Seth Blumenthal (“Children of the Silent Majority”) Q & A

Children of the Silent Majority; Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980

Only fifteen years before his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan blasted students on California’s campuses as “malcontents, beatniks, and filthy speech advocates.” But it was just a few years later that Hunter S. Thompson, citing “that maddening ‘FOUR MORE YEARS!’ chant from the Nixon Youth gallery in the convention hall,” heard the voices of those beatniks’ coevals who would become some of Reagan’s staunchest supporters. It is this cadre of young conservatives, more muted in the histories than the so-called Silent Majority, that this book brings to the fore.

  1. What’s your elevator pitch for Children of the Silent Majority? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

While the 1968 generation first threatened the conservative realignment that Republican leaders envisioned, it eventually offered a vital asset in the increasingly image conscious political environment. More lasting, Nixon’s youth effort fortified the GOP with a cadre of new voters and party leaders after the voting age fell to eighteen.

2. Children of the Silent Majority started as your dissertation. How long did you spend working on the book?

My first research trip was to the Nixon Library in 2009, and so it began.

3. What led you to research the Republican efforts to recruit young voters?

Watching an obscure guerilla television documentary called Four More Years about the Republican National Convention in 1972, I noticed how the Young Voters for the President popped up everywhere and I wondered who they were, and what they were thinking. It took me some time, but I found out.

4. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

There isn’t really anything else about Nixon’s Young Voters for the President, so that was exciting but also daunting as the historiography was non-existent. In addition, as I interviewed YVPers I had to resist the nostalgic interpretations of the GOP’s youth effort. Many of the people I talked to referred glowingly to this experience, but of course, not everybody thought so highly of Nixon and his campaign.

5. Your book goes into great detail how, at the height of the 60’s ‘flower-power’ movement, President Nixon and the Republican Party was able to build its majority. Can you draw any parallels between 1968 and 2018? Are Republicans using the same tactics to win young voters?

In some ways, I think the message is that the GOP has largely forgotten young voters’ role in their rise to power. President Trump has been very bad for the Republican brand with youth. Though, I think one thing that is consistent is that College Republicans are still more organized than their Democratic counterparts. I spend quite a bit of time in the book explaining the training program developed by the CR and the Young Voters for the President, and that professional structure and relationship with the senior party officials still provides leadership schools to recruit and cultivate future Republicans.

6. Have you noticed any efforts by either party in the current election that remind you of the Republican playbook used from 1968-1980?

Obviously Obama comes to mind. But interestingly, I have come to appreciate the irony that Obama succeeded in rallying the youth coalition that McGovern sought to build by using the organizational techniques and structure from Nixon’s campaign.

7. As Republican attempt to maintain and build their current majority, have any party leaders (the actual children of the silent majority) made any comments about how they were won over by the party?

Karl Rove comes to mind as he talks quite a bit about his youth activism and the lessons he learned about campaigning in the early 1970s as he too played a central role in the Nixon youth campaign in 1972. Paul Manafort was a Young Republican leader who played a prominent role in Ford’s youth vote effort. If you look at prominent College Republican and Young Republican alumni it’s a who’s who in GOP politics, but in most cases they were political animals before they joined these groups so it’s more about training and organizing youth than winning them over. I interviewed over 15 former YVP members, many went on to very successful careers as political consultants, campaign managers and politicians. Some grew up in Democratic families in the urban, ethnic enclaves or from the South and saw the GOP as an alternative to one party rule.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Well, sadly, Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote the most about Nixon’s young voters, and despised them, I think because he appreciated their significance in countering the (and his) liberal dream for youth politics in 1972 and the future. We could sure use him these days.

But as for actual living human beings, Senator Bill Brock who is now 87. He is a fascinating political figure in the GOP’s history, a star in the book, and he deserves his own biography.

Bull Moose or Bull Mouse: TR, Donald Trump, and a Third Party

9780700616060Donald Trump has recently mused about the possibility of a third party candidacy should the Republicans select someone other than him as their presidential nominee. Trump, who leaves few thoughts unexpressed, will thus stir memories of another Republican who, failing to get the GOP nomination, launched his own political party to win the White House. In 1912, defeated at the Republican National Convention by the forces of President William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt took his delegates out of the convention and nominated himself on the ticket of the new Progressive Party. In terms that would suit the most fervent of today’s evangelical Republicans, Roosevelt proclaimed that “we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”

Roosevelt made a strong race against the Democratic nominee, carrying six states with 88 electoral votes. He got about 27% of the popular vote and was an overall second behind Woodrow Wilson’s 41 %.  But he did lose. Popularity and charisma took Roosevelt only so far. Like other third party hopefuls from Robert M. La Follette in 1924, George Wallace in 1968, and Ross Perot in 1992, the partisan allegiances of the general electorate in the end frustrated third-party runs.

The similarities and differences between Trump and TR are interesting. Roosevelt in 1912 did not hint at a third party run until a month before the GOP convention. Here is Trump a year out dropping public warnings to the party that he might use his wealth to underwrite a third party run. Yet cursing the party establishment did not work for Roosevelt in 1912. Although his ill-treatment at the convention, and allegations of stolen delegates, initially justified his defection, he soon abandoned that strategy in favor of a reform program based on his “New Nationalism” of expanded government power.

It seems unlikely that Trump, who rarely goes near substance, would emulate Roosevelt’s, effort to lay out a blueprint for an America with greater corporate regulation, enhanced social justice for poorer elements in society, and a larger role for the federal government. Whatever one concludes about Roosevelt in 1912, there was a serious mind at work engaging the contemporary concerns of his time.  It is hard to imagine Roosevelt giving out the personal information of his opponents or attacking the war records of prominent senators. When friends brought him alleged evidence of Woodrow Wilson’s marital indiscretions, TR rejected it out of hand and would not use it, even though he disliked Wilson intensely.

When Roosevelt came to the Republican convention in Chicago, reporters asked him about how he felt. He said he felt as fit as  a “Bull Moose,” and that mighty animal became the symbol of Roosevelt’s third party.  There was an element of a sore loser in Roosevelt’s decision to leave his political home, but he redeemed himself, at least in the eyes of history, by the intellectual content of his campaign. Much of the liberal agenda of the 20th century emerged out of Roosevelt’s third party campaign and came to fruition in the New Deal and Great Society,

Donald Trump seems very adept at articulating popular grievances on immigration and foreign policy in language that, though often coarse and indelicate, resonates with the Republican base.  His preemptive assertion that he might take his marbles, his helicopters, and his audience appeal and run alone should the GOP delegates reject him is characteristic of someone with an ample ego and a large fortune. As Theodore Roosevelt learned, however, there is more to politics and running for president than one-liners and insults.  It is one thing to rattle the Republican National Committee with a third-party threat.  It is quite another to do the hard work of building up a genuine third party in all fifty states and make it a real political option.  Trump may be a master of the art of the deal, but at least on his record so far, there is little evidence of the capacity to do retail politics with any realistic prospect of success against Republicans and Democrats in a national election. One of TR’s successors, Warren G. Harding, spoke of the joys of vague rhetoric in political matters. Harding called it “bloviating.”  Trump is a serial bloviator. When it comes to a potential third party, Donald Trump is more likely to be remembered for his temporary celebrity than as an heir of one of the great politicians in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, and his memorable third-party run in 1912.

-Written by Lewis L. Gould, Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Monmouth College and author of “Bull Moose on the Stump: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt” and “Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics“.