As the Republican Party’s fortunes soured, conservatives soured on Kevin Phillips. “There is an eccentric theorist writing orotund stuff about major trends in American politics,” William F. Buckley Jr. noted in 1975. “His name is Kevin Phillips. A few years ago, he wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority, which was a most fascinating volume, suffering only from the massive inaccuracy of its predictions.” James Burnham, an editor at Buckley’s National Review, was even more dismissive. “As things turn out,” he noted ruefully in 1976, “it is Jimmy Carter who seems to be putting the majority together under Democratic auspices.”
But Republicans would not have to mourn for long. Throughout the 1980s, GOP nominees racked up massive victories, with the South emerging as the party’s most reliable region. Reagan took every state there in 1980, save Carter’s Georgia, and then Reagan, in 1984, and George H. W. Bush, in 1988, won the entire South. Democrats pushed back in 1992 and 1996, with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Tennessee Senator Al Gore Jr. at the top of the ticket, but Texas’s George W. Bush reclaimed the entire region for Republicans in 2000 and 2004.
As the Republican majority took shape in these decades, its architects insisted publicly that their work had nothing to do with the blueprint in The Emerging Republican Majority—distancing themselves from Phillips’s work, much as the Nixon administration itself had done. In a 1981 interview, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater insisted that the Reagan campaign had been a stark departure from “the old southern strategy,” which, in his words, had been “based on coded racism.” The Reagan blueprint was based on appeals to economics and national defense, Atwater argued, with race relegated to “the back burner.”
But a closer look at Republican strategies in this era dispels Atwater’s claims. As the political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields chronicle in their new book, The Long Southern Strategy, the old “coded racism” continued, but in concert with newer appeals to religious conservatism and anti-feminism. (Atwater himself offered something of an apology for some of those tactics toward the end of his life.) Taken together, these approaches solidified the South for the Republicans and, as a result, secured their victories in national races.
Notably, the Republican majority that emerged in these decades did so largely on the terms set forth by Phillips. Appeals to racial resentments, handled lightly, did much of the work, but the broader social issues ultimately played an even more important role. Striking a delicate balance between the two proved to be the winning strategy for the GOP.
The risk for Republicans today, of course, is that President Trump has upset this balance, rejecting old dog whistles on race for full-throated racism. Unlike Nixon, who disastrously tried such a strategy in his first midterm but then dialed it back considerably in his reelection run, Trump has doubled down on the race-based themes that failed to work in his own first midterm. In doing so, he runs the risk of reversing decades of work and rendering the Republican majority a thing of history.
*A previous version of this article stated that Strom Thurmond was a senator in 1948.