Matthew D. Lassiter, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South.”American politics might appear polarized along a red-blue divide, but the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are claiming to do the same thing: defend the real majority against the powerful elites and vocal interest groups that control the political system. Conservatives in the Tea Party attack big government and rally behind the slogan “Silent Majority No More!” Progressives in Occupy Wall Street denounce big business and embrace the manifesto “We Are the 99 Percent.”
On both the right and the left, strategists want to mobilize the elusive group of voters that Richard M. Nixon first labeled the “great silent majority” during a speech about the Vietnam War on Nov. 3, 1969. With one rhetorical stroke, Nixon identified a new populist category that redefined how political groups strive for influence.
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 1970, Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, asked the president’s political team to develop “a plan to mobilize the Silent Majority.” The White House operative Charles Colson incorporated “Silent Majority Inc.” in all 50 states and organized rallies through fake grass-roots organizations like Americans for Winning the Peace and the Honor America Committee. The administration worked on an internal “blue-collar strategy” to finesse the economic liberalism and cultural conservatism of white working-class Democrats viewed as potential Republican voters. The White House even orchestrated the formation of a National Black Silent Majority Committee to represent African-Americans being “shouted down by a handful of militants.”
Nixon was always careful to say that black Americans were part of the silent majority, but his populist agenda targeted white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far. “Enough Is Enough,” a manifesto circulated by conservative groups in the late 1960s, spoke for the Americans who “pay taxes to provide schools for sit-ins, books for burning, rallying points for off-campus riots and study courses in anarchism.” During the 1972 campaign, Nixon invited “those millions who have been driven out of their home in the Democratic party ... to join us as members of a new American majority.”
Nixon’s landslide reelection obscured the class and ideological divisions within his fabled silent majority. Faced with a weakening economy, Nixon portrayed Democrats as the party of racial quotas, busing, urban welfare and weakness on foreign policy. After the election, internal memos circulated by Nixon’s political team acknowledged that he had won by mobilizing a “nonpartisan” majority against liberalism rather than by creating a cohesive Republican coalition. The point person for the blue-collar strategy even warned of a fierce reaction if the administration betrayed middle-income voters by returning to “big-business-dominated Republicanism.”
The legacies of Nixon’s pursuit of the silent majority can be found across the political spectrum. In 1972, the community organizer Saul Alinsky portrayed the silent majority as “up for grabs” and promised to “show the middle class their real enemies: the corporate power elite that runs and ruins the country.” In 1980, the Religious Right televangelist Jerry Falwell proclaimed that “God is calling millions of Americans in the so-often silent majority to join in the moral-majority crusade to turn America around.” In his 1981 inaugural, Ronald Reagan updated Nixon’s formula by informing the “heroes” of America — an allegedly classless majority made up of factory workers and entrepreneurs — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The Democrats regained the White House only by combining Nixon’s populist outreach to the silent majority with assurances that government intervention could address economic malaise. Bill Clinton promised to listen to the “quiet, troubled voice of the forgotten middle class,” while Barack Obama said that they had “a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored.”
Mr. Obama’s challenge in 2012 is not the ideological fervor of Tea Party conservatives, but rather the recognition by many working-class and middle-class voters that both parties favor Wall Street over Main Street. While activist groups on the right and left compete to portray big government or big business as the enemy, the silent majority is still out there in the volatile political center, up for grabs.