What Were They Afraid Of? Understanding the Silent Majority Fifty Years Later

AHA Session 88
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Concourse D (New York Hilton, Concourse Level)
Matthew D. Lassiter, University of Michigan
The Divisive President: Richard Nixon, the Silent Majority, and Divisions on the Right
Seth Offenbach, Bronx Community College, City University of New York
The Silent Majority: A Humean Perspective
Donald Critchlow, Arizona State University
Sweet Home Alabama: Integration and the Silent Majority
Brittany Bounds, Texas A&M University at College Station
Matthew D. Lassiter, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Joining the recent discussions about the Right, these three papers reveal several dimensions of the importance of the Silent Majority of the 1960s and explores their reaction to integration and the Vietnam War and their political ramifications. Donald Critchlow’s paper concerns why the Right cannot be understood without the behavior of the Left. It draws upon English philosopher David Hume’s concept of conventions, and explores how traditional conventions were perceived by many Americans — the so-called Silent Majority — who was appalled by urban riots, rising crime rates, black nationalism, and New Left radicals. As Hume argues in his History of England, challenges to established conventions fail unless dissenters offer viable alternatives.  The failure of black nationalists’ “community control,” New Left radicals’ “participatory democracy,” and liberal Democrats’ inability to counter the Great Society allowed Republicans such as Ronald Reagan in 1966 and Richard Nixon in 1968 to win election on campaigns of “law and order,” that while perhaps playing on racial stereotypes, projected a code-word for “failed liberalism.”

Brittany Bounds adds to the conversation with a paper that analyzes the responses by the Silent Majority who pitted themselves against the civil rights movement by retaining the anticommunist mindset of the Cold War in their views toward integration in the early 1960s. These Americans held on to their conviction that “law and order” was centered in states’ rights and the federal government should resist meddling in state affairs. To them, the administration’s role was supposed to protect the nation as a whole against foreign threats, specifically the growth of communism into the American sphere of influence, as they claimed the civil rights leaders were backed by communism. Those offended by integration felt the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were not protecting their “American way of life,” but forcing them to accept a radical realignment of American society.

Continuing the anticommunist discussion, Sandra Scanlon investigates the escalation of United States military intervention in Vietnam during 1964 and 1965. To her, the intervention presented conservative political activists with a dilemma between the war as an attack on international communist expansion deserving of their vociferous support and the Johnson administration’s unwillingness to fully commit to the war, which diminished conservatives’ faith in a positive outcome, both in Vietnam and the larger Cold War. By embracing President Nixon’s call for “peace with honor,” the Republican Right contested the image of conservatives as warmongers and enhanced their political legitimacy by actively challenging antiwar activism and allying with veterans’ organizations to promote pro-war rallies and nationalistic pageants, resulting in conservative political leaders eventually embracing the ‘Silent Majority’ support of the troops and prisoners of war, which altered conservatives’ rhetoric on the Vietnam War and foreign policy and expanded the conservative movement’s political relevance.

Thus, the analysis of the Silent Majority’s responses to the civil rights movement, the New Left, and the Vietnam War allowed for the political ascendency of the Republican Right, who mobilized this group beginning in the 1960s to achieve political superiority by 1980.

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