Ed Driscoll

Silent Majorities, Then and Now

What makes Amity Shlaes’ writing so marvelous is that she’s obviously keeping track of how the contemporary reader will interpret the history of the 1920s and ‘30s through his 21st century mindset; so many of the anecdotes in both 2007’s The Forgotten Man and this month’s Coolidge are deliberately designed to rhyme with much more recent events. Such as this moment in Coolidge:

[in 1919, Bruce Barton of Collier’s magazine] sketched the place in U.S. politics where Coolidge belonged. “The great majority of Americans,” continued Barton, “are neither radicals nor reactionaries. They are middle-of-the-road folks who own their own homes and work hard and would like to have the government get back to its old habits of meddling with their lives as little as possible.” Then Barton introduced a phrase that he hoped might resonate: “silent majority.” Wrote Barton, “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority had no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd, he lives like them, he works like them, and understands.”

The Silent Majority, you say? That rings a bell:

Mrs. Benson told The Evening Sun at the time that when she heard it was the White House calling, “I almost collapsed.”

Mr. Semesky said that shortly thereafter, President Nixon came on the line.

“He thanked her for her letter of support for his policies in Vietnam and told her he particularly liked the phrase in which she had called herself a ‘silent American,’ ” Mr. Semesky said.

“He asked her if he could use it sometime,” he said.

Mrs. Benson was watching a nationally televised presidential address on Nov. 3, 1969, when she heard President Nixon use the phrase “the great silent majority” of Americans.

While not exactly the phrase that Mrs. Benson had written, in the second paragraph of the speech, the president, said: “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support.”

“She was flabbergasted,” her son said.

An article published in The New York Times on Nov. 5 reported that the morning after the speech, the president had summoned reporters to the Oval Office, where they witnessed him “rummaging happily through sheafs of laudatory telegrams” that he estimated to be in the “high thousands” piled high on his desk.

“The major theme running through the messages, he said, was simply: ‘We silent Americans are behind you,’ ” reported The Times.

In his book, Safire’s New Political Dictionary, New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote: “The November 3 ‘silent majority’ speech might well of had more of an effect on public opinion than any since the FDR acceptance in 1932, buying more time for the Vietnamization program.”

Mr. Safire further explained that the president “wrote this speech with no help from his speechwriters,” and was not “consciously ‘making a phrase.’ “

Curiously, the latest issue of The New Republic, now being published under the imprimatur of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, picks up the phrase and runs with it:

This perceived illegitimacy has been a particular problem in the gun control debate, with its relentless use of first-person accounts of firearm use. And if one specific activity has ensured that the debate over guns occurs on the turf of those who use them, it is hunting. An unwritten rule says, if you’re going to argue for gun control, you must slap a halo on hunters. President Obama, asked recently by this magazine if he had ever fired a gun, affirmed that he had, adding, “I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations.” Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not. But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.

We think of rural-heartland dwellers as real Americans, but they currently represent less than 20 percent of the population; nearly all of us live in and around cities. We think of churchgoers as real Americans, but only 40 percent of Americans attend any kind of religious service at least once a week; most of us sleep in. We think of people who own guns as real Americans, but they represent only 21 percent of the population; the great majority of us don’t own guns. All these percentages reflect declines over the past few decades. The percent owning guns, for instance, is down by about one-third since 1985.

Funny, I thought it was just us right-wing neocon deathbeast types who were making comparisons between Barack Obama and Richard Nixon, but if TNR wants to borrow his Silent Majority riff, have at it.

Or not: Nixon used the “Silent Majority” phrase to describe how so many Republicans felt after being abandoned by the liberal media in the late 1960s — and after watching liberal America devour itself, between urban riots, the New Left rising up in anger over LBJ and the Old Left’s Great Society, and the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK. As we’ve mentioned before, for their “Man of the Year” issue in late 1969, Time magazine chose “The Middle Americans” — built around an article on Middle America written from atop its Manhattan office tower in a distanced and alienated tone that sounded almost as anthropological as Obama’s Bitter Clinger speech almost 40 years later. And yet, only a decade prior, while Henry Luce was still running Time before dying in early 1967, his magazine was still very much in tune with the attitudes and mores of Middle Americans — Luce had created the magazine to serve them, after all.

Today’s left has access to news and opinion in any form and style they want, from the dulcet tones of the New York Times and NPR, to the screeching excess of MSNBC and the Daily Kos.* From CBSNBCABC and PBS, to CNN and HBO. They control the White House, one house of Congress, and academia. (And wide swatches of Wall Street.) There’s always a side to the left that wants to raise its moth-ridden ‘1960s-era freak flag high, and not admit that they’re the establishment, and Jesse Walker’s 2009 Reason article on “The Paranoid Center” is a reminder of what Monsters from the Id that are always lurking in the left’s collective psyche, but wanting to claim the mantle of Silent Majority seems like quite a stolen base. Although maintaining the pose of victimhood can be dangerous territory.

* The latest incarnation of TNR seems to making just that shift in tone, incidentally.