In 2008, Barack Obama said this: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not …” He might want to rethink that statement, especially now that he seems to be promoting policies that are opposed by large majorities of the voting public.
Obama needs to channel his inner Nixon, not his inner Reagan. It was Nixon, not Reagan, who tapped the power of the “silent majority” and changed politics for a generation to come. Today there’s a New Silent Majority, and it looks very different from Nixon’s. The polling results are undeniable: This Majority is looking for somebody to fight the big banks, protect Social Security, and tax the rich to fund government’s vital role in society.
Somebody could transform politics with this new majority, just as Nixon did. Somebody probably will.
si·lent ma·jor·i·ty (noun): the ordinary people in a country, who are not active politically and who do not make their opinions known
– Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
Only 4% of people polled by CBS News after November’s election thought that Congress should focus on deficits, and only 2% thought Washington should make taxes its highest priority. Yet those two topics have dominated the debate ever since, all but crowding out the concerns of the majority. Politicians and the media obsessed over them and ignored the topic that 56% of the public considered its highest priority: jobs and the economy.
We’ve only heard serious talk about “job creation” in the last 24 hours — and that’s in the context of a tax deal! Before yesterday, any attempt to bring up the public’s top priority was dismissed by Washington insiders as the irrelevant chatter of marginal extremists. “Stimulus” was a dirty word, not to be spoken in polite company. Now it’s on everybody’s lips – conveniently enough, just as it could be applied to extending tax cuts for the wealthy. That part of yesterday’s deal was opposed by 64% of the American public.
Is it any surprise that over 70% of those polled by CBS were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the way Washington works? Neither Obama’s base nor his fellow Democrats had a seat at the table when this deal was cut, and that’s become a major news story. But seven out of ten voters weren’t represented at that table, either. In the long run, that ‘s a much bigger story.
The New Majority
We won’t go through all the numbers and charts again (most of them are here and here.) We’ll just stick to the highlights, starting with this one: When asked how we should cut the deficit, the public would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut Social Security – by more than two to one.
That includes 71% of independents, 77% of Republicans–and 76% of Tea Party supporters. That’s the populist face of the New Silent Majority.
And they really are silent, at least in Washington and on the airwaves. We’ve just endured a month-long propaganda blitz, led by hyperbolic presidential appointees, focusing on a topic that was the priority of less than one voter in twenty: the deficit. And journalists and politicos alike have been pushing the radical right-wing prescriptions of the Simpson/Bowles Commission, whose recommendations made 70% of those polled either “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable.” Still, there was no stopping the deafening chant: We have to cut Social Security! We must reduce Medicare benefits! The deficit’s our biggest crisis!
There wasn’t even a whisper, it seemed, about the Silent Majority’s cry for jobs and growth. Then, without even skipping a beat, it was announced that the trillion-dollar tax giveaway to the wealthiest Americans was being extended, adding hundreds of billions to the deficit that had been such a crisis the day before. And what was the sudden justification for this deficit-busting plan? Jobs and growth! Stimulus!
The American majority must be suffering from whiplash. It’s not just the sudden reversal on the deficit. Now the story of the day is taxes – which was a top priority for only one voter in fifty.
What else does the “new silent majority” stand for, besides jobs, protecting Social Security, and taxes for the rich?
- 72% want the government to crack down on Wall Street more than it has.
- 81% want the government to do more to reduce poverty.
- Eight out of ten oppose cutting Medicare.
Despite the widespread support for these views by members of both parties (bipartisanship at last!), the political and media landscapes are dominated by journalists and politicians who keep telling us these positions are “extremist” and politically unrealistic.
If this new majority could say anything at all to the nation, it might be “Hello? Is this thing on?”
Nixon’s (still) the one
You’d think the president and his party would be all over this. Look what Nixon managed to do, almost by accident: He used the phrase “silent majority” in a 1969 speech about the War in Vietnam, and post-speech polling unexpectedly showed it was a huge hit with the public. Thousands of letters and telegrams flooded into the White House, spontaneous demonstrations broke out on Veteran’s Day, and a poll showed a 12-point jump in his popularity, from 56% to 68% — all for a president who had barely squeaked into office a year earlier with 43.3% of the vote (to Humphrey’s 42.7% and George Wallace’s 13.5%).
Using then-new polling techniques, Nixon was able to identify this majority, appeal to it, and use it to build an unbreakable core of support. While the 1970 Congressional results were disappointing for Republicans, he went on to win a landslide victory in 1972. Even after Watergate discredited him (and to some extent his party), the “silent majority” concept allowed the GOP to build a right-wing public consensus that was unbreakable for a generation. And Republicans didn’t just win elections with their Silent Majority: They won huge victories for their political principles, making them the bedrock of public opinion for decades to come. They broke down the liberal consensus and replaced it with their own.
Reagan didn’t transform American politics. Nixon did.
Historians will marvel someday at our current president’s iron-willed refusal to fight for policies that are both widely popular and broadly considered by experts to be the best solutions: stimulus spending to achieve jobs and growth, more regulation to reign in reckless and greedy banking, and ironclad protections for core social benefit plans. They’ll wonder why deficits were given higher priority than the bleeding wounds of a jobless economy, while the deficit-busting costs of military spending and an overly privatized health care system were considered off-limits.
Most of all, they’ll wonder why a month of deficit frenzy was capped by more of the same tax cuts that helped create those deficits in the first place.
And yet President Obama doesn’t just fail to fight for the New Silent Majority and its positions. He gets visibly angry when he’s asked about it. The president known for keeping his cool loses it whenever the subject comes up. Why?
Part of the answer may lie in this line in an article by Matt Bai: “Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat.” I’ve differed with Bai over his own statements about postpartisanship, but he’s a first-class reporter and I’m pretty confident his report is accurate.
Obama’s description of himself as a “Blue Dog” feels like a marker for something deeper, a theme that runs through his life and work. Bai summarizes that theme very well. But the president, along with sympathizers like Bai and centrist advocacy groups like Third Way, seems to be falling victim to an illusion. Writes Bai: “The body of Mr. Obama’s writing and experiences before he became a presidential candidate would suggest that he is instinctively pragmatic, typical of an emerging generation that sees all political dogma — be it ’60s liberalism or ’80s conservatism — as anachronistic.”
That seems to be the essence of some self-image for the president, as well as many of his sympathizers and advisors. But it’s a misperception. It’s not “pragmatic” to reject positions that are popular with the public are most likely to improve the economy. There’s something deeper going on. For the “postpartisans” I’ve met, and from the postpartisan manifestoes I’ve read, there seem to be several key elements to their worldview:
- A strong belief that the best results are achieved by developing consensus among powerful people
- A profound attraction to the process of consensus-building
- A disdain for partisan debate, based on an emotional distaste for conflict that’s coupled with a belief that “wiser heads” can come to a meeting of the minds
- A strongly held belief that compromise is morally superior to confrontation
- Self-esteem that’s based on the belief that this style of leadership is inherently superior
Underlying all this seems to lie a deep need to reject the politics of past generations, regardless of whether the politics in question are right or wrong for the moment, in order to be seen as part of “an emerging generation that sees all political dogma as anachronistic.”
dog·ma (noun). something held as an established opinion … a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds.
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Why does the president get so angry at “the left” that he insists on attacking it even when it hurts his own interests? Why does he reject opinions held by the great majority, including most Republicans, with disdainful terms like “sanctimonious”?
Remember, Nixon shattered the Democratic Party by linking them to “hippies.” Most Americans hated longhaired demonstrators, and Nixon used that hatred to crush liberalism. But being associated with these despised, scruffy peaceniks didn’t just defeat the Democrats: It traumatized them. They were painted a fuzzy-haired members of a pointy-headed elite, and it took them generations to get over the shock.
Apparently some of them still aren’t over it.
When Bill Clinton shook the hippie curse and gave Democrats their cojones back, it made sense. He backpedaled on some core Democratic positions and adopted the posture that a technocratic, bipartisan approach was the best way to solve our problems. Back then, there seemed to be a nonpolitical consensus on what was needed: Less regulation, less government, and more reliance on the “creativity” of the private sector (especially banking).
How’d that work out for you? Like we were saying, it made sense … back then.
Bashing “the left” was a smart political strategy for Democrats when longhairs were chanting for peace in the streets (RIP, John Lennon). Maybe that’s why bloggers describe this kind of left-bashing as “hippie punching.” But the hippies are gone. Everybody else has moved on. Nobody’s thinking about “hippies” anymore, or even about anything called “the left.” They’re just wondering how to pay their bills and survive their old age in a world they’re increasingly likely to see as Obama’s creation.
And they will see it as Obama’s creation. That may or may not be fair, but think about it: How many Republicans were on TV last night pitching this deal?
Meanwhile, the New Silent Majority remains silent and unrepresented in the halls of Washington. It’s as if some people are too busy fighting with the phantoms of “the left” to see that times have changed. The hippie wars are over. Who’s “anachronistic” now?
The North Star
What do you do when the nation’s leadership see bartering with Washington power brokers not merely as a political necessity, but as a superior way of being? Voters have seen the end result of this “way,” and they don’t like it. People are waiting for the president to remold the Washington consensus into something that serves their interests. If compromise does that, they want compromise. If it takes a bar fight, then they want a bar fight.
But the “postpartisans” have elevated compromise from a tactic into a moral principle. That can leave them paralyzed when compromise becomes impossible, as it has now. Fortunately, there may be a way out. And the president touched on it last night, with a passing phrase that was striking and evocative. Where, a reporter asked, is your “line in the sand”?
“My job,” he answered, “is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done. And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight.”
The North Star is a lovely image that evokes something important. It suggests that every political tactic must be illuminated by core set of values and goals, a set of beliefs that make up a glittering pole around which all action revolves. Stars like that have guided political debate for centuries. Some people even have a name for that kind of compass: they call it a “dogma.”
If the president can let go of his attachment to his postpartisan self-image and embrace the policies most Americans want and need, they can be his North Star. But to do that he’ll need to get over his reflexive distaste for the “old dogma” of the “left,” because that old dogma also happens to be the new political reality.
Or, as seems more likely right now, he could keep fighting the battles of the past. His own ideology may be too centrist (that is, conservative) for the times. Or he may not have the temperament for the battles he’d have to fight. If that’s true, the New Silent Majority will look elsewhere. The Right hijacked part of it this year, and it’s ready to do it on an even bigger scale next time.
Whatever happens, 2012 is coming and The New Silent Majority is looking for its leader. And just in case you hadn’t noticed, the auditions have already started.
UPDATE: The link in the last paragraph, to the PAC of a leading American politician, came under cyberattack late last night by supporters of Julian Assange. It therefore may or may not work when you click on it.
(There’s good reference material on Nixon and the “Silent Majority” in Nevin, M. D. , 2007-04-12 “The Making of the Silent Majority: Nixon, Polling, and Constituency Building” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Palmer House Hotel, Chicago, IL Online