Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy has hovered near the top of the bestseller list this spring. It is suffused with indignation at what George W. Bush and his father have done to the Republican Party and the United States: "[O]ver three decades of Bush presidencies, vice presidencies, and CIA directorships, the Republican party has slowly become the vehicle of ... a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex." Under the Bushes, writes Phillips, the United States has embraced "high-powered automobiles, air strikes, and invasions," become "the world's leading Bible reading crusader state," and suffered from "burgeoning debt levels" and the "implosion of American manufacturing."
These are harsh judgments, but they are not unusual. They can be found regularly in The Nation, The American Prospect, and even occasionally in The New Republic. What is unusual is the man making them. Thirty-seven years ago, Phillips, while serving as an aide to Richard Nixon, published The Emerging Republican Majority, which predicted that the GOP would solidify its political power through electoral gains in suburbia and the Sun Belt (a term Phillips coined). In the mid-'70s, after Nixon's resignation, Phillips helped found the militant movement of social conservatives known as the New Right. He was among the first to appreciate the contribution that Christian conservatives would make to a new Republican majority, and he welcomed the formation of the Reverend Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. The question now is: How did a man who did so much to make the Republican Party the force it is today come to so detest it?
Phillips's defection is most often attributed to his populism. And it's true that Phillips was initially far more of a populist than a Barry Goldwater conservative. He backed the New Deal but condemned the Great Society for "taxing the many on behalf of the few." He saw himself as the tribune of "the Idaho loggers, Carolina farmers and ethnic steelworkers" against the "Yankee, silk-stocking establishmentarians." And he was repulsed when he saw the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush adopt policies that favored the rich and replace the older liberal elite with a new arriviste conservative one.
But, if Phillips was once a populist, he is certainly not anymore. While retaining his disdain for patricians like Bush 41, Phillips has turned against the "new South Boston-Georgia-Idaho 'populist conservatives'" he used to laud. In the 1980s, he became increasingly concerned with the economic health of the country. And, when middle Americans--the heart of the Republican majority that he had so heralded a few years earlier--irresponsibly backed the supply-side, favor-the-rich economic policies of Reagan and Bush because of barely plausible appeals to cultural solidarity, Phillips threw up his hands and, in a sharp irony, became one of the very silk-stocking establishmentarians he once scorned.
Born in 1940, Phillips grew up in the northeast section of the Bronx, a middle-class enclave peopled primarily by Italians and Irish. New York was a Democratic city, but quite a few Italians, in opposition to the Irish Democratic machine, voted Republican, and Phillips's part of the Bronx had a Republican state senator and later a congressman, Paul A. Fino. But Italian Republicans like New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia were as supportive as their Irish Democratic counterparts of Franklin Roosevelt's liberal programs. By the early '60s, however, the influx of Puerto Ricans into New York, the growth of a militant civil rights movement among blacks, and the riots in Harlem were threatening the city's liberal Democratic consensus, as the city's white ethnic voters blamed blacks and Puerto Ricans for rising crime and taxes and resented federal expenditures on their behalf.
Phillips himself was neither Italian nor Irish. His ancestors were a blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. His father was Catholic and his mother was Protestant. He went to the Bronx High School of Science rather than to a Catholic school. "My religion was reading the Sunday papers," he explained. His father, William Phillips, was an official with--and, later, the executive director of--the New York State Liquor Authority, making the family upper middle class. Kevin inherited his father's Republican politics and, perhaps because he was an outsider in his own neighborhood, grew up fascinated by how New York's ethnic and religious rivalries affected the city's politics. "The whole secret of politics," he told author Garry Wills in 1968, is "knowing who hates who." At 15, he was drawing up precinct maps and poring over almanacs. At Colgate, which he attended as a National Merit Scholar, he wrote his thesis on the ethnic and religious vote in the 1928 and 1960 presidential elections.
After graduating, he went to Harvard Law School, a path that he could have taken into the patrician upper classes. But Phillips's experience in Cambridge strengthened his identification with the middle class--and the Republican Party. Harvard, he later wrote, was filled with "long-haired kids driving Jaguars their permissive dads gave them." Harvard's Republican Club, he told reporter E.J. Dionne in 1990, "contained all these kids from unfashionable places. All the kids in the Democratic Club were the sons of New Deal lawyers who had 'III' after their names."
As a teenager, Phillips had volunteered on Fino's campaigns, and, after graduating from Harvard, he got a job as his administrative assistant. Fino typified the movement of ethnic Republicans and Democrats away from the liberal consensus. He remained liberal on core New Deal issues like Social Security, but he voted against Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, which he saw as a giveaway to "poverty commissars and generals." Phillips, too, supported New Deal ideas--even going beyond them to back national health insurance--but he deplored "silk-stocking" liberals who "send their kids 2,000 miles to look for poverty in Mississippi but won't travel one subway stop to help poor whites working for $1,800 a year." When Phillips envisioned a new Republican majority, it embodied this mix of cultural conservatism and New Deal liberalism. Its leading practitioner was not Barry Goldwater but Richard Nixon, who would rail against rioters and promise "law and order" but still appoint Daniel Patrick Moynihan as his domestic policy adviser.
So, in early 1968, the gangly 27-year-old Phillips interviewed with Pat Buchanan, then Nixon's campaign speechwriter and adviser. "He told me about these four counties in Dixie that had voted Republican since 1896," Buchanan recalls. "I said to myself, 'This fellow knows a hell of a lot more about politics than I do.'" Phillips was hired and spent the campaign writing memos for the candidate. The next year, Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, in which he predicted that "the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it" would break up the Democratic Party. Some liberal Republicans from "the Pucci and Porsche precincts of the Northeast" might become Democrats, but former Democrats in ethnic suburbia and in the Sun Belt would defect to the Republicans. Phillips predicted that, in 1972, many of the 13.5 percent of voters who had supported breakaway third party "populist" George Wallace in 1968 would embrace Nixon, giving him an easy victory. Which is what happened.
Phillips painted this Republican realignment as "a populist revolt of the American masses" against "the mandarins of Establishment liberalism." But, when Phillips was asked whether he supported Wallace's populism, which was based on opposition to racial integration, he avoided the question. He argued that the racial realignment of the parties was "inevitable." In fact, as would become clear later, Phillips, like many armchair populists, had an idealized and self-deceiving view of the middle class. What mattered, above all, was that the "Alabama truckers" and "Idaho loggers" were going to be voting Republican.
hillips's faith in the emerging Republican majority was to be short-lived. Phillips, who had quit the administration in March 1970 to become a columnist and radio commentator, felt vindicated by Nixon's landslide in 1972. But--in the aftermath of Watergate, the Republican rout in 1974, and the choice of "Old Guard" Republican Gerald Ford to replace Nixon--he despaired of the GOP. He began working closely with a group of other young, discontented conservatives. These activists--who included Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, and Richard Viguerie--formed the nucleus of what Phillips would label the New Right. The New Rightists dismissed the Ford Republicans, who, Phillips charged, "don't want a 'New Majority' coalition in which they lose control to the new South Boston-Georgia-Idaho 'populist conservatives.'"
Phillips saw the New Right as a "populist conservative" movement that went beyond opposition to busing and civil rights. It was based on a "conservative counterreformation" percolating in the Sun Belt and the Midwest that he compared favorably to the older Catholic counterreformation. "Religions such as the Baptists, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Jesus Freaks are all on the same rise," Phillips wrote in his book Mediacracy. But, he warned, "neither existing party structure really lends itself to the articulation of the philosophical themes of the counterreformation."
So, in 1975, he and other New Right activists began discussing whether to run a third party candidate for president who could mobilize this new majority and counterreformation. Phillips wrote a column in Newsweek touting a Reagan-Wallace ticket. And, in late spring, the group met Reagan at the Madison Hotel in Washington, hoping to convince him to take up the New Right banner. But Reagan turned them down flat. He only wanted to run as a Republican. Phillips wrote later that "some participants" were "put off" and perceived Reagan "as a stereotyped country club Republican." Phillips was one of them.
Reagan, of course, lost his 1976 bid against Gerald Ford, but, after he was elected president in 1980, the Californian confirmed Phillips's earlier fears. The first event to incur Phillips's wrath was the "record $16 million" inaugural. During the festivities, Phillips wrote, Reagan "seem[ed] to spend half his time going to parties thrown by New York, Washington, and Los Angeles high society. North Carolina and South Dakota did not elect Mr. Reagan for his taste in limousines, formal morning attire, or Parke-Bernet antiques." But, more significantly, Reagan disappointed Phillips when he embraced supply-side tax cuts. Phillips, who never bought the argument that the tax cuts would increase revenue, criticized Reagan for "hitching his political future to the fiscal theories of Calvin Coolidge's and Herbert Hoover's treasury secretary Andrew Mellon."
At the same time, Phillips was also developing qualms about populist conservatism. Indeed, when neo-Nazi candidates for office won Republican primaries in California, North Carolina, and Michigan in 1980, Phillips warned that "the American public is seething with anger, distrust and alienation." In his book Post-Conservative America, which appeared in 1982, Phillips warned that, when Reagan tax cuts didn't bring prosperity, their failure would unleash the "populism and socio-economic yeast [that] now bubbles just below the surface of what is called Reagan conservatism." The yeast could "metaphormose into extreme radicalism" reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
But Phillips's outlook was changing in a more fundamental way. As he lost faith in Republican conservatism and the New Right, Phillips became increasingly concerned with the apparent decline of U.S. industry--evidenced in widening trade deficits to Japan and Western Europe and the growing weakness of the U.S. auto, steel, and machine tool industries. Phillips began spending much of his time talking to business groups. Along with his influential political newsletter, the "American Political Report," he founded a business newsletter, "The Business & Public Affairs Fortnightly," that covered the growing debate over trade and industrial policy.
Phillips's model for dealing with economic decline was what Nixon and Treasury Secretary John Connally had done in 1971 when faced with the nation's first twentieth-century trade deficit and with a potential run on the nation's gold reserves. Nixon and Connally abandoned the gold standard, set up wage-price controls, and threatened to block Japanese imports if they would not revalue their currency. In 1984, Phillips published a book, Staying on Top: Winning the Trade War, in which he rejected Reagan's laissez-faire strategy and called instead for a coalition between business and labor and between liberals and conservatives to back government intervention to revive American industry.
Phillips now referred to himself as an "economic nationalist" rather than a "populist conservative." His defense of industrial policy reaffirmed his rejection of conservative economics and his return to Nixonian economic nationalism. (Indeed, Phillips had visited Nixon to discuss his ideas, and Nixon provided a blurb for the book.) And his emphasis on economics represented a clear break with the New Right's emphasis on culture and religion.
Phillips finally broke with the GOP for good over the presidential nomination of George H.W. Bush, who embodied everything Phillips hated about Reagan's Republican Party. It was bad enough that the Reagan of Dixon, Illinois, had used cultural populism to win support for his conservative economic agenda. But seeing Bush eating pork rinds was the last straw for Phillips.
Bush's patrician mien had long infuriated him. In 1970, he had written a column criticizing Nixon's appointment of Bush and three other "nonideological middle-of-the-road Ivy Leaguers." Five years later, Phillips criticized Ford's appointment of Bush as CIA director on the grounds that Bush was a representative of the "old, genteel, business-oriented GOP." In 1980, Phillips warned Reagan not to choose Bush as his vice president because he was "a symbol of yesterday's Republicanism--and the son of a Wall Street stockbroker, educated at Greenwich Country Day School, Andover Academy and Yale."
In the 1988 campaign, Phillips had criticized Bush as someone whose "zip-a-dee doo-dah Eastern preppiness" made him a "poor candidate to rally the electoral coalition of Nixon and Reagan." But, when Bush invoked flag, faith, and Willie Horton to defeat Democrat Michael Dukakis, Phillips recoiled at the hypocrisy of using populist appeals to divert the electorate from the damage that Reagan and Bush's economic policies had done to the country. Bush, he wrote, "tried out a populist image. ... Yet the America Bush truly represented was that of old multigenerational wealth--of trust funds, third generation summer cottages on Fisher's Island and grandfathers with Dillon Read or Brown Brothers Harriman--which accepted the economic policy of the Reagan era despite its distaste for its arriviste values."
During the 1988 campaign, Phillips praised Democrat Richard Gephardt for his economic nationalism and Jesse Jackson for pushing the Democrats back to "'common man' economics." Two months after the Bush administration took office, he described it as "one of the least capable in recent U.S. history." And, in 1990, he published The Politics of Rich and Poor, which indicted the Reagan and Bush administrations for "intensifying inequality" and allowing foreigners to "gobble up large chunks of America." In the past, Phillips would have criticized Reagan and Bush's economic policies because they did not appeal to "Idaho loggers, Carolina farmers and ethnic steelworkers," but, in The Politics of Rich and Poor, he criticized them because they "worked against the national interest."
When People asked Phillips in 1990 whether he was still a Republican, he replied, "I'm a Nixon Republican, not a Bush Republican. Nixon is a Middle American Republican, and Bush is a Park Avenue-Palm Beach Republican. In the Nixon administration, you heard terms like 'silent majority' and 'Joe Six-Pack.' What you get out of Bush is capital gains, and a speed boat off his cottage in Kennebunkport." But, of course, the Republican Party of Richard Nixon no longer existed; so, after 1988, Phillips was a man without a party whose writings would be lavishly praised by Democrats and condemned by conservative Republicans.
In 1997, Phillips and his wife moved out of upscale Bethesda, Maryland, and settled in tony Goshen, Connecticut, where they maintained a summer home. Phillips shut down his newsletters, and, disillusioned with contemporary politics, undertook a history of Anglo-American politics. But, in the last four years, he has returned to the fray, publishing three long political works: Wealth and Democracy, American Dynasty, and American Theocracy. These books are not of the same quality as Phillips's early volumes. They are marred by repetition, pedantic detail, gnawing inconsistency, the interposition of rumors among facts, and an awkward attempt to fit U.S. ills into a cyclical theory of history modeled on Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But, like all of Phillips's books, they contain astute observations of American politics. And they are important because they showcase Phillips's final break with populism.
American Dynasty and American Theocracy both appeared after George W. Bush invaded Iraq, and both books seethe with a rage--partly a function of Phillips's opposition to the war--that is missing from Phillips's earlier works. Phillips throws everything he can at the two Bushes--from George H.W. Bush's suspected role in the October Surprise in 1980 to George W. Bush's suspected arrest for cocaine. Phillips portrays W.'s election as a "dynastic succession" made possible by crony capitalism, campaign chicanery in Florida, and populist manipulation. The father's "political Achilles heel" was his "cultural schizophrenia ... an unstable mix of genteel northern moderate conservatism and the two-gunned Texas brand." The son, with "the cow country accent, the rumpled clothing, the chewing tobacco, the style of religiosity, the moral fundamentalism, the outsider language, the disdain for the Harvards and Yales, the six-gun geopolitics, and not least the garb of a sinner rescued from drink and brought to God by none other than evangelist Billy Graham," was "almost a caricature overcorrection of several of his father's greatest political weaknesses."
In American Theocracy, Phillips charges George W. Bush and his father with promoting "a reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) religion, and a reliance on borrowed money." The invasion of Iraq, Phillips argues, was intended in part to "rebuild Anglo-American oil company reserves, transform Iraq into an oil protectorate-cum-military base, and reinforce the global hegemony of the U.S. dollar." But religion also played a role. "There is something about Iraq--most cynics would nominate oil, but the influence of the Bible is also relevant--that clouds the competence of Anglo-American invaders and occupiers," Phillips writes. It is in his discussion of religion that Phillips reveals just how much his attitude toward the middle class has changed.
In the '70s and early '80s, Phillips applauded the spread of Christian conservative politics. It was an essential part of populist conservatism. It was the middle class "counter-reformation" against the secular liberal elites. "Sociologists in the '60s," Phillips wrote, "mistakenly identified populism with the left and played down the much more important demographic implications of people who ... spent time listening to fundamentalist preachers, often on television." Reagan's largest gains, Phillips explained approvingly in 1982, were among voters "with cultural and religious issues on their minds--Northern Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Western Mormons, and white Southern fundamentalist Protestants."
But, in American Theocracy, he condemns "the increasingly narrow, even theocratic, sentiment among Republican voters" as a threat to American science and democracy. Phillips writes, "No leading world power in modern memory has become a captive, even a partial captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy ... that dismisses modern knowledge and science." Phillips simply has no patience with this large part of the Republican middle-class base. It "favors military intervention in the Middle East to promote the fulfillment of end-times prophecy and the second coming of Christ," rejects the climate-change treaty because it is "incompatible with the Book of Genesis," and believes in "the rights of embryos" and "the prerogative of the sperm and egg to join" over "the arguable rights of women."
In Phillips's earliest works, militant Christianity was a commendable expression of populist protest. In American Dynasty, Phillips sees it as manipulated by economic conservatives. "The right," he explains, is "mobilizing religious conservatives to bolster a corporate and financial agenda." In American Theocracy, he depicts cultural conservatism as a form of false consciousness that requires no direct manipulation from above. "Some 30 to 40 percent of the Bush electorate, many of whom might otherwise resent their employment conditions, credit-card debt, heating bills or escalating cost for automobile upkeep (from insurance to gas prices), often subordinate these economic concerns to a broader religious preoccupation with biblical prophecy and the second coming of Jesus Christ."
Admittedly, even at the height of his populist fervor, Phillips had shown signs of distaste for certain aspects of middle-class culture. Explaining during the 1968 campaign why a Nixon endorsement by actor John Wayne would go over well among Southern voters, Phillips told reporter Joe McGinniss, "Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach. ... The people down there along the Yahoo Belt." But, in his earlier books, Phillips always concealed any hint of such contempt.
In American Theocracy, by contrast, Phillips no longer makes any effort to identify with those parts of the middle class that enthusiastically supported George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Phillips notes that the top four states where Bush has done better than Ronald Reagan--Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee--are "fundamentalist and evangelical strongholds notable for their unimpressive rankings in education, mental health, child poverty and homicide rate." He even rejects the "car culture" and "hydrocarbon culture" of the South, Southern border states, and prairie states--noting that all "thirteen states with 75 mph speed limits ... all lopsidedly backed George W. Bush for election." So did "spectators at nascar events." This culture, Phillips writes, prefers "conspicuous consumption over energy efficiency and conservation," and it sustains the rule of an "oil, automobile, and national security coalition" in Washington. Exit Phillips the populist.
Phillips's journey from The Emerging Republican Majority to American Theocracy has certainly not been unique. He is one of several notable Republicans who drifted from the party in the late '80s because of Bush's indifference to the economy, and the Iraq war has driven many Nixon Republicans from the GOP, too. But Phillips is notable because he developed so much of the strategy and ethos of the movement he has now left. Phillips virtually invented the culture war that enabled the rise of the Republican Party. But, with American Theocracy, Phillips has finally switched sides. He may remain a Nixon Republican, but, in his cultural attitudes, he now typifies "the Pucci and Porsche precincts of the Northeast" he once disdainfully rejected.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.