The silent majority is an unspecified large majority of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly. The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a 1969, speech in which he said, ‘And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.’
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 referring to 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.
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. 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.’ 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. Nixon won a landslide victory in 1972, taking 49 of 50 states, vindicating his ‘silent majority.’
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. The other group was composed of intellectuals, cosmopolitans, professionals, and liberals—those willing to ‘live and let live.’ Both groups saw themselves as the higher patriots. Nixon’s polarization survives today in American politics. 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.