The New Silent Majority

In 1969, Richard Nixon invoked the “silent majority,” a socio-political concept that helped him in his 1972 landslide reelection against Democrat George McGovern.  It was a well timed observation, one that would prove politically powerful and assist Republicans time and again during election years.  Appealing to the amorphous silent majority demographic helped Reagan win two terms, and it helped his Vice President succeed him.

Eight years after George H. W. Bush was replaced by the charismatic, young Bill Clinton, the silent majority would again help propel then Texan governor George W. Bush to the Oval Office as he promised to return dignity to the White House.

But was the second Bush presidency the last shuddering gasp of the silent majority?  Or is there a new silent majority forming right now in this election year?

I am at once grateful and remiss in having missed one of the great cultural epochs of contemporary history; the late 60’s and early 70’s.  On one hand, I appreciate the fact that I never had to worry about fighting in Vietnam, or being drafted into what was then not an all volunteer military.  I’m grateful I missed out on the social tensions that plagued the country, and yes, I’m even glad I missed Woodstock.  I’m something of a shut in and a wallflower, and missing Woodstock, as I inevitably would have, would probably just have been a blow to my self esteem.

At the same time, it’s regrettable that I missed out on all the strife and tribulations of the era, to observe them first hand.  The culture wars of the sixties still haunt us to this day as though a part of the national consciousness is still stuck in those bygone days, unable to move on like a widow still grieving the loss of his or her loved one ten years after the fact.

Not experiencing the beginning first hand, it’s difficult for me to speak knowledgeably about it, not without the experience of the free love and anti-war protests, and not without sitting in my living room and watching the news coverage of those protests.

BUt when we talk about this silent majority, you can almost feel the palpable rage.  Watching this mistreatment of soldiers returned home from battle by people that never went.  The words in their own pregnant intent speak to the anger of those for whom culture, or more appropriately, counter culture, has gotten too far out of hand and is defining an America that is difficult to be proud of.

It’s no secret what Nixon did with his silent majority; with its creation, he created a maligned, demonized minority.  This is a blue print that has been studied, copied, and enacted time and time again by Republican politicians since.  The funning thing about the silent majority, though, is that it’s not a hardened demographic; it defies dissection the way we would, say, women, or Latinos, or working class, or the elderly or any other number of ways the cross tabs of every poll divides people for further analysis.  This is true because for all intents and purposes, the silent majority was negative space–it wasn’t defined by what it was so much as what it wasn’t.

Instead of giving common voice to people banded together for a common purpose, the silent majority gave voice to perhaps an uncommong people thrown together by mutual disdain, disdain for the hippees, and the stain it was putting on an America that only a decade before was at least on the surfaces utopian.  There is undoubtedly a great power behind this concept for the silent majority first implies fear (that there are a group of people who, through vocal action, are changing the inherent character of this nation into something truly distasteful), and then gives those who hold that fear comfort and power (that there are others who share this fear, and together we can rise up and strike down this new threat).

For practicality’s sake, there is a broader demographic definition of the old silent majority; white, working class, and Christian.  To be sure a majority on each count.  And at the time that Nixon channeled this metaphysical demographic, there was a sincere counter culture movement that itself perhaps not warranted but by means of natural reaction created the proper atmospher for such a counter-counter culture.  But the interesting thing is that while the times have changed, the basic construct of the silent majority has not.

It’s not called that very often anymore.  Now the terms are “Middle America,” or “Joe and Jane Sixpack.”  NASCAR dads and soccer moms.  But it would still appear to be a group characterized by its majority ethnicity, its adherence to Christian doctrine, and its grudging slog towards the future, resisting every social and societal change with the zeal of a cat avoiding a bath tub.

But I’m given pause to wonder if perhaps George W. Bush wasn’t the last great hurrah of the old silent majority, particularly his 2004 campaign which Al Franken rightly characterized by the lyrical, “Fear, Smears, and Queers.”

Back when Bush beat Kerry for reelection, Bush wasn’t as hated as he is now.  Sure, Democrats and liberals hated the man with ferocity, and many of us weren’t just foretelling disaster, we were trying to point it out as it currently existed.  Still, the man’s approval ratings managed to hover at the fifty percent mark through the election season which isn’t stellar, but isn’t abysmal by any stretch of the imagination (of course knowing what we know now, we do know abysmal first hand, even those of us not old enough to remember Nixon, or even Carter).

Some say the Religious Right pushed Bush over the line, but in truth, it was still that greater silent majority, frightened to death by the masterful employment of Terror Management Theory, and somewhat appalled at the French-like, windsurfing, glory starved John Kerry.

What a difference four years will make, huh?

Now in 2008, George W. Bush has record horrible approval and disapproval ratings.  His presidency is seen, and will be seen by history, as an utter failure, and these are not the words of a mere partisan, but one who has watched the man go from modestly decent approvals to approvals that would make Nixon blush were he still alive.

The man who beat out two Democratic presidential candidates was finally found to be the emperor with no clothes that he always was just in time for the next presidential election.

All of this setting the stage for the political theater that greets us with only 21 days left before voters go to select the 44th President of the United States.  In fact, there’s that and quite a bit more.  You see, when I said things can change a lot in four years, one of the biggest potential changes we have seen was in the political landscapes.

Demographically, there has been evidence of shift towards a more diverse national make up.  Minorities are becoming more prominent, as are observers of non Christian faiths, open members of the LGBT community, etc.  But I also believe that the same spirit that gave Democrats majorities in both the House and the Senate could also be indicative in a major shift in that elusive “silent majority” demographic.

And Republicans have few to blame for this but themselves.  While they have mastered the art of aiming their politics towards the cultural wars, their governance has resulted in a number of things that the public rapidly became intolerant towards.  In and of itself this is not a fatal flaw; often times the popular answer, and the right answer are on opposite sides.  But what is called for in instances such as this, or at least a strong leader would do this, is to explain the hard truths, to point out that the rough patches we go through, be it the economy, Iraq, or what have you, comprise setbacks and obstacles to the ultimate goal, and should not be taken as a final verdict of failure against governing philosophy.

That was the great failure of the Republican party over the past two years.  To make this case.  What was worse, they actually leaned harder on the cultural politics than ever before.  The party didn’t approach us, hat in hand, begging, “Look, we screwed up, but we’ll fix it, we promise,” but instead thrust their chests out further, wrapped the American Flag even tighter around themselves, and continued with, “We’ll preserve the American way of life, they (Democrats, liberals, etc.) will ruin it.”

This left up in the air a both accountability, and a desire for elected officials who actually showed something of an issue of addressing both the nation’s problems, and the wants of its citizens.  When we look at the presidential election, and what John McCain has done thus far in his bid for the White House, we see an even more exaggerated version of this.  In the midst of an economic crisis, John McCain engaged in the bewildering campaign tactic of attacking his opponent’s character.  As I’ve remarked before, this turned out to be an even more brazenly dirty campaign than that of his would be predecessor, George W. Bush, who was not necessarily known for his honest campaigning.

But John McCain is not the star of this story, that would be his supporters.  As America watched with increasing horror, members at McCain and Palin rallies would scream, “Terrorist!”, “Treason!”, “Kill him!”, “Off with his head!”  Thanks to YouTube, we’ve seen McCain supporters outside of these rallies using the most despicable epithets.

You see, the twist of the story is that the one time silent majority has become the counter culture.  The rest of us, those who want a president with the mental capacity to grasp the complex problems that face this nation, and the temperament to be relied upon to cope with those problems in a presidential manner, we watch on with the same mixture of horror, disgust, and shame that forty years ago millions of Americans must have felt towards the hippees.

For the mobs caught on YouTube waving monkey dolls with Obama stickers attached on them, they represent an adherence to the politics that catered to the old silent majority, the politics of cultural division.  But for the rest of us, we make up what I am becoming increasingly sure is a new silent majority.

When Barack Obama first entered the political arena, he promised to bring a new kind of politics with him.  Many scoffed, and many took every attack from him and attempted to use it as a glaring example that the new politics was a failure.

But here we are, and even many conservative voices have come forward to point out that McCain’s campaign has launched disturbingly ugly attacks, while Obama has kept most of his punches above the belt.  To this end, while Obama may not have internalized the term “silent majority” into his common vernacular, it is clear that it is that same kind of phenomenon that he wishes to harness.  A new silent majority given voice, and taught to act and speak.  A new silent majority that is not merely established as a counter to a counter culture, but instead has something the old silent majority lacked, a positive motivation of supporting competent leaders, and solid, good governance.

It is the backlash to the politics that appeals to the lowest common denominator, that rule in politics that the most qualifying characteristic of a potential president is how much one wants to have a beer with him or her.

For McCain’s part, that he instigated the fury of Joe Sixpack, that he stoked the fires of the new counter culture has indellibly established him as their leader, even as he’s taken steps to walk back the frightening zeal we see at these rallies.  As surrogates and Republican allies continue to offend and put their feet in their mouths (think the GOP Virginian Chairman’s attempts to link Obama to Osama), even as his own running mate engages in the ironic practice of slinging mud at Obama despite her own ethics violation handed out Friday, McCain is being sunk by the counter culture that was the silent majority only a few years ago.

4 Responses to “The New Silent Majority”

  1. Dynamic says:

    This is a solid analysis. I think the comparison to the counter-culture and the old Silent Majority is an excellent one.

    Obama is going to have a very difficult presidency, but the support of the nation at large can smooth the path tremendously. I think this provides a good analysis of why he can, in fact, expect that support. Of course, we’ll see what history has in store for us when the time comes, but I think there’s good reason to hope for the best.

  2. I assume you’ve read Nixonland by Rick Perlstein? It’s one of the most insightful analysis’ I’ve read of the rise of the silent majority during the time of Nixon. It makes a good bookend to this analysis.

  3. Hey guys, thanks. D, I think you’re largely right. I think most of the country, whether they voted for Obama or not, will return to that once long forgotten mentality that, “this is my president, I didn’t vote for him, but I’ll give him a chance because he’s my president.” Those that won’t, though, are the same people we are seeing that are causing such a frightening stir.

    Chris, you know, I haven’t, and actually, during this election season which has gone on for nearly two years now, I haven’t had a chance to read any books at all. My copy review copy of Shock Doctrine is still only half finished, as is my copy of Dreams From My Father. Granted, when this election ends I hope to restart some of my other endeavors (I blog for a major casual game website and am working on a novel), but my other hope is to start reading books again. Thanks to you, Nixonland just made the list.

  4. C Jones says:

    I agree, this is a very good analogy. I do not share the consciousness of the every person in the nation, so I wouldn’t know the proportion of people who really prefer either candidate over the other. Either way, both candidates are no more than politicians, and neither will solve all of our problems. Though unrealistic, the only way to retain the all-American lifestyle is to cut off all ties to foreign countries & become self-sufficient. Too bad we could never do this, as people are just too greedy for money & power.


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