How might you claim the mantle of populism while advocating unpopular ideas? Turns out that’s easy: just invoke the ‘Silent Majority’…. (More)
The ‘Silent Majority’ Part I: A Paradoxical Myth
This week Morning Feature examines the ‘Silent Majority.’ Today we begin with its paradoxical goal: to package unpopular ideas as true populism. Tomorrow we’ll see slivers of fact that seem to prove a ‘Silent Majority.’ Saturday we’ll conclude with how to recognize and respond to ‘Silent Majority’ arguments.
“The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back!”
So declared current Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump last week, at a rally organized by the Republican County of Maricopa County, Arizona. Yes, the county that keeps on electing Sheriff Joe Arpaio. When asked whether he meant to invoke Richard Nixon, who is credited for coining the phrase “silent majority,” Trump replied: “No one remembers that.”
Perhaps, although news stories about a ‘Silent Majority’ routinely reprise the history, as Matthew Lassiter did for the New York Times in 2011:
At the time, polls revealed that two-thirds of Americans hoped the conflict would end quickly but simultaneously opposed antiwar demonstrations. Nixon called for unity on the home front and asked patriotic Americans to speak out against efforts by a “vocal minority” to defeat the United States. Tens of thousands of letters from self-identified members of the silent majority poured into the White House.
Nixon’s conservative populism attempted to obscure the differences between working-class and affluent voters by portraying the silent majority as both heroes and victims of this tumultuous period. In the 1968 campaign, Nixon praised the “forgotten Americans, the nonshouters, the nondemonstrators” – hard-working, tax-paying Americans whose values were under siege by antiwar protesters, urban rioters, criminals and antipoverty liberals.
In a now-famous speech on November 3, 1969 – when polls showed 55% of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake – President Nixon imagined his own poll and called on “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” to support him in continuing the war.
“Asking a lot of questions of a very few people”
While President Nixon invented the ‘Silent Majority,’ he was hardly the first conservative to reject public opinion polls. That dubious honor might go to Phyllis Schlafly, who wrote in her 1964 hard-right screed A Choice Not An Echo:
The New York Kingmakers realized they could not capture the 1944 Republican nomination either with [Wendell] Wilkie or with the same type of last-minute blitz they had used in 1940. This time they went into action earlier. They discovered and developed a new political weapon: the Gallup Poll. Dr. George Gallup began asking a lot of questions of a very few people, and – funny thing – he usually came up with answers that pleased the New York kingmakers.
The Gallup Poll has been used repeatedly as a subtle propaganda machine to sell the Republicans on the false propositions that the GOP cannot win unless it (1) continues the New Deal foreign policy (Soviet appeasement – Salt) and (2) names candidates who will appeal to the left-leaning Democrats and liberals.
In 1956 the conservative newsletter Human Events made a similar argument for T. Coleman Andrews, a third-party presidential candidate who campaigned on abolishing the federal income tax in order to defang “an all-powerful central government:”
Don’t waste precious time, energy, and money seeking to change left-wingers. In the first place, it’s too late for that. In the second place, conservatives are already in the majority – in your state, in almost every state.
“Things that a vast majority of Americans know to be true”
Andrews garnered only 6% of the vote in his home state of Virginia, but neither his loss in 1956, nor Barry Goldwater’s in 1964, nor Mitt Romney’s in 2012 was accepted as disproving the myth of a ‘Silent Majority.’ Conservatives know they “[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop,” in William F. Buckley very revealing phrase. Yet as Rick Perlstein wrote for the Washington Monthly:
There is, however, another parallel right-wing drive, the “other” side of reaction’s Möbius strip – the same side, really. It emerges, for instance, in phrases like Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan: “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Or “Silent Majority”: Richard Nixon’s phrase, deployed in a November 1969 speech two weeks after the largest antiwar demonstration in human history, the National Moratorium Day, when approximately 2 million Americans from all walks of life, in cities and small towns alike, took the day off from work or school to protest the Vietnam War. They express a core conservative contention: that there are certain things that a vast majority of Americans know to be true, even if propriety – or the liberal thought police, what Nixon called by implication the silencing minority – do not allow them to say.
This particular understanding of the gap between public profession and private confession is one of the five or six things most fundamental to conservative thought. The spectacle of Republicans lowering a flag could not be more public. The act of a Republican anonymously telling a pollster what she really believes about the candidate with the guts to call Mexicans what they “really” are, which is barely-human vermin, is not so public.
The ‘Silent Majority’ myth deftly resolves a paradox: how to claim a popular mandate for unpopular ideas. You simply insist those ideas are in fact popular, but the ‘Silent Majority’ are afraid to say so. Even better, that frame embeds a paradoxical corollary:
The more unpopular an idea – as shown in polls and public responses to those who express it – the more plausible the argument that the ‘Silent Majority’ are too intimidated to admit they agree.
That ‘logic’ explains what Paul Krugman called Trumpism:
And crucially, it’s a key part of conservative mythology that the silent majority shares this hatred, that it’s only the liberal elite with its political correctness keeping Americans from saying what they know to be true. (It’s like the constant trope from the likes of Bill O’Reilly that anyone who disagrees with him is a “far-left” type, no matter how mainstream their ideas.)
So why shouldn’t they rally around The Donald? The elite considers him ridiculous, but the base has been told again and again that the elite is corrupt and anti-American. The base has also been told again and again that it represents the true views of everyone except Those People. So why shouldn’t they go with someone who is their kind of guy, in style as well as substance?
Yes, business after business abandoned Trump after he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and – per the paradoxical corollary – that illustrates why the ‘Silent Majority’ are too afraid to admit they agree.
It’s a cozy epistemological bubble. And as we’ll see tomorrow, the myth includes just enough shreds of fact to sustain itself.