Silent majority

The silent majority is an unspecified large majority of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly.[1] The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a November 3, 1969, speech in which he said, "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support."[2] In this usage it referred to those Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the time, who did not join in the counterculture, and who did not participate in public discourse. Nixon along with many others saw this group of Middle Americans as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.

The phrase was used in the 19th century as a euphemism meaning "all the people who have died", and others have used it before and after Nixon to refer to groups of voters in various nations of the world.


Euphemism for the dead

The phrase had been in use for much of the 19th century to refer to the dead—the number of living people is less than the number who have died. Phrases such as "gone to a better world", "gone before", and "joined the silent majority" served as euphemisms for "he died".[3] In 1902, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan employed this sense of the phrase, saying in a speech that "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."[4]

The usage dates from Classical antiquity, having been first used in Homer.[citation needed]

Voters around the world

In May 1831, the phrase "silent majority" was spoken by Churchill C. Cambreleng, representative of New York state, before 400 members of the Tammany Society.[5] Cambreleng complained to his audience about a U.S federal bill that had been rejected without full examination by the United States House of Representatives. Cambreleng's "silent majority" referred to other representatives who voted as a bloc:

"Whenever majorities trample upon the rights of minorities—when men are denied even the privilege of having their causes of complaint examined into—when measures, which they deem for their relief, are rejected by the despotism of a silent majority at a second reading—when such become the rules of our legislation, the Congress of this Union will no longer justly represent a republican people."[5]

In 1883, an anonymous author calling himself "A German" wrote a memorial to Léon Gambetta, published in The Contemporary Review, a British quarterly. Describing French Conservatives of the 1870s, the writer opined that "their mistake was, not in appealing to the country, but in appealing to it in behalf of a Monarchy which had yet to be defined, instead of a Republic which existed; for in the latter case they would have had the whole of that silent majority with them."[6]

Referring to Charles I of England, historian Veronica Wedgwood wrote this sentence in her 1955 book The King's Peace, 1637–1641: "The King in his natural optimism still believed that a silent majority in Scotland were in his favour."


Also in 1955, while Nixon was serving as vice-president to Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and his research assistants wrote in his book Profiles in Courage, "Some of them may have been representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority..."[7] In January 1956, Kennedy gave Nixon an autographed copy of the book. Nixon wrote back the next day to thank him: "My time for reading has been rather limited recently, but your book is first on my list and I am looking forward to reading it with great pleasure and interest."[8] Nixon wrote Six Crises, his response to Kennedy's book, after visiting Kennedy at the White House in April 1961.[9][10]

In 1967, labor leader George Meany asserted that those labor unionists (such as himself) who supported the Vietnam War were "the vast, silent majority in the nation."[11][12] Meany's statement may have provided Nixon's speechwriters with the specific turn of phrase.[13]

In the months leading up to Nixon's 1969 speech, his vice-president Spiro T. Agnew said on May 9, "It is time for America's silent majority to stand up for its rights, and let us remember the American majority includes every minority. America's silent majority is bewildered by irrational protest..."[4] Soon thereafter, journalist Theodore H. White analyzed the previous year's elections, writing "Never have America's leading cultural media, its university thinkers, its influence makers been more intrigued by experiment and change; but in no election have the mute masses more completely separated themselves from such leadership and thinking. Mr. Nixon's problem is to interpret what the silent people think, and govern the country against the grain of what its more important thinkers think."[4]

Nixon's constituency

Nixon's silent majority referred mainly to the older generation (those World War II veterans in all parts of the U.S.) but it also described many young people in the Midwest, West and in the South, many of whom eventually served in Vietnam. The Silent Majority was mostly populated by blue collar white people who did not take an active part in politics; suburban, exurban and rural middle class voters.[14] They did, in some cases, support the conservative policies of many politicians. Others were not particularly conservative politically, but resented what they saw as disrespect for American institutions.

In his famous speech, Nixon contrasted his international strategy of political realism with the "idealism" of a "vocal minority." He stated that following the radical minority's demands to withdraw all troops immediately from Vietnam would bring defeat and be disastrous for world peace. Appealing to the silent majority, Nixon asked for united support "to end the war in a way that we could win the peace." The speech was one of the first to codify the Nixon Doctrine, according to which, "the defense of freedom is everybody's business—not just America's business."[15] After giving the speech, Nixon's approval ratings which had been hovering around 50% shot up to 81% in the nation and 86% in the South.[16]

In January 1970, Time put on their cover an abstract image of a man and a woman representing "Middle America" as a replacement for their annual "Man of the Year" award. Publisher Roy E. Larsen wrote that "the events of 1969 transcended specific individuals. In a time of dissent and 'confrontation', the most striking new factor was the emergence of the so-called 'Silent Majority' as a powerfully assertive force in U.S. society."[17] Larsen described how the silent majority had elected Nixon, had put a man on the moon, and how this demographic felt threatened by "attacks on traditional values".[17]

The silent majority theme has been a contentious issue amongst journalists since Nixon used the phrase. Some thought Nixon used it as part of the Southern strategy; others claim it was Nixon's way of dismissing the obvious protests going on around the country, and Nixon's attempt to get other Americans not to listen to the protests. Whatever the rationale, Nixon won a landslide victory in 1972, taking 49 of 50 states, vindicating his "silent majority". The opposition vote was split successfully, with 80% of George Wallace supporters voting for Nixon rather than George McGovern.[18]

Nixon's use of the phrase was part of his strategy to divide Americans, to polarize them into two groups. The "silent majority" shared Nixon's anxieties and fears that normalcy was being eroded by changes in society.[14] The other group was composed of intellectuals, cosmopolitans, professionals and liberals—those willing to "live and let live".[14] Both groups saw themselves as the higher patriots.[14] Nixon's polarization survives today in American politics.[14] According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, "silent majority" is but one of many labels which have been applied to the same group of voters. According to him, past labels used by the media include "silent majority" in the 1960s, "forgotten middle class" in the 1970s, "angry white males" in the 1980s, "soccer moms" in the 1990s, and "NASCAR dads" in the 2000s.[19]


In 1975, in Portugal, then president António de Spínola used the term in confronting the more radical forces of post-revolutionary Portugal.[20]

The phrase "silent majority" has also been used in the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan during the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican Revolution in the 1994 elections, and the victories of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, both of whom were at the time Republicans, in the New York City Mayoral races of the 1990s and 2000s.

See also


  1. ^ "Silent majority" Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (1995), accessed 22/2/2011.
  2. ^ Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech
  3. ^ Greenough, James Bradstreet; George Lyman Kittredge (1920). Words and their ways in English speech. The Macmillan Company. pp. 302. Retrieved April 15, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c Safire, William (2008). Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press U.S.. p. 660. ISBN 0195343344. Retrieved April 15, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Niles' weekly register. 40. May 1831. p. 231.  Quoting New York Representative Churchill C. Cambreleng, first appearing in the New York Standard, May 12, 1831.
  6. ^ "Gambetta". The Contemporary Review (London: Isbister and Company) 43: 185. February 1883. Retrieved April 15, 2010.  Anonymous author signing as "A German".
  7. ^ Kennedy, John F. (1955). "XI. The Meaning of Courage". Profiles in Courage. Harper. pp. 220. ISBN 0060544392. 
  8. ^ Matthews, Christopher (1997). Kennedy & Nixon: the rivalry that shaped postwar America. Simon and Schuster. p. 106. ISBN 0684832461. 
  9. ^ Delson, Rudolph (November 10, 2009). "Literary Vices, with Rudolph Delson: Richard Nixon's 'Six Crises'". The Awl. Retrieved 22 February 2011. 
  10. ^ Roper, Jon (1998). "Richard Nixon's Political Hinterland: The Shadows of JFK and Charles de Gaulle". Presidential Studies Quarterly. Retrieved 22 February 2011. 
  11. ^ Perlstein, 2008, p. 212
  12. ^ Varon, Jeremy (2004). Bringing the war home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and revolutionary violence in the sixties and seventies. University of California Press. pp. 330. ISBN 0520241193. 
  13. ^ Hixson, Walter L. (2008). The myth of American diplomacy: national identity and U.S. foreign policy. Yale University Press. pp. 251. ISBN 0300119127. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Perlstein, 2008, p. 748
  15. ^ Safire, William (2004). Lend me your ears: great speeches in history (3 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 993. ISBN 0393059316. 
  16. ^ Perlstein, 2008, p. 444
  17. ^ a b Larsen, Roy (January 5, 1970). "A Letter From The Publisher". Time.,9171,943108,00.html#ixzz1EiZ91J8D. 
  18. ^ Fraser, Steve; Gerstle, Gary (1989). The Rise and fall of the New Deal order, 1930–1980. Princeton University Press. p. 263. ISBN 0691006075. 
  19. ^ Luntz, Frank I. (2007). Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. New York: Hyperion. pp. 199–200. ISBN 9781401303082. 
  20. ^ Discurso da "maioria silenciosa" ("Silent majority" speech)

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • silent majority — silent ma jority n the silent majority the ordinary people in a country, who are not active politically and who do not make their opinions known …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • silent majority — N SING COLL If you believe that, in society or in a particular group, the opinions of most people are very different from the opinions that are most often heard in public, you can refer to these people as the silent majority. ...arguing that a… …   English dictionary

  • silent majority — {n.}, {informal} The large majority of people who, unlike the militants, do not make their political and social views known by marching and demonstrating and who, presumably, can swing an election one way or the other. * /Sidney Miltner is a… …   Dictionary of American idioms

  • silent\ majority — noun informal the large majority of people who, unlike the militants, do not make their political and social views known by marching and demonstrating and who, presumably, can swing an election one way or the other. Sidney Miltner is a member of… …   Словарь американских идиом

  • silent majority — noun the silent majority all the people in a country who are not politically active, whose opinions are believed to represent the ideas that most ordinary people have …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • silent majority — /saɪlənt məˈdʒɒrəti/ (say suyluhnt muh joruhtee) noun the people within a community who are not active politically and who do not express their views publicly, presumed to be numerous and to support moderate or conservative policies: *he was… …   Australian English dictionary

  • silent majority — 1. the U.S. citizens who supported President Nixon s policies but who were not politically vocal, outspoken, or active: considered by him to constitute a majority. 2. any group of people who are not outspoken and who are considered to constitute… …   Universalium

  • silent majority — 1. the U.S. citizens who supported President Nixon s policies but who were not politically vocal, outspoken, or active: considered by him to constitute a majority. 2. any group of people who are not outspoken and who are considered to constitute… …   Useful english dictionary

  • silent majority — si′lent major′ity n. gov the majority of a country s citizens, regarded as not politically vocal, outspoken, or active • Etymology: 1969; amer …   From formal English to slang

  • silent majority — Synonyms and related words: Middle America, bourgeoisie, breakaway group, burgherdom, camp, caucus, division, ethnic group, faction, fourth rater, interest, interest group, mediocrity, middle class, middle order, middle orders, minority group, no …   Moby Thesaurus

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.