by Seth Blumenthal, author of Children of the Silent Majority;Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980
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.