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What Does Richard Nixon’s Prophet Tell Us About 2024?

The late Kevin Phillips pointed the way toward a populist-driven American renewal.

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The late Kevin Phillips is the most underrated theorist of American populism. The brilliant strategist behind Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” dubbed by some the “Karl Marx of the American middle class,” devoted nearly half a century of reflection to the evolutions of the Republican Party. To him, Nixon’s presidency represented a squandered opportunity for populist realignment; he viewed the Reagan era as a period of self-liquidation for conservatism and saw in George W. Bush’s presidency a manifestation of the messianism typical of declining empires. He read the triumph of neoliberalism as a symptom of the Republic’s decadence, advocating for a more direct democracy to dismantle the power of bipartisan oligarchies and lobbyists, and proposed a neomercantilist policy in response to what he saw as the dangerous American naivety of clinging to free trade principles. Far-sightedness of his diagnosis makes one wonder why his death last October passed virtually unnoticed on the right.

Phillips, a young Irish Presbyterian from the Bronx, made a breakthrough with an analysis that would later be published in 1969 as the book The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he suggested expanding Nixon’s center-right coalition to include the votes of Northern Catholics and Southern Protestants who had previously voted for George Wallace. This strategic opening is what guaranteed Nixon’s victory.


However, Phillips’s thesis was met with resistance and ultimately rejected by the liberals surrounding the president. Members of the administration will publicly deny ever having read the book. In the introduction to Mediacracy, Phillips states that this attitude was a manifestation of the “fear of a public-relations-focused administration to identify itself with any specific philosophical or historical perspective.” 

According to Phillips, Nixon’s victory in 1972 represented an opportunity for self-renewal through a populist coalition standing against the “limousine liberals” and “effete snobs” of the big cities. The administration contributed to the defeat of its own agenda by prioritizing political advertising, managerialism, and espionage over formulating programs and building grassroots party commitment. “A lot has been written about the corrupting effect of money on politics,” wrote Phillips, “yet the corrupting effect of communications technology may be even worse.” 

Mediacracy creates a false sense that winning an argument equates to a political victory. Christopher Caldwell saw this as precisely the Reagan administration’s greatest weakness: the belief that proving social programs were wasteful would inevitably lead to their dismantlement. Being a “Great Communicator” helps win elections, but is not enough to change the country. 

The author of The Emerging Republican Majority contended that elites abandoned Middle American values, leaving their cultivation to the disadvantaged by post-industrial society. During the neoliberal transformation of the 1980s, the gains of the post-war “Great Compression” were largely erased. Those who feared that the American Dream was slipping away from them were left without any voice.

In Phillips’s perspective, the GOP bears the brunt of responsibility for this evolution. Instead of representing Middle America, it has degenerated into an incoherent, individualistic synthesis that advocates for the interests of the top 1 percent. Reagan did not bring about a renewal but rather a nostalgic restoration, with his greatest fault being the creation of a “new plutocracy.” In the 1980’s the Republican Party was in the hands of an elite whose attitude to the middle-class decline fluctuated between “it isn’t happening” and “we can’t do anything about it.” By accelerating financialization, Reagan, as Phillips contends, paved the way for Clinton and the triumph of neoliberalism. This shift ultimately completed the process of deindustrialization and wrecked the material base upon which Middle America stood.


The inability to provide a critique of the economic paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s confined Republicans to the theme of cultural decline, a narrative both incomplete and ineffective. For Phillips, even the maverick populist challenger, Pat Buchanan, was too focused on questions of identity. The weakness of conservatism and its ideological entanglements, however, are not the U.S.’s biggest problem. Phillips argues that the greatest predicament is that the cycle of successive political and economic renewals has been stalled since the 1960s.

The U.S. has known periods of intense financialization, such as the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties. The boom was always inevitably followed by a bust, as speculation faded and a return to the real economy ensued. This self-correcting mechanism stopped working in the 1980s, and with it American capitalism lost much of its vitality. Phillips argues that “financial mercantilism,” the collaboration between financial elites and Washington policymakers, has stifled market forces to a previously inconceivable scope.

The same process of cyclical self-renewal ceased to function in American politics. It has expressed itself through critical elections recomposing political cleavages and elites. Phillips mentions 1800, when Jefferson broke the Federalist consensus; 1828, with the election of Andrew Jackson as president; 1860 with Lincoln’s victory, which introduced a new type of polarization; and 1896, with the presidency of McKinley, which finally overcame the divisions of the Civil War. The election of Roosevelt in 1932 was the last in a series of great realignments that reinvented American politics. Each of these critical elections represented a bloodless revolution.

“During the period from 1800 to 1932,” claims Phillips, “the American people did something no other nation’s population has ever done—they directed, roughly once a generation, revolutionary changes in the nation’s political culture and economic development through a series of critical presidential elections.” Each of these revolutions was aimed at elites who no longer served the nation and turned into selfish oligarchy. 

The political cycle of renewal came to a halt with the election of Richard Nixon. The elites in the capital had swelled to such an extent that they could not accept an outcome that did not suit their interests. Over the past 60 years, Phillips argues in his 1994 diatribe Arrogant Capital, Washington has become a fortress of an elite disconnected from the rest of the nation, “a capital city so enlarged, so incestuous in its dealings, so caught up in its own privilege, that it no longer seems controllable by the general public.” Both parties merged into “venal center”; the elite replacement mechanism was effectively disabled by “the permanent Washington.”

Since the late 1980s, Phillips has constantly evoked the historical pattern of the decadence of great powers. He maintained that America is, in many respects, mirroring the trajectory previously followed by Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain. Parallels can be observed, for example, in the diminishing role of industry. Just as the textile sector in Zaan or Leiden in the Netherlands, and British steel in Lancashire or shipbuilding in Clydeside experienced decline earlier in history, cities like Pittsburgh and Flint followed a similar path in the United States. The shift from a manufacturing economy of builders to one driven by finance and burdened with an overload of lawyers, speculators, and rentiers resulted in income polarization and ushered in a period of stagnation.

According to Phillips, it was the GOP that governed the country during the most decisive moments of national decline in recent decades. Reagan initiated the process of financialization of the economy, which led to the decimation of the industrial base and ultimately undermined the middle-class. The victory of Bush 41 symbolized the triumph of an establishment of privilege and connections, while his son's victory drove financialization to the extreme, fostering the “reckless credit-feeding financial complex” that would be responsible for the 2008 crisis. 

The America of Bush 43 displayed two additional signs of decadence in full: imperial overstretch and a messianic fever that supported strategic blunders in the Middle East. “What kind of politics or crisis”, asked Phillips in American Theocracy, “could overcome the combination of Bush administration strategic neglect, Washington interest-group entrenchment, and parochial Republican constituency pressures no one quite knew.”

Despite all of this, Phillips did not relinquish faith that the United States can disrupt this historical pattern and shake off the decadence that Spain, the Netherlands, or Britain could not.

To defeat the Permanent Washington, he argued, America should draw inspiration from the populist impulses that arose in the early 20th century. During that period, a push for direct senatorial elections, as opposed to selection by state legislatures, aimed to diminish the influence of interest groups. Just as then, the essence of American politics—its ability for peaceful democratic renewal—and the legitimacy of government institutions are at stake.

In his 1912 platform, Roosevelt argued that “it is often impossible to establish genuine popular rule and get rid of privilege without the use of new devices to meet new needs.” That new tool, Phillips contends, should be the referendum. The author of Arrogant Capital points out that advances in information technology would greatly facilitate this method of public consultation.

Another proposal from Phillips suggests establishing term limits in Congress to prevent politicians from spending decades in office, only to retire as influential and well-paid lobbyists. To counter political deadlock, when cooperation between Congress and the White House becomes impossible, an early election option should be on the table.

Opposing the primacy of finance, Phillips advocated for a return to industrial policy. In Staying on Top, published in 1984, during the heyday of neoliberalism, he observed that America alone clung dogmatically to free trade, while other countries pursued aggressive neomercantilist policies. “To keep Dayton, Ohio, safe for the figurative middle-aged machinist and his wife and also to keep Santa Clara County, California, safe for the next generation of computers and the next generation of silicon chips,” Phillips proposed a series of measures. He argued for tariffs and subsidies for U.S. companies, as well as protections for American workers against mass layoffs. He considered worker retraining programs, state support for innovation and, above all, the creation of a Department of Trade and Industry that would coordinate these industrial and trade policies as urgent and necessary reforms.

Phillips warns that there is no more harmful mindset than the belief that all will end well, “because, after all, this is the U.S.” Lying low and hoping for the best, while shutting one’s eyes to the unpleasant reality, won’t cut it. America’s past capacity for renewal instilled in him the belief that determined reformers, once they took action, could reverse the decline. “If that hope is no longer justified,” he wrote, “gambling on it will still have been justified.”