reader) who are already worried about the trends in our country.

The book consists of three parts "Oil and American Supremacy" (3 chapters), "Too Many Preachers" (4 chapters), and "Borrowed Prosperity" (4 chapters). The title reflects mainly the second part, so in a sense it is misleading. (Even there is a lot of mention of religious zeal in other parts.)

The first part argues that the world will be running out of oil in this century. Phillips bases this view on predictions of certain scientists that others (e.g. The Economist) find too pessimistic. While it seems that Phillips overrates the danger, his case that energy conservation should be a much higher priority than it is now is still valid. It makes little difference if we run completely out of oil or if its price increase by several multiples.

The second part focuses on the influence of fundamentalist Christians on U.S. politics. The issue also spills in the other two parts on the basis of the argument that fundamentalists Christians expect the end of the world to come soon so there is no need to worry about global warming, running out of oil, or the collapse of the U.S. economy because of excessive debt. I am not sure whether the influence of that group is a prime factor or a side show. At the end book Phillips points out that "the financial sector - and a large majority of the richest Americans ... find the alliance convenient ... (because fundamentalists) are too caught up in religion, theology, and personal salvation to pay much attention to economics ..." Of course this was the theme of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas. I tend to the view that religion is being exploited rather than being a prime mover even though most of the book argues otherwise.

I found the third part the best because it documents how the expansion of the finance sector as the manufacturing sector is declining is leading to a ballooning debt with US obligations held by foreign banks, a far more serious threat (in my opinion) to our national security than any terrorist. While worries about the debt appear daily in our newspapers, the books presents an in depth analysis of why we have reached this sorry state of affairs.

In short, while I used to worry about our state of affairs, I worry even more now, even though I do not agree with everything Phillips says.