Kevin Phillips, strategist who forecast rising Republican power, dies at 82

Oct 10, 2023, 6:20 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Phillips, the author, commentator and political strategist whose landmark book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” became a blueprint for Republican thinking in the 1970s and beyond, has died. He was 82.

Phillips died Monday in a hospice near his home in Naples, Florida, according to his wife, Martha Henderson Phillips. The cause of death was Alzheimer’s disease.

“The Emerging Republican Majority” was published in the summer of 1969, just months after Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. Phillips, in his late 20s at the time, was a Nixon campaign adviser and compulsive statistician who charted voting patterns dating back to the country’s founding.

He foresaw Nixon’s victory and the appeal of the far-right third party candidate George Wallace as the beginning of a paradigm shift in American politics. Since 1932, the country’s politics had been shaped by Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal” coalition of northern liberals and the conservative, but dependably Democratic Southern states. But a powerful Republican coalition was coming of age, Phillips wrote, driven by a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society programs, and strengthened by the rapidly growing, Republican-leaning suburbs, declining populations of urban areas and other centers of Democratic power.

While Roosevelt and the Democratic Party had benefited from economic resentment, Phillips believed the Republicans could win on cultural resentment.

“Policies able to resurrect the vitality and commitment to Middle America — from sharecroppers and truckers to the alienated lower middle class — will do far more for the entire nation than the environmental manipulation, social boondoggling, community agitation and incendiary promises of the 1960s,” he wrote.

Phillips, who served briefly in Nixon’s Justice Department, wasn’t the only analyst predicting an era of Republican control. But his book was especially memorable in part because of such labels as “Sun Belt,” for the thriving Republican communities extending from Florida to Arizona and California, and “The Southern strategy,” for exploiting the racist fears of whites.

The Nixon administration worried that “The Emerging Republican Majority” would make people believe it didn’t care about the Northeast and initially distanced itself, with aides urging the president to deny he read it. But realignment in the South was essential to Republicans easily winning four of the five presidential elections held from 1972-88. Their reign was interrupted only by the Watergate scandal. Southern states became increasingly Republican and the GOP also enjoyed strong support in the Midwest, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions.

Beyond the consequences of the “Southern strategy,” which became a lasting principle of the GOP, Phillips was faulted for overlooking the role of evangelical voters and for ignoring the growing numbers of Hispanic voters and other immigrants who would help Democrats prevail in California and elsewhere in the 1990s.

But his book remained so canonical that when liberal analysts John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira anticipated a Democratic comeback in 2002, they called their publication “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” For a 2015 reissue of Phillips’ book, the liberal historian and Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz wrote that “The Emerging Republican Majority” still shaped “the way political commentators envisage American politics.”

Phillips, meanwhile, was transforming from a young partisan who had dedicated his book to Nixon and then-Attorney General John Mitchell to a disillusioned critic who had little use for either party.

In the 1970s, he backed efforts to use antitrust legislation against the television networks, which Nixon and his supporters perceived as biased against Republicans. He was among a rotating group of conservative columnists writing for TV Guide. But by the 1980s, during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Phillips was no longer confident in the Republicans’ future or in what they stood for.

“The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath,” which came out in 1990, was his lament for the state of politics under GOP rule the previous decade. Although he remained a registered Republican, Phillips cited the sharp rise in income inequality and declared that the Reagan and Bush years were defined by “too many stretch limousines, too many enormous incomes and too much high fashion.” At the same time, he labeled Democrats as “cowed, conformist and often supportive of the prevailing entrepreneurial free-market mood.”

Leading conservatives denounced him. William F. Buckley called his views “country and western Marxism.” But he continued to attack the party. In “American Theocracy,” published in 2006, Phillips chastised the GOP as beholden to oil, religious extremists and the ultra-rich. Two years later he published “Bad Money,” which faulted what he called the “financialization” of the economy and came out within weeks of the market crash of September 2008.

“We’re not just looking at an ordinary recession,” he warned. “Since the 1970s, the United States has redefined itself from a manufacturing nation to a financial economy built on debt, leverage, and a considerable ratio of speculation. Both political parties have been complicit in this, and the downturn now beginning will be unusual and potentially tragic.”

Phillips married Henderson in 1968 and had three children. Besides his work as an author, he was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. And for years he was an NPR commentator.

Despite his Harvard degree and taste for pin-striped suits, Phillips considered himself a populist — suspicious of all elites. But his real grounding was in numbers. As a child in New York City, he would unearth old World Almanacs in Manhattan bookstores and study elections. By age 15, he was devising his own political maps and addressing campaign rallies for his local congressman, Republican Paul A. Fino.

Phillips graduated from Colgate University in 1964 and then attended Harvard Law School, where he noticed that the Republican students came from more modest and diverse backgrounds than the Democratic ones. His ideas on how to revive the GOP, which had suffered catastrophic losses amid the 1964 landslide defeat of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, attracted the attention of Nixon and others.

“It’s ironic, when I wrote ‘The Emerging Republican Majority’ all those years ago, what the Democrats represented were people who had taken over all these Washington institutions and who had just become totally remote from the average American,” Phillips told “Booknotes” interviewer Brian Lamb in 1990.

He added: “And they really had never met a payroll. They’d been on the government slots and think tanks. That’s what conservatism is becoming. We’re producing foundations and think tanks and editorial rooms full of all these people that have sat around and sucked ideological thumbs for the last 10 years. So it’s an interesting development, but I think it’s a sign of conservatism’s weakness.”

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Kevin Phillips, strategist who forecast rising Republican power, dies at 82