The term “silent majority” refers to a large block of voters that feel marginalized, silenced or underserved by the political system. It’s commonly assumed that, if they voted en masse, this “silent majority” would have an enormous ability to affect the outcome of any given election.
Used more broadly these days, the term “silent majority” once referred to all those who had passed on in human history. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in 1902: “…great captains on both sides of our Civil War have long ago passed over to the silent majority, leaving the memory of their splendid courage.”
It was first used politically by Warren Harding in his campaign for president in 1919, but the term gained real traction in the 1960s, when it was used by Richard Nixon as a way of galvanizing voters that may otherwise have not voted due to their dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and politics in general.
If a speech delivered to the nation in November 1969, Nixon evoked the term to appeal to a swath of voters that he felt supported him even if that wasn’t reflected in the polls or by the political intelligentsia. As described on its 50th anniversary, in 2019: “Fifty years ago Sunday night, President Richard M. Nixon sat in the Oval Office and delivered a nationally televised speech whose content is almost universally forgotten today, but, like so many major presidential addresses, is remembered for one phrase: ‘silent majority.’ As in: ‘And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of Americans — I ask for your support.’”
At the time, the silent majority was mostly associated with the white working class in America, and turned out to be a critical part of Nixon’s reelection, as described by Vox: “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.”
Used in the 50 years since Nixon to describe a bloc of voters whose attitudes are not perceived as popular or trendy, more recently it has referred to those who take umbrage with the rise of political correctness and the perceived elitism of the liberal left and political punditry.
From NPR: “Others said the silent majority is defined by fiscal conservatism, or disapproval of things like Planned Parenthood, or anger with government gridlock. Dan Fix of Mason City, Iowa, said the quintessential member of the silent majority would be Joe the Plumber, or in Iowa’s case, he pointed out, Joe the Farmer.”
These days, when debating who – or what – the “silent majority” is, racial overtones are hard to ignore. Historian Rick Perlstein: “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”
Whatever bloc of voters it refers to, the term “silent majority” is still used by politicians as a way to appeal to voters who feel like they belong to a group of people who are forgotten, and are forever searching for a candidate that they feel speaks for their values.