Matthew D. Lassiter: Who Speaks for the Silent Majority?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Matthew D. Lassiter, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, is the 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....

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