This Is How the Republican Party Got Southernized

In 1969, a young aide in the Nixon White House, 28-year-old Kevin Phillips, published “The Emerging Republican Majority.”

Phillips had worked as a strategist on Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, the experience of which supplied much of the material for his book. His argument was straightforward: Nixon’s victory wasn’t just a momentary triumph, but the beginning of an epochal shift in American politics, fueled by a latent conservatism among many members of the white middle class. These voters were repulsed, Phillips wrote, by the Democratic Party’s “ambitious social programming and inability to handle the urban and Negro revolutions.”

The latter point was key. “The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips declared. “The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many (the New Deal) to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few (the Great Society).”

If one tallied Nixon’s share of the national popular vote, at 43.5 percent, and added it to the share won by the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, at 13.5 percent, then you had, in Phillips’s view, the makings of a conservative majority. “It was Phillips’s thesis,” the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice recounts in “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” “that the Republicans could build an enduring majority by corralling voters troubled by ‘the Negro Problem’ and drawing in elements that had not traditionally been part of the Republican Party: conservatives from the South and West, an area for which Phillips coined the term ‘the Sunbelt.’ ”

To some extent, Phillips was remarking on a shift that was already in motion. Both Dwight Eisenhower, in the 1952 and 1956 elections, and Nixon in the 1960 election, made gains with white Southerners.

Phillips was also not the first person to notice the potential of racial strife to move this process along. Barry Goldwater, the party’s 1964 nominee for president against Lyndon Johnson, became the first Republican of the 20th century to win most of the states of the former Confederacy, doing so on the basis of his vociferous opposition to the Civil Rights Act passed that year.

Wallace rested his campaigns, in 1964 and 1968, on the observation that when it came to civil rights, “the whole country was Southern.” And in his attempt to parry and marginalize Wallace, Nixon aimed directly at the white voters of the South. “Vote for … the only team that can provide the new leadership that America needs, the Nixon-Agnew team,” the Republican nominee said in a radio advertisement tailored to white Southern voters. “And I pledge to you we will restore law and order in this country.”

But having written a popular book about the future Republican majority — a book that would prove quite prescient, as Republicans established a durable hold on partisan politics in the South — Phillips is the man who gets credit for both seeing the opportunity and developing the eventual strategy. As he told the journalist Garry Wills during the 1968 campaign, “The whole secret of politics is knowing who hates who.”

Kevin Phillips in 1970.Credit…Associated Press

Phillips died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82. By the end of his life, he had become a sharp critic of the Republican Party, condemning the extremism, military adventurism and free market fundamentalism of the George W. Bush years in a 2006 book, “American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.”

Phillips’s turn against the modern Republican Party he helped create gets at what made his work significant. He didn’t just identify a constellation of political, social and economic forces that could produce a durable Republican majority; he identified an actual social base for the right-wing conservatism that would, in short order, eclipse its ideological rivals within the Republican Party. The new Southern Republicans would be avowedly conservative, committed to the destruction of as much of the social insurance state as possible.

You could draw a straight line, in other words, from “The Emerging Republican Majority” to the Gingrich revolution of the 1990s to the present, when Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana briefly emerged as the leading candidate for speaker of the House before withdrawing from the race on account of fierce opposition from many of the more radical members of the House Republican conference.

First elected to Congress in 2008, Scalise is associated with the hard-right flank of the House Republican caucus. But more relevant to our story is the fact that he represents the state congressional district that once sent David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, to the Louisiana State Legislature. Duke’s election, in 1989, was the start of a political ascendence that culminated in a bitterly fought campaign for governor, which Duke lost — while winning more than 60 percent of the white voters who cast a ballot in that election.

Duke was a toxic figure, condemned by most of the mainstream in the Republican Party, nationally and in Louisiana. But his campaign essentially foreshadowed the transformation of Louisiana politics in the 1990s and into the 2000s, when right-wing Republicans — adopting Duke’s anti-tax, anti-welfare and anti-government rhetoric — supplanted conservative Democrats.

Together, Phillips’s death and Scalise’s near ascension to the speakership form an interesting synchronicity. On one hand, we have the intellectual father of the “Southern strategy,” who died estranged from the political party he helped shape. On the other, we have the rise, however brief, of a lawmaker who represents the total success of that strategy.

A funny thing has happened as the national Republican Party has rooted itself ever more deeply into the South; the Southern style of conservative politics — hidebound, populist, staunchly anti-union and devoted to the interests of capital above all — has migrated well above the Mason-Dixon Line. We’ve seen it take hold in Wisconsin, Kansas, even Maine. It should be said that Scalise’s original rival for the speakership, the MAGA radical Jim Jordan, is from Ohio.

The Republican Party did not just win the white South in the years and decades after Phillips wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Nor did it just become the party of the white South — or at least its most conservative elements. No, what happened is that the Republican Party Southernized, with a politics and an ideology rooted in some of the most reactionary — and ultimately destructive — tendencies of that political tradition.

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