Understanding the Political Power of Nixon's "Silent Majority"

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tags: conservatism, Richard Nixon, silent majority

George Case is the author of numerous nonfiction books published internationally, most recently Takin' Care of Business: A History of Working People's Rock 'n' Roll, published by Oxford University Press in 2021.



Whenever someone wants to represent "the Sixties" in a movie or historical documentary, they'll exhibit a stock gallery of sounds and pictures:  civil rights marches; Haight-Ashbury hippies; Woodstock; anti-war rallies; the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."  The scenes and the songs have been widely disseminated and are now taken as a universal précis of the entire period.  But as in any depiction of reality, something is lost between the actual and the image, and one of the most celebrated and certainly most influential critiques of this came not from sages of mass communications like Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman, but from the President of the United States.

Richard Nixon's address from the Oval Office on November 3, 1969 is remembered today for his appeal to the "great, silent majority" of Americans for their backing of a continued US military commitment in Vietnam.  "I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days," he said, "but I feel it is important to do so on this occasion."  In the decades since the speech - which seems to have been mostly written by its speaker - critics have accused Nixon of making a veiled threat from the many against the few, or of firing an opening shot in the culture wars, in which citizens are increasingly divided by calls to "take back" their country from others who've supposedly stolen it.  "With what seemed like a mere throwaway line," assessed historian Scott Laderman in the Washington Post fifty years later, "Nixon gave birth to a moniker that quickly came to encapsulate the modern era's burgeoning reactionary movement."  Yet it's just possible to reinterpret Nixon's message not as a cynical political stratagem but as an unintentionally prophetic mix of demographic analysis and media theory.

Nixon's key insight in the Silent Majority speech of 1969, perhaps, lay not in his noun but in his adjective.  Amid the din of headlines, top stories, special reports, and all manner of publicity - already apprehended by, among others, Daniel Boorstin in his landmark 1962 book The Image:  A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America - he suggested that it was easy to forget the hard numbers that indexed overall popular sentiment.  This was an idea he'd previously raised when accepting the Republican nomination in August 1968, citing "the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators" as the party's base.  That year Nixon had eked out a narrow win over his Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey (31,783,783 votes to 31,271,839), and a Gallup poll of November 1969 showed 64 percent of American adults and 50 percent of college students approved of the president's Vietnam policies.  Not overwhelming figures, of course, but they arguably delivered a clearer gist of the national outlook than anything obtained from the nightly news, the op-ed page, or Top 40 radio.  The President may have been overconfident in his belief that most Americans were on his side. He was on to something, however, in his doubt that most of them were on television.

As more and more people since Gutenberg have learned about the world not through immediate experience but from information conveyed first through books, newspapers, and magazines, and then cinema, broadcasting, and sound recordings, and now the multimedia maelstrom of the internet, thinkers have warned that the conveyed information might distort the truth and deceive the people with slanted or sensationalized versions of what's really out there.  For a long time the warnings came from the left, via scholars like Noam Chomsky, who charged that the platforms of what we now call legacy media were tools of a ruling elite. It's a great irony of our age that this thesis has migrated from circles of academics and the urban hip to truck blockaders and small-town senior citizens.  Indeed, the TV networks and press empires we weren't supposed to trust in 1985 - because they were brainwashing the gullible hordes and manufacturing consent - have apparently become bastions of responsible journalism in 2022, according to the journalists they employ.  Meanwhile, the purportedly liberating potential of social media during the Obama presidency and the Arab Spring has curdled into panics over disinformation and cancel culture.   

This is the epistemic crisis, in which there's no longer one authoritative source of knowledge everyone can agree on, and where one person's Fair and Balanced is another person's partisan propaganda.  At the same time, we can reflect that even bestselling books and blockbuster films draw a minority of the potential market:  some entertainment may be a lot more successful than others, but Star Wars and Harry Potter are still probably known to but a fraction of the planet's population.  "Half of all advertising budgets are wasted," runs a Madison Avenue saying, "but no one knows which half."  The point is that at some level, we all make distinctions between the stories we are told by our analog or digital technologies, and what empirical evidence tells us directly.  

Here's where Richard Nixon comes in.  Rightly or wrongly, he charged in November 1969 that dissent was being manufactured and broad consensus suppressed.   For all his calculation, the Silent Majority speech may have just been his frustrated vent at what he saw as a skewed portrait of public opinion.  As an elected politician, he was obliged to serve a constituency, but how could he (or anyone) be sure that the constituency's mood was being accurately relayed?  Rock festivals and peace protests got a lot of attention, but how to measure the preferences of the people who didn't attend them?  If news is not made when a dog bites a man, but when a man bites a dog, who'll warn that the first happens a lot more than the second?  The American model of democracy had been designed in a quieter time, when vox populi was audible mostly at the ballot box.  By 1969, though, it was heard in newsstand sales, box office grosses, Nielsen ratings, and Billboard charts, and it's gone on to reverberate in Google hits, Youtube views, and Facebook Shares.  That's a lot of noise drowning out any underlying signal.   Inevitably, a Daniel Boorstin, a Neil Postman, a Noam Chomsky - or a Richard Nixon - will remind us of the discrepancy.

Maybe Nixon's forgotten Americans weren't a genuine plurality of the American electorate (and, despite invocations by modern conservatives, maybe they're less so today) yet there is in any case a segment of the population that's rendered mute every time the interests of another segment, possibly smaller or less illustrative of the whole, are amplified by the media.  Specialists who crunch the data of air time or column inches might quantify the degree to which a given position or subject is disproportionately covered relative to another, while ordinary readers or viewers can themselves intuit when there's a politicized thumb on the scale. All of it undermines trust in the fairness of government and its responsibility to the common good. A Twenty-First Century Richard Nixon would go further, adding that lopsided and demonstrably false characterizations of the societal collective - whatever's behind them -  only serve to lead on, let down, and leave out the great, silent majority.

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