The Silent Majority Lives

Washington Matters

The Silent Majority Lives

The Internet amplifies and exaggerates the political fringe -- on both sides. But in the end, the quiet ones will make the most noise.

John F. Kennedy was right. There was -- and is -- a silent majority in this country that makes decisions but doesn’t make much noise. And that’s a good thing.

I know just what you’re thinking: This clown can’t even get his facts straight. Richard Nixon, not JFK, introduced America to the silent majority.

Indeed, Nixon gets most of the credit, thanks to his televised speech to the nation about Vietnam on Nov. 3, 1969. In that address, he called for the backing of “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans.” But Nixon wasn’t even the first person in his administration to use the term. Some six months earlier, Vice President Spiro Agnew said it was “time for America’s silent majority to stand up for its rights.” Kennedy, though, was way out in front. In his book Profiles in Courage, published five years before he defeated Nixon in the 1960 race for the White House, the then-senator from Massachusetts praised members of Congress for heeding “the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents [instead of] the screams of the vocal minority.”

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The point: The silent majority is alive and well in America, and politicians of both parties who forget that will be in for a huge surprise in the 2012 elections. It was the case when Kennedy wrote his book, which relatively few people read. It was the case when Agnew gave a speech that relatively few people heard. And it was the case when millions of Americans saw Nixon on television talking about an unpopular war.


It’s true today, too, despite all the yelling and posturing and finger-pointing on the Internet that undermine civil discourse.

At the time of Nixon’s speech, television was bringing war protests and troop casualty numbers into American living rooms night after night. It was easy to get the impression that the protest movement was dominant, and it was hard to see how Nixon would be able to pull off what Lyndon Johnson could not -- win a second term as president. But three years after the speech, with both the war and protests against it still raging, Nixon was reelected in a landslide.

The similarities to today are striking. Those who hate Barack Obama are loud and unrelenting. Visit Facebook, read comments at any of hundreds of online sites, or just check your e-mail for forwarded messages. The anti-Obama comments -- including some ugly, despicable suggestions that should worry the Secret Service -- are everywhere. Read them for any period of time and you might start wondering why Obama is even bothering to run again.

But just as objects are closer than they appear in the side mirror of your car, sentiments expressed on the Internet may not be as loud, or as widely held, as they appear. Part of that has to do with sheer size. During the 2008 election, 225.5 million Americans were old enough to vote. So if just 1% of them go online AND hate Obama enough to say it, that’s 2.25 million folks. At 10%, the number would be 22.5 million. But that still leaves many more millions unaccounted for.


Consider, too, that the Internet makes it easier for believers of any fringe position to find people like them. In the old days -- back in the 1970s, say -- if you believed that little green beings in UFOs kidnapped Jimmy Carter from Xork and brought him here to become president and do their bidding, you probably didn’t say much about it in public. But these days, if you believe that Obama was born in Kenya and that a conspiracy that would have had to involve Hawaiian newspapers the day he was born helped make him president, you can find millions of fellow travelers -- even if only a small percentage of the overall population share your views.

I don’t know how the 2012 election will play out. But I’m willing to bet that the outcome won’t be decided by the extremists and true believers of both parties who yell the loudest and post the most.

It’ll be decided by a much larger group that wants both parties to compromise and has better things to do than shout names and pick digital fights with those who dare to disagree with them. They’ll send their message the old-fashioned way, with the curtain drawn on the voting booth.