President Richard Nixon made his “Silent Majority” speech on this day in 1969, hoping to rally support for his approach to the war in Vietnam and stem the antiwar protests sweeping the nation. Pundits rank the speech as the most effective of Nixon’s presidency, and most biographies include the photo of Nixon at his desk behind piles of congratulatory mail — some 80,000 supportive letters and telegrams — as testimony of his popularity, though also fortune’s wheel.
Nixon did not coin “silent majority,” and it was current Republican strategy to target “the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii” (Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority). But Nixon’s speech politicized the expression by framing it as a push-back to what he called the “vocal minority” who, though entitled to their antiwar idealism, had no right in his view “to impose it on the Nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.” After conceding “it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days,” Nixon appealed to those citizens who “have the moral stamina and the courage to meet the challenge of free world leadership”:
Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism.
And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support.…
As Rick Perlstein notes in Nixonland (2008), the Republicans went on to work this theme often, and sometimes loudly: In one of his stump speeches, Vice President Spiro Agnew drew upon “the confidence of the Silent Majority” to help him speak out against “the cacophony of seditious drivel emanating from the best-publicized clowns in our society and their fans in the fourth estate.”
Whatever coin the expression once had seems in danger of being lost, overspent, or flipped. A 2012 collection of Amy Goodman’s radio broadcasts published as The Silenced Majority, covers topics over a wide and politically diverse range — forgotten war veterans, middle-class poverty, environmental protest, big-money politics, the myth of post-racial America — these unified, says Goodman, by the mainstream media’s neglect of them. In the Agnew call-out spirit, Robin Rohr’s Tea Party (2010) subtitles itself “Silent Majority, Silent No More.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.