In a 1969 speech, then-President Richard Nixon directly addressed the “silent majority” of Americans who he hoped would support his middle path policy on Vietnam. The speech itself, if you read it, is rather banal and unremarkable, but the turn of phrase came to be a powerful icon of the politics of the era. At a time when American society seemed in many ways to be pulling apart, Nixon argued for stability.
And with that phrase, he offered recognition to the large number of Americans who were neither Black Panthers nor Klansmen, neither war hawks nor hippies, just basically normal middle-class white people who rejected Jim Crow without embracing Black Power, disliked the war but disliked communism even more.
Nixon’s presidency itself descended into oblivion, but his silent majority of hard hats and conformists carried forward, dominating American politics for the rest of the 20th century. Under George W. Bush, Republican rhetoric took a different turn — more overtly pious and messianic — but in the wake of Bushism’s self-discrediting collapse, Nixonian themes have strongly reemerged under the leadership of Donald Trump.
Trump-branded signs intoning the slogan “THE SILENT MAJORITY STANDS WITH TRUMP” festoon his rallies, and optimistic writers invoke the notion of a silent majority to tout theories that the polls are undercounting Trump voters.
But though Trumpniks are certainly the demographic descendants of Nixon’s white working-class silent majority, the basic reality is that they are anything but silent. Trump’s rallies are, as Trump would be the first to tell you, enormous, raucous affairs. He brings in big ratings. He attracts constant coverage, and so do his supporters, in the form of endlessly writerly explorations of the agonizing anxieties of “Trump Country” communities afflicted by everything from deindustrialization to opiate addiction to an influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
Nor, crucially, are the Trumpniks a majority. Polls give every indication that Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump, just as she beat Bernie Sanders — who also drew larger rally crowds and more think pieces than she did — in the Democratic primary. Clinton crowds aren’t as big, and her voters aren’t as loud or as interesting to the media. But there sure are a lot of them. And it’s about time we acknowledge them and their emergence as a new silent majority that reelected America’s first black president and is poised to elect its first woman.
The new silent majority is minorities and educated women
In 1972, Nixon’s silent majority, grounded firmly in the white working class, delivered a smashing victory for the GOP, dashing the hopes of George McGovern supporters that a new coalition of young white professionals and racial minorities could upend American politics. Forty-four years later, America is facing another silent majority election — one in which the story has been all about Trump’s supporters but the victory will go to Clinton’s.
Ironically, the basic contours of the coalitions are essentially the same as in Nixon’s day.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that Republicans enjoy the allegiance of the vast majority of white voters without a college degree — a trend that Trump will, if anything, accelerate. Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy overwhelming majorities among people of color, who now comprise almost 40 percent of their party — a trend that Trump will, again, accelerate. White Democrats these days are mostly college graduates, and mostly women. And while white male Democrats will back Clinton over Trump, they went pretty overwhelmingly for Sanders in the primaries. Clinton’s core coalition is composed of racial minorities and well-educated women, especially unmarried ones.
Clinton also enjoys the support of more than 70 percent of LGBTQ Americans and is trouncing Trump with Jewish voters by higher margins than any 21st-century Democrat.
The new silent majority is quiet
Clinton led in the Democratic primary from the first day to the last, and has consistently led in general election polling since the beginning of the campaign. Yet the Clinton voter has not made the same kind of impression on the media, in part because the new silent majority voter offers less visible evidence of being fired up and the new silent majority’s signature politicians — Clinton and Obama — do not do grand performance of anger, even at a time when rage is all the rage in American politics.
This is almost certainly not a coincidence. As Rebecca Traister wrote after the Iowa caucus, “No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution”:
And no, it’s not just this woman. This is a paradigm; it’s why Mom is the disciplinarian and Dad is the fun guy, why women remain the brains and organizational workhorses behind social movements while men get to be the gut-ripping orators, why so many women still manage campaigns and so many men are still candidates.
Obama, of course, is in a similar boat. Trump can deliver a speech excoriating establishment elites in business and government who don’t care about his people and sound like a populist champion to white America. An angry black man talking about his desire to burn down the system would sound like, well, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom Obama had to loudly and immediately disavow to be deemed acceptable to a sufficiently large minority of white voters to win.
There is, of course, something lost in this. The financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuring Great Recession were genuine outrages, and it’s understandable that many voters yearn for politicians who’ll give voice to that rage. But ability to perform anger without coming across as the wrong kind of person is still a privilege in the 21st-century United States, and the new silent majority values other forms of representation that a woman can bring to the table over the performance of rage that her rivals bring.
Clinton’s signature weakness is that she is an ultimate insider — a veteran of a system many Americans have come to despise. This is, however, another way of saying that she has an unusually impressive résumé for a presidential candidate, with a longer and wider range of experience than any president since the Civil War. Clinton’s silent majority values competence and experience, and recognizes that it’s no coincidence the first plausible woman president had to be the most well-qualified candidate in generations and equally un-coincidental that in the hands of her enemies her great asset has been relabeled as a weakness.
The new silent majority has a lot to lose
During his August month of faux outreach to African-American voters, the most loyal bloc of the new silent majority, Trump surveyed black Americans and asked, “What the hell have you got to lose?”
Black people are, of course, well aware that they continue to face a large number of important struggles on both economic and non-economic fronts. But the vast majority of black voters perceive themselves as having a great deal to lose from the election of Donald Trump. That includes the repeal of a health care law that’s reduced the uninsurance rate among African-Americans by more than one-third, an approach to housing policy that’s attempted to reinvigorate decades-old anti-discrimination legislation, and a Department of Justice that actually cares about protecting nonwhites’ right to vote.
Latinos worry about losing these things, and they also worry about friends and relatives being deported and communities torn asunder.
Clinton’s silent majority is at times caricatured by her critics on the left as complacent, but a better characterization of the predominant view would be that Clinton voters feel precarious.
Voters who are a generation or two removed from the tyranny of the lynch mob or just a few years into enjoying the right to marry the person of their choosing are not that excited about the idea of bringing back the good old days. Thirty years ago, there was only one woman in the Cabinet and just two in the Senate. Educated, professional women chipping away at glass ceilings in their own workplaces see meaningful progress over a generation in politics and hope for more with the election of the first woman president.
Clinton’s coalition is under no illusion that all is well in America, but it does believe the country is improving in important ways. It’s skeptical of the impulse to flip the table over and hope for the best, and absolutely allergic to the view that the current version of the United States is a fallen one and the country reached its peak in the days of Mad Men and union factory jobs.
The new silent majority is diverse
Many Clinton supporters — especially people of color who are not enjoying inordinately privileged positions in the American socioeconomic hierarchy — have become increasingly frustrated with an endless parade of pious calls from inside the elite media for elites to pay more attention to the real pain of Trump voters.
Part of this is that even though Clinton has a winning coalition of voters behind her, it is a coalition of people who are traditionally marginalized in American society. It’s common for writers to start with the observation that Trump is popular among white voters with no college degree and then fall into shorthand describing his “working class” or “blue collar” appeal as if working-class black and Hispanic voters simply don’t exist.
Women, famously, are quieter about their views — less likely to submit blind op-eds or send obnoxious emails — to the point that many of America’s Trump-voting husbands are unaware their wives are for Clinton.
But Clinton’s silent majority is also hard to see precisely because it’s so diverse. There is not necessarily a “typical Clinton voter” in the sense that an older, white working-class person is a typical Trump voter and a young white college graduate was a typical Bernie voter. As a mid-30s, non-observant Jewish college graduate, I’m a very typical Clinton voter. But so is my older gay neighbor, and the black mom living a few houses down, and the house next door of single women roommates. The affluent DC suburb of Arlington County will deliver Clinton a hefty haul of votes, but so will the small, slightly-poorer-than-average city of Richmond, Virginia, and rural, poor areas like Holmes County, Mississippi, and Starr County, Texas.
You can’t profile “Clinton Country” or the “Clinton voter” as a single kind of person or place. Clinton Country, instead, is like America itself — vast and diverse, incorporating a staggering range of disparate individuals and localities that do not have an enormous amount in common beyond allegiance to a common set of political ideals.
The noisy minority used to be the majority
In the summer of 2000, Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira published an Atlantic article that was designed to be a counterpoint to the then-current political obsession with “soccer moms” and “wired workers.”
Titled “America’s Forgotten Majority,” Rogers and Teixeira’s article sought to remind readers that though America had changed over the past generation, it still hadn’t changed that much. White working-class voters, they pointed out, were still 55 percent of the population. Sixteen years later, the white working class is anything but forgotten — at times it seems the press can’t write about any other political demographic — but it’s no longer a majority.
The Latino share of the electorate has grown. The Asian share of the electorate has grown. The African-American share of the electorate has grown. A new cohort of white voters — the most highly educated generation in American history — reached adulthood.
The new silent majority understands coalitions
The greatest difference between the new silent majority and Trump’s noisy minority is that Clinton’s majority is a coalition of minorities, and it is self-aware about that fact.
Black voters, Latino voters, LGBTQ voters, Asian voters, Jewish voters, and all the rest demand respect and recognition from the politicians they support. But they are also tempered and realistic in terms of exactly how much respect and recognition a minority slice of the population can expect. African Americans were thrilled to have a black candidate on the ballot but vote for white Democrats all the time — including ones like Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander who engage in elaborate displays of cultural affiliation with rural white sensibilities.
Members of the new silent majority recognize that most candidates, most of the time, will not be embracing their particular niche cultural cues. Tim Kaine does a speech in Spanish every once in a while, but he mostly speaks English, and Clinton, like Obama before her, speaks English exclusively. Every component group would like more recognition rather than less, but each recognizes that it is a piece of a larger whole. What they want, most of all, is candidates who will advance their interests in concrete, specific ways.
Clinton’s voters, like Trump’s, experience economic challenges. But they are responding mostly by backing a candidate who is offering specific forms of assistance — middle-class tax cuts, more subsidies for child care and higher education, immigration reform, policing reform, etc. — rather than holding out for someone who will deliver an overwhelming message of cultural solidarity.
Trump voters were surprised and alarmed to learn that Obama could win reelection with scant support from people like them, and have reacted with the Trumpian primal scream. To turn things around in the future they’ll have to learn the lesson that Hillary and Bill Clinton learned 44 years ago as organizers for George McGovern — just because the noise is on your side doesn’t mean the votes are.
To win as a minority, you have to learn to play nicely and work well with others. Clinton’s voters — and Clinton herself — have mastered that, and in doing so made themselves the new majority.