In this magisterial work, Bancroft Prize-winning historian David Kyvig chronicles the rise of a culture of impeachment since 1960—one that extends far beyond the infamous scandals surrounding Presidents Richard Nixon (Watergate) and Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky) and has dramatically altered the face of American politics.
A buzz word in today’s public life, “impeachment” was anything but that before 1960. Since then it has been transformed from a historically little-known and little-used tool of last resort into a political weapon of choice. By examining the details and consequences of impeachment episodes involving three Supreme Court justices, a vice president, five federal judges, and four presidents, Kyvig explores this seismic shift in our constitutional culture and gauges its ongoing implications for American political life.
Beginning with the John Birch Society’s campaign against Chief Justice Earl Warren, impeachment efforts became far more frequent after 1960, with eight actually ending in resignation or removal. In describing these efforts, Kyvig recounts stories and subplots about key political actors and the controversies they inspired. He argues that judicial cases are as important as the better-known presidential ones and shows why those cases that did not proceed—against not only Warren, but also Abe Fortas, William O. Douglas, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—are as illuminating as those that did.
Kyvig demonstrates that impeachment has been the bellwether of a changing—and increasingly toxic—political climate. Perhaps most important and ominous, the increasing threat of impeachment has encouraged presidents to hide potentially impeachable actions behind a thick veil of executive secrecy, while dramatically expanding executive power beyond the reach of either Congress or the courts
Combining political and legal history at their best, Kyvig also explores the cultural impact of journalist David Frost, editorial cartoonist Herblock, and filmmakers Alan Pakula, Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone. A gifted storyteller, he presents a cautionary tale that should be read by all who care about our national government and its ability to survive and thrive in perilous times.
The Constitution of the United States divides war powers between the executive and legislative branches to guard against ill-advised or unnecessary military action. This division of powers compels both branches to hold each other accountable and work in tandem. And yet, since the Cold War, congressional ambition has waned on this front. Even when Congress does provide initial authorization for larger operations, they do not provide strict parameters or clear end dates. As a result, one president after another has initiated and carried out poorly developed and poorly executed military policy. The Politics of War Powers offers a measured, deeply informed look at how the American constitutional system broke down, how it impacts decision-making today, and how we might find our way out of this unhealthy power division.
What’s your elevator pitch for The Politics of War Powers? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences? The book examines the theoretical and historical development of war powers in the United States. I demonstrate how the constitutional system creates an invitation to struggle that the political branches increasingly ignore to the detriment of our foreign policy.
2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the theory and history of presidential unilateralism? I became interested in this topic when I was in grad school in 2011. In March of that year, Obama decided the United States had to address the humanitarian crisis in Libya by creating a no-fly zone with UN and NATO allies. He sent a letter to Congress claiming that he had the power to do so as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive. He then used evasive words, such as “national security” and “regional stability,” to justify the unilateral initiation of hostilities. More surprising, was the reaction from Members of Congress and Republicans Members in particular. Many in Congress expressed anger at Obama’s unconstitutional actions and yet they failed to do anything to either support or oppose him. They were so undecided that they had votes to support and oppose his actions on the same day. I was intrigued, was this something unique to Obama’s relationship with Congress or was this indicative of a trend?
3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book? Handing in the full manuscript! Besides that, developing a clear thesis that goes through hundreds of years of history was a big lift. I also examined a lot of very well-researched presidents during important wars (such as Abraham Lincoln’s action in the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt’s action in World War II). Finding a way to make a real contribution was a daunting challenge.
4. Your book concludes—after tracing changes through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the Cold War, and the War on Terror—is that presidents now command a dangerous degree of unilateral power. How has that manifested itself in the past 20 years? What we see in George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump’s administrations is a staggering ability to make unilateral decisions in the realm of foreign policy in general and military operations specifically. If we look at Obama’s and Trump’s decision making when it comes to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, there is not only very little input from Congress, but also very little deliberation or grand strategy. The public lacks good reasons for their unilateral decisions and Congress fails to hold them accountable in a serious way. I would go so far as to say that even when Congress has authorized military operations, as they did against Afghanistan and individual terrorists in 2001 and against Iraq in 2002, they failed to provide guard rails or serious limitations to presidential unilateralism.
5. In your opinion, is there likely to be a swing away from the executive branch wielding unilateral power? I was slightly hopeful when Trump came to power that we would see a more aggressively assertive legislative branch. I am less hopeful now. In part, due to partisanship and the dramatic increase in polarization, the best we can hope for is that a Congress dominated by the opposing party will hold a president accountable. That’s the best-case scenario. I think we are more likely to see biased or political efforts to tear down the sitting president. I think it’s safe to say people on the left felt that Obama faced a Congress focused on trying to undermine his agenda. I think those who support Trump feel the same.
6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work? That’s such a hard question! I think the big take away should be how difficult it is to maintain a healthy constitutional system; how easily it can break; and how hard it is to fix it once it’s broken.
7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why? I’d say American voters. The reason we don’t have members of Congress who stand up to the President is because the voters keep letting them get away with it. If we want a more assertive Congress (and we should), we have to be the ones who vote for it.
Sarah Burns is assistant professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology.
For Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, building community is just another part of the job.
“What are we without a community?” Caine asks with a sense of sarcasm. “Of course we’re working to build a community around books.”
In the two years since Caine bought the renowned Lawrence bookstore in 2017, the Raven Book Store and the University Press of Kansas (UPK) have partnered on dozens of author events. Caine is a passionate supporter of independent businesses and works tirelessly to promote companies he feels are fighting the good fight.
“Our relationship with UPK is mutually beneficial,” Caine explains. “We work hard to offer a curated selection of books to our audience, and the press provides the fantastic regional books that many of our customers want. UPK produces the beautiful, thoughtful works we want to put on our shelves, and we know when we host a UPK author that they will attract an engaged crowd.”
Caine’s work to build a literary community in Lawrence has taken an ambitious turn. This summer he announced the inaugural Paper Plains Literary Festival (April 23–26, 2020), featuring poets, novelists, and young adult fiction writers.
“I was confident Lawrence would support the idea of a festival featuring authors and poets,” Caine says. “We’re really excited about the lineup we have coming to town, and the feedback says the community will embrace it.”
Paper Plains will be Lawrence’s first literary festival. UPK has assisted in its planning and is excited to host author Dan Flores (American Serengeti) and a roundtable discussion featuring regional UPK authors.
“It’s great having UPK involved with Paper Plains,” Caine says. “The press has a reputation for producing engaging, challenging work, and we’re excited to have them involved in the festival.”
Much like the work Caine is doing at the Raven, Lawrence Public Library Events Coordinator Kristin Soper is actively working to serve the educated community in Lawrence.
“This is a university town, so we know our audience is expecting well-researched ideas,” Soper says. “Our relationship with UPK is great. Actually really great.”
Soper traces the library’s relationship with UPK back to a single book.
Soper says a relationship with the University Press of Kansas has helped fill a need.
“Since our first event [with] C.J. Janovy a few years ago, our relationship with UPK has really helped fulfill a need for regional topics,” Soper explains. “The press does a phenomenal job publishing books of regional interest, and we know when we bring in one of their authors we will draw a crowd of engaged, intellectual readers.”
The University Press of Kansas and the Lawrence Public Library have partnered on events ranging from C.J.‘s talk about LGBTQ activism in Lawrence to a local author’s story about his scientific grandfather.
“Our relationship with UPK is great,” Soper said. “Our job at the library is to serve our community, and working with the press and their authors has been a tremendous benefit for both of us. We get to bring in intelligent, thoughtful authors who have written great books, and the press gets to build their brand within the Lawrence community.”
In 2016 I was hired as an English professor at Auburn University. After the fall semester, I called an old writing buddy of mine to catch up. I liked the town and university very much, but I also tried to tell my friend how crazy the football fandom was in Auburn. He listened to me talk about the flotillas of RVs that started arriving to tailgate on Wednesdays before home football Saturdays and how the town’s population doubled on gameday because so many people came in from out of town for the game. He listened to me talk about the millions of dollars that were just spent to give Jordan-Hare Stadium the largest Jumbotron in the country and how head coach Gus Malzahn seemed to get a lucrative contract extension after every win and then would suddenly be on the hot seat after every loss. My friend listened to this and much more and when I was finished, his response was: “So, basically, you work at a shell company for a professional football team.” I laughed because it was a funny joke, but it was the kind of laugh that caught in my throat because I knew there was some serious truth in what he had said.
I know something about sports fandom. I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and I was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, so I was geographically predisposed to be obsessed by basketball. UK and KU are the two winningest college basketball teams in the history of the sport, which means I come from places where lunatic fandom for the men’s basketball team is the norm. And, indeed, I am a fan, a real sports junky whose spirits and moods have a direct correlation to the rise and fall of the winning percentage of teams I adore, and there’s no team I adore more than the University of Kansas men’s basketball team. Given the amount of time I devote to watching, thinking, and writing about sports, I could easily add Fan to my business card next to Writer and Professor.
At present, like many KU fans, I’m both excited for the start of the new season but also anxious about the future. The ongoing and unfolding scandal surrounding the University of Kansas men’s basketball team and its relationship with Adidas is real, and while we wait to learn the full fallout from the NCAA’s recent Notice of Allegations it seems likely that there will be serious repercussions. Scandals of this sort, of course, are nothing new, and none but the most naïve onlookers wearing rose-colored specs should be surprised that they have happened and will continue to happen because players have been receiving so-called improper benefits forever. Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest player ever to don the crimson and blue, talked openly in his autobiography about how KU boosters paid him to come to Lawrence. He was, and is, not alone, and neither is KU. It’s not a question of whether it’s happening; it’s a question of how it happens, who gets caught, and how badly they will be punished.
Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I think it’s just the logical and predictable outcome of a situation in which, to borrow my friend’s pithy turn of phrase, we’ve let universities turn into shell companies for professional sports teams. There’s simply too much money involved for this game to be uncorrupted and ‘pure,’ the way some fans want to believe it is, and the way the NCAA certainly wants us to continue thinking it is. The role of money and worry over its potential to corrupt the game is nothing new, I should say. It goes back nearly to the beginning of the sport. In 1911, James Naismith, the inventor of the game and KU’s first coach, gave a speech that was transcribed and published as an article titled “Commercialism in Sports” for the Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas. It is a well-written and carefully argued polemic about the “insidious growth of commercialism” and its ability to “destroy one of the greatest forces of education.” Naismith believed, correctly I think, that commercialism leads to over-training and the breaking down of athletes’ bodies, it makes work of sport and turns it into a spectacle instead of recreation, it puts the emphasis on winning instead of enjoyment and personal development and thus encourages breaking the rules and stimulates betting. He also thought it leads to “worship of the dollar” and “class distinction, for when a man is paid for his services in athletics he is on a different level from the man who buys him.”
Over one hundred years after Naismith gave this Cassandra-like warning about commercialism, I imagine him going absolutely centrifugal in his grave right now, given the current landscape of sports, particularly basketball and football, in universities. As William J. Baker writes in his introduction to Naismith’s book, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, “Whatever its later commercial developments, basketball was made for principled play, not for profit…. Naismith designed his new game for athletes to enjoy, not for coaches, television networks, or corporate sponsors to control.”
Naismith’s star pupil and successor as KU’s coach, Phog Allen, however, was quick to realize the monetizing potential of the game. One of the issues he and Naismith clashed over was whether tickets should be sold for KU games, which had quickly become quite popular in the years after Naismith brought the sport with him to Kansas from Massachusetts. Rob Rains writes in his biography of Naismith, James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, that “Allen wanted to use the strong interest in basketball that was developing on campus to generate as many sold tickets as possible, while Naismith considered selling tickets an exploitation of the student athletes. Allen argued that bringing money into the university through the sale of basketball tickets would benefit the other university sports as well.” Of course, ultimately, Phog’s opinion won out. Money has a way of making that happen.
I think they were both right, at least in theory. And yet, selling 10-cent tickets for admission to a game isn’t exactly on the same scale as earning hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and television contacts. How we got from there to here is a longer, much more complicated story than I’m capable of telling here, but in short it has a lot to do with the growth of American business after World War II and the commodification of so many aspects of our lives theretofore unknown. However, it also has to do with the growth and popularity of the game. That is to say, it has a lot to do with us and our intense fandom that demands winning and thus incentivizes massaging, bending, and sometimes breaking the rules. (Whether we think those rules are sensible or foolish is another matter altogether). We should remember this when the penalties come down on our beloved Jayhawks and we’re sad and angry and eager to cast blame. Here are my own thoughts on that matter: the players certainly aren’t to blame, even the ones who knowingly accepted money. The coaches and shoe companies, sure. The agents and the NCAA, you bet. But so am I and people like me, the fans who love the game all out of proportion. We are all complicit in this scandal and we should be part of finding a solution.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but our love and demand for the game has created a mighty big and lucrative pie, so it seems sensible to let players have some of it, not just coaches, universities, and the NCAA. We should allow players to profit on their name, image, and likeness, allow them to have a job or profit on their abilities the same way every other college student can, and we can provide all players, from stars to the last person on the bench, with a modest monthly living stipend and lifetime academic scholarships.
Thankfully we are finally starting to see movement on some of these issues. If nothing else good comes from the scandal, perhaps it will have at least pushed the conversation forward and helped usher in necessary changes. I think that’s something all of us fans should cheer for.
Andrew Malan Milward was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the author of two short story collections, The Agriculture Hall of Fame and I Was a Revolutionary. His fiction has appeared in many venues, including Zoetrope, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Guernica, and Best New American Voices and has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky.
“Facts matter and this book provides them,” Barnett said. “From now on, no discussion of the practice of judicial review can ignore the book’s empirical findings. The most cynical political scientist will need to come to grips with its conclusion that ‘the justices are not lapdogs, and they have often bitten the hand of the party that put them on the bench.’ At the same time, idealists will need to incorporate its findings that the ‘justices have proven themselves to be allies of [their] political coalition leaders.’”
The Center for the Constitution established the Thomas M. Cooley Book Prize, Symposium & Judicial Lecture to recognize exceptional books written that advance our understanding of, and commitment to, our written Constitution. The third annual event will be held at Georgetown Law over two days, March 19-20, 2020.
On the opening evening, Judge Neomi Rao of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will deliver the event’s annual judicial lecture, which is open to the public.
The next day, the Cooley Book Prize ceremony will be held as part of a daylong invitation-only symposium focused on Whittington’s book. Featured political scientists and scholars of the judiciary will share commentary about the book, including Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor and professors Nancy Maveety (politics, Tulane University), Chancellor Howard Gillman (law, Univ. of Calif., Irvine), and Adam Carrington (politics, Hillsdale College).
Professor Whittington will join these scholars and a group of constitutional law professors from area law schools to discuss the issues raised by the book and papers — which will be published in a special issue of the Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy.
The Cooley Book Prize, Symposium & Judicial Lecture honor the renowned legal scholar and jurist Thomas McIntyre Cooley. Cooley was a longstanding chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, where he also served as the dean. He authored several highly influential books, including A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest Upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union.
Keith E. Whittington is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University. His many books include Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy, Speak Freely, and, also from Kansas, Constitutional Interpretation.
For Ernest “Ernie” Garcia, the American dream began in Mexico more than a hundred years ago. Ernie, raised in Kansas, became the US Senate sergeant at arms and escorted President Ronald Reagan to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address. After the president’s speech, Ernie reflected on his family’s long and arduous journey from Zacatecas to El Paso to Kansas as well as on his presence in the Capitol alongside the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court. He was certain his ancestors never imagined that their dreams would lead him to the White House.
Dennis Raphael Garcia, cousin of Ernest, is a retired attorney and teacher. Formerly a Kansan, he now lives in Arlington, Virginia.
The International Latino Book Awards is a major reflection that the fastest growing group in the USA has truly arrived. The Awards are now by far the largest Latino cultural Awards in the USA and with the 261 finalists this year in 95 categories, it has now honored the greatness of 2,897 authors and publishers over the past two decades. The size of the Awards is proof that books by and about Latinos are in high demand. In 2019 Latinos will purchase over $725 million in books in English and Spanish.
The 2019 Finalists for the 21st Annual International Latino Book Awards are another reflection of the growing quality of books by and about Latinos. About a third of the winners were from major U.S. and int’l publishers, a third from medium sized publishing houses, and a third were from small publishing houses or even self published. In order to handle this large number of books, the Awards had 227 judges in 2019. The judges shared how hard it was because there are now so many great books being published. Judges included librarians, educators, media professionals, leaders of national organizations, Pulitzer Prize Winners, and even elected officials. The Awards celebrates books in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Finalists are from across the USA and Puerto Rico, as well as from 18 other countries.
The Awards are produced by Latino Literacy Now, a nonprofit organization co-founded in 1997 by Edward James Olmos and Kirk Whisler. The Awards Ceremony was held September 21, 2019 in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles City College.
The Constitution does not expressly set out a specific legal standard for impeaching a president or judge, but it does use the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” as an operative reason for removal. Certainly, it is possible for the House of Representatives to impeach a president, cabinet official, judge, or Supreme Court justice for noncriminal behavior: Gerald Ford tried this against William O. Douglas. Ford argued that “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “good behavior” was a malleable standard, one that was “whatever a majority of the House believes it to be at a given time.” In 1970, Ford failed to convince the House that Douglas merited impeachment.
It may be difficult to draw parallels between Justice Douglas and President Trump because Douglas had served on the Court for three decades and did not come into office with vast wealth (or the claim of vast wealth). Yet there is a parallel between then and now. Ford accused Douglas of unethical behavior, consorting with foreign entities, and misconduct by receiving money from the Mafia. However, there was no evidence to substantiate the latter two allegations. (Douglas may have crossed the line by publishing a book and several articles in a magazine reputed to be pornographic, and Douglas’s extramarital affairs were the basis for other impeachment demands).
Democrats who have argued for impeaching President Trump are alleging an abuse of power by coercing or aligning with the president of Ukraine to damage a political opponent. There are also investigations into his finances as well as payoffs to mistresses.
Thus there is a parallel of sorts. Of course, a president is commander in chief and generally gains office by an Electoral College vote; meanwhile, a Supreme Court justice gains office by a presidential nomination and Senate approval. But the standard for impeachment—notwithstanding Ford’s claims to the contrary—is the same. Ford acted on April 15, 1970, by demanding impeachment and claiming that the Central Intelligence Agency had “dirt” on Douglas’s foreign activities and that the Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Services also had proof of Douglas’s malfeasance. None of these agencies produced evidence against Douglas. Nor did the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Justice Department provide evidence (even though Attorney General John Mitchell promised evidence would be forthcoming).
It appears to be the case that in our present circumstances there is evidence, by President Trump’s own admission, of seeking foreign help against a political rival. There’s also the questionable timing of President Trump withholding military aid, followed by the release of congressionally appropriated monies after the Ukrainian president promised that a new prosecutor might relook an investigation into Hunter Biden.
Bribery is a specified offense in the Constitution. There is a prima facie case of it in regard to the president. Douglas was unpopular with conservatives: he engaged in extrajudicial activities that are prohibited by codes of ethics today but were not at the time. Somewhere in all of this, it is time for the House to employ a constitutional, rather than Ford’s, standard.
Joshua E. Kastenberg is associate professor of law and the Lee and Leon Karelitz Professor in Evidence and Procedure at the University of New Mexico School of Law. His many books include To Raise and Discipline an Army: Major General Enoch Crowder, the Judge Advocate General’s Office, and the Realignment of Civil and Military Relations in World War I and Law in War, War as Law: Brigadier General Joseph Holt and the Judge Advocate General’s Department in the Civil War and Early Reconstruction, 1861–1865.
New UPK acquisitions editor Bethany R. Mowry is a proud Navy brat, a native Kansan, and an expert on maritime history. No, really.
“I understand how those things may not really go together,” she says with a laugh. “But, here I am.”
After a youth spent living on the coast until her parents’ retirement from the Navy brought the family back to Kansas, Bethany graduated from Topeka West High School, earned a BA from Washburn University in Topeka, and then moved across the country to pursue a MA at the University of Pittsburgh. It was while studying in the Steel City that Mowry’s passive interest in maritime history became a passion.
“For me, studying maritime history is all about recovering the histories of real salt-of-the-earth people,” she explains. “By looking at their songs and diaries, and the few official records they left behind, you get a real sense of who these people were—and how important their stories still are.”
Until recently, one of the nation’s leading maritime historians taught at the University of Oklahoma, so Mowry moved back to the Great Plains to work on a PhD. While at OU, Mowry was awarded a fellowship working with the University of Oklahoma Press.
“The first major project with which I assisted was a book celebrating the 125-year anniversary of OU,” she says. “That meant I spent hours in the university archives, poring over regents’ minutes and other official documents, or searching through boxes of photos in the basement. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, but that’s where I fell in love with the process of making books happen.”
When the opportunity to acquire books for the University Press of Kansas arose, Mowry knew it was time to come back home. She will be acquiring titles for multiple UPK lists, including Environment and Society, Feminist Ethics, Rural America, and regional studies.
“I’m really excited to be back in Kansas,” Mowry says with a genuine smile. “This feels like my academic life has come full circle. Kansas’s Press has a great tradition and reputation, and I’m proud to be able to work with our authors and scholars to help advance our lists.”
Listening to White House aides such as Kevin Phillips, who urged a shift to the right on social and race issues during the 1970 midterm campaign season, President Richard Nixon attempted to lure Democrats into the Republican fold with rhetoric that channeled the frustrations and concerns shared by the voters he labeled the “great silent majority.” Just days before the election, in the wake of a raucous and violent demonstration against his speech in San Jose, California, earlier that week, Nixon pleased one Arizona crowd with his trademark tough talk. “The time has come to draw the line,” Nixon fumed against “the haters.” “The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.” However, rather than gain seats in Congress, Nixon watched several coveted campaigns fail to provide the mandate he anticipated, instead puncturing his claim to a new majority. In retrospect, even Nixon admitted the approach went “too far overboard.” In the weeks following the 1970 election, Nixon’s staff scrambled to explain the poor showing and the shortcomings of his “law and order” appeal to America.
Ever since Nixon coined the term “silent majority” in his 1969 address concerning the Vietnam War, commentators became obsessed with debating this voting bloc’s contours and its character throughout his presidency and beyond. Rick Perlstein defined the silent majority’s amorphous impetus as follows: “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.” This vague sentiment still resonates today as President Donald Trump and his voters continually call themselves the “silent majority.” Comparing Nixon’s definition—or definitions—of the silent majority and Donald Trump’s coalition reveals similarly dubious patterns in conservatives’ claim to a majority and their explanation for this majority’s silence. Meanwhile, Cheri Bustos, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of Heartland Engagement who guided 2018 candidates in twelve states, attempted to steer the silent majority in a different direction: “If you look throughout the heartland,” Bustos hoped, “there’s a Silent Majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.” Unfortunately for Bustos and other Democrats borrowing this conservative phrase, even when defined in moderate terms by its civility the history behind this mythologized voting bloc demonstrates the crucial role that the concept of a silent majority plays in backlash politics.
Despite the 1970 campaign’s failures, Kevin Phillips continued to paint a backlash image of Nixon’s silent majority: “Young policemen, truck drivers, and steelworkers,” who Nixon sought to include in his constituency along with Sunbelt suburban voters, “lean towards a kind of hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’ in the [Governor] George Wallace vein.” The secret to politics, Phillips once said, “is knowing who hates who.” In Phillips’s attempt to map a political majority, this quote meant targeting young leftists but also opposing civil rights legislation and channeling racist resentments to win white voters from the Democratic Party. As he claimed, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips’s view of the silent majority connected this voting bloc to Wallace, a firebrand segregationist, and garnered important conservative adherents within the White House such as Tom Huston and Pat Buchanan. Not all of Nixon’s aides agreed with Phillips’s assessment.
Capturing the perspective of the moderate, middle-of-the-road advisers who suggested Nixon temper his approach to court the silent majority, a revealing memo from his White House aide, Daniel P. Moynihan, offers a lens into this internal discussion. Moynihan, a Democrat in a Republican administration, understood the potential of backlash politics and encouraged Nixon’s attacks on countercultural permissiveness, but he added that Nixon should balance this tough approach with a more civil and positive embrace of patriotism and the United States’ political and cultural traditions. While Moynihan also explored a populist vision of a resentful silent majority, he maintained that these voters required finesse and demanded an intellectual defense of their traditions in the face of the 1960s challenges from the Left. Moynihan explained, “The silent majority is silent because it has nothing to say,” as he believed these voters begged Nixon for a convincing counter to the robust debate raging between the political extremes on the Right and the eft.
The real problem, according Moynihan, was that the majority of Americans had no response to the challenges to capitalism and “American virtues.” As he advised Nixon, “The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near to silencing the representatives of traditional America.” Citing the “fourth rate minds around the administration” and worrying that the “only persons with vigor in their argument are the real right wingers,” Moynihan complained about the dearth of outspoken, effective communicators of conservative virtues that he defined as “moderation, decency, common sense, restrained ambition, attainable goals, comprehensible policies.” “You may have more troops,” Moynihan conceded, “but the other side has more firepower. Infinitely more.” Thus, Moynihan hoped that if Nixon and his administration could give these voters a moderate voice to marginalize the extremists across the political spectrum, it would provide the silent majority with the rhetoric and confidence to stand up for the middle and prove they outnumbered the “authoritarian left.” Hardly the “hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’” Phillips advocated.
Furthering his contrast to Phillips’s backlash thesis, Moynihan warned Nixon about the dangers of wading into student politics. Especially after the Ohio Army National Guard’s traumatic shooting of four unarmed students during a Kent State demonstration in 1970, Moynihan feared that “the general impression is that we have been running against the kids.” After all, William Scranton’s Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest reported that Kent State’s student body “are predominantly the children of middle class families, both white collar and blue collar, and in the main go on to careers as teachers and as middle-level management in industry.” These students belied the notion that all protesters were fringe radicals, or a minority. Still, even though Moynihan urged caution when confronting the “sons and daughters of the silent majority,” he demonstrated the racial limits of moderation when he supported Nixon’s targeting of “black militants” and “racial extremists.” Despite Moynihan’s distinctions, conservatives often conflated black and white protesters to separate both groups from the majority.
While Nixon and his advisers debated the silent majority’s significance, conservative activists on campus targeted antiwar voices and dismissed them as a minority. One conservative group at the University of Tennessee distributed a flyer on campus during the (predominantly white) student strike following Kent State, asking, “Who helped these long haired, unintelligent, dark skinned, poorly dressed . . . protesters?” The term “silent majority” always carried racial connotations because the word “majority” claimed political power and appealed to white fears that the minority gained preferential treatment under LBJ’s Great Society and urban programs to combat poverty. As Perlstein points out, “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”
The term “silent majority” continues to prove resilient and influential because it motivates a conservative voting constituency’s political identity in contrast to the Left. As one Trump supporter complained, “The reason why we’re silent is because we’re not allowed to talk.” He continued, “My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness.” Though similar to Moynihan’s claim that that the silent majority lacked a voice, Trump’s version of this coalition leans more toward the anti-intellectual, vitriolic strain Phillips identified and blames the Left more directly for intentionally muzzling conservative perspectives. Even this more recent claim that the silent majority has been silenced is rooted in racial politics. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric reveals the exact expressions of patriotism and white identity politics that his voters feel unable to discuss in what Moynihan called “terms that will win a respectful hearing.” For example, due to this revived sense of “dispossession,” loyal Trump supporters believe the president’s racist appeals work with the predominantly white silent majority today. Greg Gallas, a county GOP chairman in Minnesota, recently bragged that Trump’s targeted criticism of Representative Ilhan Omar is “awakening a ‘silent majority’ of supporters.” As he gushed, “I love it. It’s called winning.”
From its inception, the silent majority’s racial boundaries—who it included and their interests—have been shaped and debated by political experts. Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, recently challenged the contemporary vision of a backlash-driven silent majority when after Trump’s rally in North Carolina where supporters chanted “send her back” he claimed, “I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been getting increasingly uncomfortable with what Trump is up to.” However, Jones and other Democrats looking to borrow the phrase also espouse the same emphasis on civil moderation that Moynihan exaggerated, and they overlook the crucial role race, resentment, and alienation played in framing the silent majority. Thus, while these voters aren’t always silent nor a majority, they always stand in opposition to a minority that is perceived as disproportionately influential and growing, no matter the reality. Certainly, considering its history, asking the silent majority to resist Trump’s politics seems a quixotic exercise.
Seth Blumenthal is a senior lecturer at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. His work has appeared in the Journal of Policy History and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture.
 Richard Nixon, “Remarks at Phoenix, Arizona,” October 31, 1970, John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-phoenix-arizona.
 Kevin Phillips, “‘Kidlash’ a Possibility: Important Changes Could Come from Vote of 18–21 Year Olds,” Post-Crescent, May 2, 1971.
 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Memorandum for the President,” November 13, 1970, Nixon Library, https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/virtuallibrary/documents/jun09/111370_Moynihan.pdf.
 President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Institute of Education, 1970), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083899.pdf.
 Flyer, University of Tennessee Special Collections, Folder: Student Unrest 1970s.
 Sam Sanders, “Trump Champions the ‘Silent Majority,’ but What Does That Mean in 2016?” NPR, January 22, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/01/22/463884201/trump-champions-the-silent-majority-but-what-does-that-mean-in-2016.
 Judy Keen, “Trump-Omar Sparring Influences the Fight for Minnesota in 2020,” StarTribune, July 29, 2019, http://www.startribune.com/trump-s-feud-with-rep-ilhan-omar-influences-the-fight-for-minnesota-in-2020/513297212/.
 Ian Schwartz, “Van Jones: Silent Majority of People Uncomfortable with What Trump Is Up To,” RealClear Politics, July 19, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/07/19/van_jones_silent_majority_of_people_uncomfortable_with_what_trump_is_up_to.html.
UPK author Ernest McGowen III’s tremendous 2017 book African Americans in White Suburbia; Social Networks and Political Behavior studies how, despite decades of progress, African Americans living in largely white affluent suburbs still often find themselves caught between the two worlds of race and class. High economic status has afforded them considerable employment opportunities and political resources—but not necessarily neighbors, coworkers, or local candidates or office holders who share or even understand their concerns. How does such an environment affect the political behavior of African Americans who have strong racial identifications and policy preferences?
McGowen recently discussed his book with the New Books Network. The 20+ minute conversation relates McGowen’s work with the modern political environment. Give it a listen.
Ernest B. McGowen III is associate professor of political science, University of Richmond.