STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
This week on MORNING EDITION we're going to look at the United States dependence on oil. And we begin today with the Long View. It's part of our series of conversations on many topics in which we hear from people of long experience.
Today we hear from Kevin Phillips, a senior electoral strategist for Richard Nixon. These days Phillips is better known as a critic for the Republican majority that he first identified.
R: dangerous links, as he sees them, between the U.S. government, the Republican Party and the oil industry.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: We're losing our control of oil. We now provide less than 40 percent of the oil we consume. We have to pay more and more for it overseas. We're forcing our military into an oil protection service role. It's beginning to cost us an enormous amount of money to have an oil economy, to have an oil transportation system.
INSKEEP: Some people may listen to you and say, what do you mean the military is an oil protection service?
PHILLIPS: Well, in a nutshell, the Navy, because it's patrolling sea lanes that are vital to oil commerce, and is increasingly focused, for example, in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of West Africa where a lot of new oil is being brought into play from Nigeria southwards; if you look at the role of the Air Force and the Army, it's becoming increasingly important in places like Columbia, in the Western Hemisphere, and all over Central Asia and the Middle East, and places where we want to protect pipelines and so forth.
INSKEEP: You seem to have no doubt that the war in Iraq was about protecting oil supplies.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, there were a lot of reasons for this, and it's hard to shrink them down to too little. But for one thing, the history of Iraq has always been about oil. If you look at the 20th century, the maps have always been about oil. They emphasize oil, not the political boundaries.
It's also clear that by the late 1990s, this so-called peak oil question, the idea that world oil supplies were close to peaking and might start to run out during the 2010s or 2020s, had become important to Dick Cheney, for example, who gave a speech about that over in London.
INSKEEP: Now, you're somebody who first became prominent in the United States as an analyst of American political trends, about the way that politics were changing in the United States, about the way that the Republican Party was growing in certain places. How does the oil industry fit into the political map of the United States?
PHILLIPS: When I was first involved in the Republican side back in the late '60s, part of what we were trying to do was to bring oil and the energy sector into the Republican Party. It was a mainstay of the Democrats in Texas and Oklahoma, and Nixon in particular wanted to bring Texas into the Republican fold.
Now when the Mason-Dixon line in politics collapsed, basically what you got within the Republican Party was that pretty soon the oil states and the natural gas states and the coal states were all part of a Republican base; so you had a Republican Party that became very close to the energy industry and generally took energy industry viewpoints as opposed to conservationist viewpoints.
INSKEEP: This almost sounds like an alternative history of what was happening in the late 1960s. The conventional story is that the South was very unhappy with the racial policies of the Democratic Party, approving civil rights legislation and so forth, and therefore southerners switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
You're saying that there was this other, deeper thing happening at the same time?
PHILLIPS: There were a lot of things involved in the switch in the South. Race was always a major factor at the same time. By the 1960s and '70s, Vietnam was a factor, because the South was the most military part of the country, greatest support for the war, so that played out too. By the late 1970s and 1980s, religion was coming in very powerfully.
INSKEEP: You analyze the 2004 presidential election. Plenty of people have offered reasons for why President Bush won reelection. You argue that one factor was what you call a surprisingly influential oil, gasoline and automobile relationship.
PHILLIPS: Well, the oil culture goes beyond the oil states. One of the most striking aspects of the Republicans and the motorists are the extent to which they have constituency that cheers the NASCAR races, drives the pickup trucks, the SUVs, lives 70 miles up the interstates so they can afford a nicer house.
The Republican energy-producing coalition is very closely related to an energy-consuming coalition. And the upshot is that they have to take care of oil on two dimensions, not just producing it but making it available to their people who drive a lot.
INSKEEP: And is it just the Republican Party that's affected in this way?
PHILLIPS: No, the Democrats are affected too, because you can't divorce the two parties here. But basically the Republicans have the coalition that does not really want to replace oil.
But I think both parties are afraid of offending the motorists who live in the countryside.
INSKEEP: Are they afraid enough that they could actually steer the country toward decline?
PHILLIPS: Well, I think if we pursue oil without somehow decreasing demand for it fairly rapidly, we're biting off a huge obligation in terms of foreign policy, military outlays and expense for the U.S. economy as oil prices continue to rise.
INSKEEP: You played a public role in at least identifying, if not helping to assemble, this coalition that has driven the Republican Party to power for most of the last generation and a half. Do you regret that now?
PHILLIPS: No, I would still do it again. However, if I was able to know everything that was coming, I think I'd do some things a little differently.
And one of the things I'd be suspicious of is what would happen to a coalition that was so focused on the South by the time it was 30 or 40 years old. Would it be picking up too much commitment to oil, too much commitment to radical religion, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism? And my answer, in retrospect, was those were things to watch for. And we weren't paying enough attention there.
INSKEEP: What advice would you give to a political thinker or a young politician in the position that you were in almost 40 years ago now?
PHILLIPS: Well, I would say it's a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of fascinating things. I would recommend anybody who is doing that sort of thing now to wonder what the next 40 years were going to be like.
We faced a much more difficult 40 years from the 1960s than anybody I knew on either side, Democratic or Republican thought, and a lot of our ideas were simplistic in the early days. Unfortunately, I think the next 40 years are going to be a lot more challenging than the last 40 years, which is why I wouldn't tell kids to go into politics, particularly.
INSKEEP: You would not?
PHILLIPS: I would not.
INSKEEP: Doesn't somebody have to take on these problems?
PHILLIPS: Sure, but you're asking me would I advise somebody I knew fairly well, and I'd say, you'll love it, you'll have a great time, you'll see your family all the time, you'll deal with all these wonderful people who are dedicated to leading the country? You know, I couldn't say that without laughing.
INSKEEP: (Laughs) That's the long view from Kevin Phillips.
You can find other interviews from our Long View series and read an excerpt from Phillips' book, American Theocracy, at npr.org.
And all this week, by the way, we will be talking about oil politics. Tomorrow we report on a U.S.-backed pipeline in a former Soviet republic.