The context and the timing of the 2008 American presidential election make it difficult to come to any firm conclusions about its meaning, or what its long-term legacy will be.
It was always clear that the failures of the Bush presidency would influence the outcome of this contest. Indeed, the low esteem in which a significant section of the electorate holds Bush today meant that both McCain and Obama considered it pointless even to debate his years in office. Furthermore, the final phase of the 2008 election coincided with the collapse of the financial markets, which had the effect of alienating the public even further from the Republicans. In such circumstances, it was always going to be almost impossible for the Republicans to win this election.
In recent times, challengers to incumbents have tended not ‘to win’ elections positively so much as those holding office have tended to lose them. However, what is interesting about this election is that not only did the incumbent party clearly lose, but Obama decisively won on his own account.
The election of Obama heralds the erosion of the Republican Party’s ‘silent majority’ strategy as well as bringing to an end an important chapter in America’s culture wars. The term ‘silent majority’ was promoted by former President Richard Nixon; in a speech in November 1969 he applied it to those people who respected American institutions, did not participate in anti-Vietnam demonstrations, and who were appalled by the counterculture of the 1960s.
The term ‘silent majority’ had very clear populist connotations. These were people who were held in contempt by the cultural elites and whose sentiments and interests were ignored by Hollywood and the media. The term also contained unspoken assumptions about the racial fears of both middle-class and lower-income and particularly suburban whites. It signalled the idea that it was okay to feel insecure about the implications of the civil rights revolution and to oppose the ‘unreasonable’ demands associated with the aspiration of black people for a better life.
During the past 40 years, the Republican strategy of cultivating the silent majority proved remarkably successful in consolidating a base of support for the party. Its ability to attract even blue-collar Democrats in the 1980s demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. However, the appeal to the silent majority was always fundamentally defensive in its orientation. It spoke to people who were worried about the impact of change on their lives; it tended to represent change as a negative and hostile thing. And in a world of rapid and constant change, such an outlook could provide very little guidance to people facing everyday practical problems. Until recent times, the incoherent and shallow character of the ideas contained in the ‘silent majority’ approach did not much matter because, in many respects, this was indeed a silent conversation.
However, the silent and taken-for granted nature of this constituency’s views and sentiments deprived them of any political, intellectual and ultimately cultural influence or coherence. From the outside, the silent majority was perceived by friend and foe alike as a stable block with fixed ideas. But the very fact that it relied on unspoken sentiments, particularly on the subject of race, meant that it lacked a capacity to influence American society in any significant way. Indeed, although most commentators failed to notice this fact, the group labelled ‘the silent majority’ was itself coming under the influence of the cultural elite’s views and attitudes, as institutionalised through education, the media and other institutions.
The very fact that the passions that influenced the silent majority could not be openly articulated betrayed a sense of confusion, bad faith, even guilt. Consequently, even the influence of racial fears began to diminish. And although people could still be driven by their individual prejudices, the strength of race as a public and political force gradually declined. Indeed, for some time the political significance of race has become less important than most analysts and commentators have believed.
Obama’s victory is testimony to the diminished significance of race. Obama did not win the majority of white voters. But his support among whites is equal to the votes achieved by the last three white Democratic presidential candidates and represents a slight improvement on the number won by 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry. The exit polls indicate that Obama received 40 per cent of the votes of white men and a significant majority of the younger white people’s votes. More significantly, he did remarkably well among those who were formerly part of the silent majority. He succeeded in gaining significant support from white voters in working-class areas and in many key white suburbs. He carried areas like Cambria County in Western Pennsylvania, a region dominated by white blue-collar workers. And he even won Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy.
The politicisation of cultural differences, which gave meaning to the silent majority, has blown up in the faces of the founders and representatives of this silent group of people. Whereas in the past the Nixon critique of the liberal media and the cultural elites could mobilise significant support, today such critiques fail to provide the Republicans with any political momentum. In fact, in the past decade the liberal cultural elites have gone on the offensive and have embraced the culture war with relish. They have successfully discredited the all-too-easy target of the Bush administration. They also ran an effective campaign against Sarah Palin and managed to contain her impact on the electorate.
The unspoken assumptions of the silent majority are no match for the very public and vociferous cultural values of the silent majority’s opponents in the liberal elite. For many decades, the strategy of cultivating a silent constituency spared the Republicans the trouble of having to put forward a coherent political identity that might have engaged and inspired the public. As a result, they have lost the younger generations. Their support among Hispanics – the fastest growing constituency in America – has disintegrated. The Republicans have lost support in traditional red states in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountains, too. Obama has a larger mandate than any Democratic president-elect since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
The election also demonstrates that America is No Country For Old Men. The only group where Obama failed to make any headway was among senior citizens. This is the constituency that is most intimidated by change and least likely to disassociate itself from the unspoken values of the silent majority. Of course, their defiant stand against the temper of the times can also be interpreted as an obituary to the silent majority.
The disintegration of silent-majority populism represents a positive development. It might encourage public debate to acquire a more open and reflective character. The only downside of this development is that it was in part brought about by the influence of the narrow-minded anti-populism of America’s cultural oligarchy. Their success in demonising smalltown America and its unenlightened rednecks has often been assisted by prejudices that are in fact the mirror image of those held by their opponents. However, hopefully the fluidity that has been introduced into public life through the course of this election will create opportunities for debating issues of substance, rather than hiding behind cultural caricatures.
Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press.
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Obama and the fall of ‘the silent majority’ (2)