It’s beginning to look a lot like 1972.
Or maybe it’s looking more like 1976, or ’71, or ’79.
While seemingly each passing year of the 70’s entailed its own unique challenges and dilemmas for the United States, the decade was certainly characterized by, among other things, our nation’s own cultural chaos and internal upheaval. And this chaos and upheaval – along with the American electorate’s response to it – can inform our understanding of what’s happening to our country today.
The cultural chaos at the start of that decade was tremendous. There was the so-called “sexual revolution,” that challenged traditional Judeo-Christian sexual norms. There was the seemingly ever- expanding “hippie” culture that fostered a rebellion among America’s youth, against the society’s various authority structures. And in the midst of all this emerged the first generation of American youth that thought it was something less than honorable to fight on behalf of the nation, leading to the Viet Nam war protests, and the outright refusal to respond to military draft notifications.
And in the midst of all this - along with a stagnating economy and a highly uncertain battle against the communist expansion of the Soviet Union – President Richard Nixon delivered a very important address to the American people, roughly one year into his presidency. In this speech, delivered on November 3, 1969, Nixon made reference to a so-called “silent majority” of Americans – people who supposedly agreed with him on issues of culture, “law and order,” defending national interests, and the general goodness of America– even though these people’s views may have been largely dismissed or even ignored by American academia, media, and elites.
In using this strategic “silent majority” phrase, Nixon sought to publicly awaken what he sensed was a tremendous number of Americans who loved their country and worked hard to sustain it, yet who often did not participate in public policy debates. Back then, Americans of this sort didn’t have much of a voice in the media, and (unlike the anti-American, anti-war “protesters”) did not stage public “demonstrations” on behalf of causes that they believed-in.Of course, some Americans were gravely offended by President Nixon’s remarks. If there was a “silent majority” of Americans who agreed with him, then, by implication, there was a minority of Americans who disagreed with the President. And Nixon, so his detractors claimed, was being insensitive to the “minority” and trying to muzzle them.
But regardless of how the President’s words were received at the time, there’s no disputing that Nixon’s efforts to reach out to the “silent majority” in a time of cultural chaos changed the electoral dynamics in America. And three years after uttering those words for the first time and introducing the “silent majority” theme (combined with another three years of war protests and social upheaval), Nixon won the hearts and minds of a majority of both Republicans and Democrats with a forty-nine-state Electoral College landslide in his 1972 re-election bid.
Since that time, Americans have demonstrated repeatedly that they want their President to respect and affirm the nation’s cultural and moral structures, and to enhance American strength. When the White House shows signs of weakness, or appears as though it is undermining the country, such instances become politically fatal flaws.
Jimmy Carter created a one-term presidency for himself by giving away the Panama Canal (he argued that it rightfully belonged to Panamanians - a very neighborly and “internationalist” way of thinking – yet Americans built it and felt a sense of ownership about it), and by not proactively handling the disgraceful Iranian hostage crisis. George H.W. Bush reneged on his “no new taxes” promise. And Bill Clinton ran afoul in his first two years, with a bumbling foreign policy and a secretive attempt to take-over the healthcare industry.
Speaking about the not-so silent “tea party” activists on the Fox Newschannel last Thursday, Karl Rove observed that “these are people who heretofore have largely been spectators, not participants…these are not activists.” Rove further noted that “they’ve been sitting on the sidelines,” but now they are “motivated over the last fourteen months by what they see happening in Washington.”
Just as Nixon awakened Americans, so has President Obama. But while Nixon became the antithesis of cultural chaos and internal turmoil, President Obama and his party are the source of it.
May those who love America remain awake – and not-so-silent.