Opinion | The GOP’s ‘southern strategy’ mastermind just died. Here’s his legacy.

Opinion | The GOP’s ‘southern strategy’ mastermind just died. Here’s his legacy.


“The whole secret of politics is knowing who hates who.”

That insight was the brainchild of Kevin Phillips, the longtime political analyst who passed away this week at 82 years old. Phillips’s 1969 book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” provided the blueprint for the “southern strategy” that the Republican Party adopted for decades to win over White voters who were alienated by the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s.

Phillips advised Republicans to exploit the racial anxieties of White voters, linking them directly to issues such as crime, federal spending and voting rights. The strategy, beginning with Richard M. Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential race, helped produce GOP majorities for decades.

Though Phillips later reconsidered his fealty to the GOP, updated versions of the “southern strategy” live on in today’s Republican Party, shaping the political world we inhabit today. So I asked historians and political theorists to weigh in on Phillips’s legacy. Their responses have been edited for style and brevity.

Kevin Kruse, historian at Princeton University and co-editor of “Myth America”: Kevin Phillips was a prophet of today’s polarization. He drew a blueprint for a major realignment of American politics that is still with us. For much of the 20th century, Democrats dominated the national scene, because of the reliable support of the “Solid South.”

But the “Negro problem” of the 1960s, Phillips argued, presented Republicans an opportunity to take the South and Southwest, too, a new region he anointed “the Sun Belt.” All they had to do was appeal to the hatreds of White voters there, through racially coded “law and order” appeals.

Phillips, of course, proved correct about the regional realignment. Republicans won every single state in the South in the 1972, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Today, Republicans dominate the region partly because they still employ Phillips’s polarizing politics of resentment and reaction, from complaints about Black Lives Matter to panics about “woke” education. Donald Trump’s continued dominance of the GOP shows that the underlying instinct to exploit division and inflame hatred remains.

Nicole Hemmer, author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American Politics in the 1990s”: Phillips helped shape how the Republican Party navigated the last 50 years of U.S. politics. His big contribution was the idea that White southerners could be potential voters for the GOP, because the solid Democratic South had become newly fractured after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Phillips argued that the Republican Party needed to change the way it conducted politics to reach out to disaffected White southerners. For Nixon, that was “law and order,” something Ronald Reagan used to great effect along with stories about “welfare queens.” George H.W. Bush’s campaign ran the “Willie Horton” ad, which played up fears of Black criminality.

Trump picked up this rhetoric. He launched his campaign on the ideas of Mexican migrant and Muslim criminality — that all these minority populations needed to be under much stricter surveillance.

The strategy that Phillips helped popularize worked just as well with some northern White voters as it did with southern White voters. It helped solidify the Republican Party’s base as almost exclusively White even as the nation has grown more diverse.

Bill Kristol, a former Republican turned Never Trump conservative: It was happening already in 1968, but Phillips’s book and his subsequent promotion of the southern strategy did have the effect of making that reaction to the civil rights movement more coherent. It gave politicians a way to think about shaping that reaction politically.

Newt Gingrich, who defeated lots of Democrats in southern House seats in the 1994 midterms, was in spirit a Phillips protégé. That culminated in 2010, when Democrats got obliterated, and in the red state-blue state divide today.

From Phillips to Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, there is a through line. DeSantis, Abbott and others are operating in a world anticipated and partly created by Phillips. The reaction of much of the White working class and Republican politicians to Black Lives Matter and “cosmopolitan elites” is a close cousin of what Phillips predicted and helped shape.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner: I think Phillips was noticing what was happening rather than causing it to happen. Dwight D. Eisenhower got 49 to 50 percent of the popular vote in the South in 1952 and 1956; Nixon got nearly that much in 1960. When the national Democratic Party became more dovish, circa 1967, reacting against the Vietnam escalations of its own presidents, Southern Whites — always the most hawkish voters — turned away from national Democrats not so much because of civil rights but because of dovishness. It’s what Tom Eagleton later told Robert Novak: “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”

Corey Robin, political theorist and author of “The Reactionary Mind”: Phillips understood that the old Republican Party establishment could not begin to take on the New Deal and Great Society until it developed a mass popular base. He saw that the White working class — not just in the South, but in the North — was growing disaffected with the New Deal on economic and racist grounds, and that Republicans could turn that dissatisfaction into governing majorities.

Beginning in 1972 with the reelection of Nixon, Republicans built this majority in the spirit of what Phillips imagined. George W. Bush, the last Republican president to get a popular majority, was the last spasm of that vision. The irony is that, under Phillips, the idea was to expand the Republican Party into a permanent governing majority.

But once the White working class diminished, the electoral return of that resentment dramatically dwindled. As a result, instead of relying on robust electoral majorities, the Republican Party, to win power, relies on the electoral college and the malapportioned Senate. Phillips’s blueprint made the heyday of Republican power — and ultimately unmade it.


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