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Serious Stuff

The New Silent Majority

by Somebody Else
September 6, 2010

You might recall that back in the late 1960s, specifically at the time that the Johnson administration was coming to an end, Richard Nixon ran for president on the platform that he represented the silent majority in America. The idea was that the radical left had come to dominate the mass media with their street protests, rock concerts, inner-city riots, etc., while the supposedly good, wholesome, religious, and traditional Americans, that is, the so-called silent majority, prudently avoided the national spotlight. Nixon invited this hypothetical demographic group to quietly express its collective will through the ballot box, and as a consequence of this adroit strategy, he was elected president.

It seems that these days, the situation has been reversed. Now, the self-professed representatives and standard-bearers of the supposed bedrock values of conservative ideology in the United States have become the ones who, with increasing frequency, loudly and oftentimes angrily proclaim their revolutionary agendas in public places. The chief organization through which such protest is being expressed is the Tea Party, which constitutes a loosely run, somewhat disorganized, and fundamentally leaderless movement, although certain high profile political figures such as Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin have emerged as prominent supporters of the party. The followers of the Tea Party and their sympathizers are taking to the streets quite a bit these days, and they might give you the impression that most of America is incensed at Barack Obama and his supposedly socialist administration. However, recent surveys do not bear this out.

It is true that Obama's approval rating has sunk a great deal in recent months, owing no doubt in large part to a foundering economy and the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Tea Party would have you believe that the dip in poll numbers for the president means a general loss of support for his political philosophy and legislative initiatives, which by association amounts to a widespread loss of confidence in the congressional representatives and senators of the president's party or in those who may vote in accordance with its agenda. Although there is some truth in this, the picture is more complex than the Tea Party might have us all think.

A large part of the problem in discerning the will and mood of the electorate has to do with the way polling questions are worded and then interpreted. If you ask the public if they are satisfied with the job that the president is doing, that may mean different things to different people. For example, a recent survey by CNN showed that more than 90% of African-Americans and 57% of Hispanics approve of Obama's overall job performance, whereas only 37% of white Americans do.

However, we know that 43% of voting white Americans cast their ballot for Obama in 2008, and it is far from certain that 6% of white Americans who previously voted for Obama have now come to regret their earlier decision.

Similarly, it would be unreasonable to suppose that 90% of African-Americans and 57% of Hispanics are completely satisfied with Obama's job performance. Few of us are ever totally content with anything. Likewise, just because we are generally disappointed with a political leader doesn't mean that we will not vote for him or her again, or much less back an oppositional political movement. The president's sinking poll numbers do not necessarily signify the loss of Democrat majorities in one or both chambers of Congress.

However, at this time, it does appear that Republicans should make significant gains in both chambers during the November 2010 elections, in large measure because Barack Obama is not running for president again at that time. Many people who voted for Obama in 2008 went ahead and cast all their votes for Democratic representatives, and many of those people will not participate in the November 2010 elections, not because they do not support their Democratic representatives, but rather because they only bother to vote in presidential elections.

Republicans, on the other hand, should be more energized for the November elections because they offer the opportunity to diminish and even potentially derail altogether the president's legislative objectives.

Between the two extremes of unquestioning adulation for Barack Obama and radical opposition to him, there is a very large demographic whose views are much less polarized, much more nuanced. This group of Americans is actually today's silent majority, because, let's face it, nobody is going to take to the streets and participate in a politically-charged rally if his views are moderate and complex, unless of course he lives under a fascist regime and has no real choice. No, in a nominally free society, people with black-and-white views are, as a rule, the ones who scream and yell at public demonstrations aimed at challenging the status quo.

To be fair, the left in the United States is also making some noise these days, most noticeably at gatherings held to protest a new law in Arizona aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. These progressively-minded protests have to some extent approached the level of fervor demonstrated at Tea Party events, but we should bear in mind that, generally speaking, such liberal sentiments are supported by the President of the United States, whose administration has taken action to block this new law, and has had partial success in doing so. And in spite of Obama's generally populist agenda, as President, he is by definition the standard bearer of the nation's status quo.

By and large, the political spectrum has in recent years shifted to the left, and this shift has left the far right considerably further from the center than it was during the Bush presidency. Therefore, the raucous public outcry of the Tea Party is a sure sign that a particular demographic has lost its stranglehold on the status quo, and is now finding itself increasingly marginalized. Their clamor has quite simply been born out of pure desperation.

This demographic is almost entirely white and economically and professionally successful. Most generally, tea partiers are people who have prospered in a competitive society, who see themselves as entirely self-sufficient, and who feel that the best kind of government is one that does not require them to provide for the well-being of their fellow men. Other people tend to work for them, or they are self-employed and provide a necessary service for others, according to which they generally dictate fees and the conditions of service. They are usually people who feel confident in their own abilities and capacities, but are resentful that the current government has taken steps to insure the well-being of the less fortunate, and that a significant percentage of the funds needed for such progressive enterprises will, in one form or another, be taken from their potential earnings.

In short, the tea partiers want to hold on to what they have, and do not wish for the government to redistribute their wealth to the needy in any way. They puff out their chests and, through their zealous rhetoric, proclaim themselves as true spokespersons for the nation's collective will.

However, the US Census Bureau recently predicted that by 2042, minorities will actually comprise the majority of the American population; this is only one generation away. And the vast majority of minorities in the United States must be largely sympathetic towards government efforts to help the underserved -- that is, those who struggle to get by despite their best efforts -- in this country, in large part because most minorities either consider themselves to be the underserved, have one or more underserved family members, or have at least an acquaintance or two who is underserved.

Also, let us not imagine that the majority of white America is solidly behind the Tea Party movement. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, eighteen percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. Since 80% of the United States population is white, and since, for the sake of argument, we can assume that close to 100% of Tea Party supporters are white, we may then reasonably conclude that 23% of whites in the United States support the Tea Party movement. Although this is an impressive figure, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a definitive majority of white Americans. We are left with 77% percent of white Americans who do not identify themselves as Tea Party supporters.

No, the majority in the United States has not suddenly become loud and boisterous and taken to the streets. Just as in the past, the majority is still mostly silent. However, its skin color has become darker overall. Its politics have shifted noticeably further to the left. And the silent majority's President, severely limited by a Congress that has stalled and watered down his agenda, has been hard at work trying to bring about the change that it asked of him.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...