The Silent Majority Strikes Again

by Daniel A. Kaufman

I live in a rather special world.  I only know one person who voted for Nixon.  Where they are I don’t know.  They’re outside my ken.

– Pauline Kael, Film Critic for the New Yorker, in the wake of Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern.

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The Silent Majority has done it again.  Not as decisively as when Richard Nixon first called upon them in his race against George McGovern, in 1972, but decisively enough.  Undoubtedly, some on the other side will want to point out that they “got more votes,” but the point is spectacularly irrelevant.  Electors choose presidents in our country, not voters, and presidential candidates run races on that basis.  Were we a direct democracy, the two candidates in this most recent contest would have run very different campaigns, and we have no idea what the popular vote count would have looked like, though I suspect that the results would have been the same.

All of us are still trying to swallow Donald Trump’s remarkable victory over Hillary Clinton.  Some of us are choking on it.  But those of us who think of ourselves as liberals of one kind or another or progressives had better find a way to keep it down and digest it, so that we can learn something from it.  The electoral map is shocking to look at, and if we haven’t figured out yet that we can’t win presidential elections from New York City, LA County, the Bay Area, and Boston Metro, we’d better do so soon.

Since I’ve invoked Nixon’s famous “Silent Majority” speech, as well as Pauline Kael’s weirdly provincial confession, let’s look at the record of presidential elections since 1972.

1972    R         Nixon

1976    D         Carter

1980    R         Reagan

1984    R         Reagan

1988    R         G.H.W. Bush

1992    D         Clinton

1996    D         Clinton

2000   R         G.W. Bush

2004   R         G.W. Bush

2008   D         Obama

2012    D         Obama

2016    R         Trump

One could easily be misled into thinking that this shows a somewhat evenly distributed balance of power -– seven R’s to five D’s –- which indicates a relatively ideologically and culturally balanced country.  The truth, however, lies underneath.  McGovern lost in a landslide, and Carter’s single term as President is widely perceived as one of the least effective in the history of the country.  Reagan was a hugely popular president, with an enduring social, cultural, and economic legacy (regardless of whether you think this is good or bad), and G.H.W. Bush’s single term is regarded as essentially having been Reagan’s third.  When one looks at the pattern this way, one sees that the Republicans and their values have dominated American presidential politics since McGovern had his ass handed to him in 1972, and what this suggests is that America is largely a conservative country.  Center-Right, if you average things out, population-wise, but further Right, if you look at it electorally.  Bill Clinton understood this, which is why he was the most successful Democratic president of the period I’ve outlined.  Obama failed to understand this, which is why his entire presidency is about to be effectively erased by Donald Trump.

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Bill Clinton knew that social and cultural progress had to be made slowly; that trying to push too much, too hard, too fast not only wouldn’t work, but might actually move things backwards.  I remember how infuriated many Left-leaning liberals and progressives were with his equivocations and apparent inconsistencies.  Clearly, he was sympathetic to gays and lesbians, and yet he gave us “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. He was our “first black president” and played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, but he also very publicly threw Sister Souljah under the bus. Bill Clinton had it right, though.  He knew that once you moved five inches into the country from New York and California, public acceptance of many of these things was going to be tough going and would have to be achieved gradually and cleverly.  In the age of Obama, however, this basic and obvious understanding has been lost, incredible as that may seem.  Could we have just forgotten that between Clinton and Obama, we had George W. Bush and the biggest surge in the fortunes of the Religious Right since the original Moral Majority?  That televangelist (and strangely alien-looking) Pat Robertson ran for President and that ‘James Dobson’ was, for a while, a household name?  That “values voters” — meaning Right-wing evangelicals and Pentecostals and some of the more tight-assed suburbanites — were largely credited for Bush’s victory over John Kerry, in 2004? That for a while, you couldn’t go anywhere or talk about anything, without hearing about peoples’ “faith”?  Apparently an awful lot of us did.  Or else, like Pauline Kael, we lived in such insulated bubbles that we never noticed any of it.

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The biggest mistake we made in the Obama era, then (and by ‘we’ I mean liberals and progressives), was thinking that we had won the socio-cultural war, when in truth, we were still in the middle of it.  A country, especially one as large and complex as the United States, does not change its socio-cultural orientation just like that, and pushing and shoving doesn’t help.  Indeed, doing so is counter-productive, insofar as it provokes resistance; digging in; even a backlash (and we’ve just seen the mother of all backlashes).  Yet that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the past several years –- pushing and shoving.  The fact is that I called this Trump victory months ago, when the overwhelming conventional wisdom was that he had no chance.  Why?  Because I could see how people in much of the country’s interior were reacting to the cultural pushing and shoving: the endless, over-the-top praise for Caitlyn Jenner (at least until it was discovered that she was a Republican); the transgendered-in-the bathrooms; the absurd spectacle of students at Ivy League schools loudly claiming they were oppressed and demanding heads for it; the social-justice-warrior hashtag campaigns and Twitter mobs; the incessant charges of Racism! Sexism! Homophobia!; the demand for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” often backed with threats; Supreme Court imposed gay marriage and the public humiliation and arrest of some wretched, rural county clerk, with a bad haircut, who tried to resist it … the list goes on and on.

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The point is not the relative merits of any of these issues –- I published a piece in this very magazine about why opposition to trans-gendered people using gender-relevant bathrooms makes no sense whatsoever, and I have often and vigorously expressed my concern about police brutality –- but the speed with which they appeared on the scene, one after another; the aggressiveness with which they were pushed; the immediate resort to sneering and insult and accusation when resisted; and most importantly, the image being projected that the government, media, and professional classes were all for it, while the lowlifes and rubes on the farms and in the factories (what’s left of them) and in the shitty little churches were against it.  How could this not provoke resentment, resistance, and backlash?  How could this not lead to something like Trumpism and ultimately, President Trump?

With Bill Clinton, the Democrats had seemed to free themselves from the McGovernite legacy that led both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis to humiliating defeats.   Indeed, they began to compete with –- and overtake — the Republicans for the status of being the party of big business and even of international security.  But this was only part of the story, as a strange thing started to happen in the years that followed.  Corporate and other elite sectors of the society began more and more to embrace many of the values of the old counterculture, sometimes in word only, but increasingly in deed:  Feminism; gay, lesbian, and trans equality; even, incredibly, environmentalism.  Undoubtedly, this had a lot to do with the rise of the tech sector and the youthful, hip culture that characterizes it and which eventually became a model for much of the rest of the corporate world.  Regardless, Democrats found themselves in what one would think would be a very enviable position –- they could claim superiority in many of the areas in which the Republicans traditionally had dominated, while at the same time re-embracing many of the progressive, countercultural causes that were always dear to their hearts.  Microsoft, Goldman-Sachs, GLAAD, and the Sierra Club?  How much better could it get?

But perceptions differ.  Wildly.  What looked like a new, holy consensus to coastal elites -– to Hollywood, the media, urban professionals, and the like — looked much less appealing to people in much of the nation’s interior.  The de-industrialization of the country that had been going on since the 1970’s and the Democratic party’s initial embrace of the countercultural politics and values of the 1960’s had already pushed what was left of Labor into the Republican camp (a pre-1970’s Archie Bunker would have been a Democrat), so these folks were hardly going to think well of the tech-, finance-, globally-, and progressively-oriented corporate culture of the 1990’s, 2000’s, and today.  The economic crash of 2008, in good part the fault of this same corporate culture, only made them hate it even more.  Environmentalism and the fetishizing of concern over global warming or climate change or whatever the hell it’s called now may be very compelling to people living in massive metropolitan areas and to professionals and corporate elites, none of whom have much to do with industry or with the land anymore, but for people whose very livelihoods depend on agriculture, logging, mining, and the like – in short, everyone between New York and California – not only are they not compelling, they are anathema. The current identification of the Democratic party with corporate culture and environmentalism and the counterculture, then, is not only not a political benefit, in today’s climate, it is an unmitigated disaster.  And we’ve just seen how much of one.

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What now, then?  This is hardly the place for a comprehensive account of what the Democrats need to do to be nationally competitive again.  But some things would seem rather obvious.  Re-embrace Labor, by showing that you understand that in a country of three hundred million plus people, not everyone can be an investment banker, lawyer, surgeon, or waitress.  Go a little slower and a lot smarter on the environmentalism and cultural progressivism, and stop with the sneering and shaming.  Remember that thinking you’re right, no matter how certain you may be, doesn’t mean that those who don’t are just going to roll over or disappear;  that politics is, in good part, a matter of figuring out how to either (a) work with those with whom you disagree, (b) manipulate those with whom you disagree, or, if you have the political strength (c) overwhelm those with whom you disagree.  And above all, understand — really understand — that  if you can’t do (c), as clearly, we can’t, you’d better figure out a way to do (a) or (b) or else you can forget about winning any presidential elections in the near future.

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19 Comments »

  1. Hi Dan, Hillary was the very embodiment of the Clinton go-slow approach. It was designed to appeal to repubs and gave the bariest of nods to us Bernie’ites (meaningless phrases in the ‘platform’). This didn’t work.

    –>I wonder if this will post. EA post have not worked for me for weeks.

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  2. A very thoughtful and provocative essay.

    As someone who is not an American and very much a leftist, what you write strikes me as sensible. I have read many reactions and think-pieces on the results of the election (most from the leftist perspective), and I fear they keep making the same mistakes that lost Clinton the election.

    I’ve been despairing over politics for some time now, and I see many parallels with what’s happening in the US with what’s happening in Sweden. Used to be we Swedes could be smug about how the Danes are backwards for having racist parties in their legislature, but now we have our own far-right insurgent party to contend with. And just as seems to be happening in America, in Sweden the elites appear to have no clue how to combat the rhetoric that resonates so with these “deplorables”.

    Even though the political situations aren’t exactly compatible, I believe what’s happening in the US is similar to what’s been going on in Europe, with the wave of far-right nationalism that’s been sweeping through the continent. At least similar enough that fruitful comparisons can be made, that much can be learned from essays such as this one.

    However, regarding environmentalism, I’m not sure I agree with the implied strategy of moderation. I don’t think I “[fetishize] concern over global warming” when I take the consensus of environmental scientists seriously, that we need to aggressively curb our CO2-emissions if we are to avoid (or mitigate) catastrophic rises in global temperatures. I see why this might lead to the proposal of environmental policies that are unpalatable to large segments of the US electorate, but I don’t see any alternatives. Especially when the measures that Obama have taken might be insufficient as they are. I agree that the proposals disproportionately affect people in the nation’s interior, rather than coastal elites, but again I see no alternatives, if we’re going to take the scientific consensus seriously. (Now if you want to doubt the scientists, that is a different question…)

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  3. I would say the same thing about concerns over climate as I would about the rest. It has to be done smartly and gently, with a realization that it in many case means a complete transformation of the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people. Exactly the opposite of the way we are doing it now.

    In other words, the truth doesn’t trump the politics. You and the climate scientists may be right, but the people who elected Trump are still going to have to be convinced to make it happen. Clearly, the way we have been trying to do so hasn’t worked and clearly, we are insufficiently strong to force them to accept it. We are left then, with my (a) and (b).

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  4. Good piece.
    The victory of Trump comes as a shock to me as a European. I think it was Tom Wolfe who wrote somewhere that the eagle of fascism always flies over the US, but only seems to land in Europe. I don’t think Trump is a fascist, but I always liked to believe that the political structures in the US were strong enough to absorb the extremes, moderate them and keep them under control. Now I’m not so sure anymore. How is it possible that a crude adventurer like Trump wins the election?
    I also feel that you don’t mention something important: the politics of total non-cooperation that were initiated, if I remember correctly, by Newt Gingrich. It makes option a) and even option b) unworkable.

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  5. I’ve read quite a few good post mortem analyses since 11/9 and yours ranks with the better. I especially liked your keen observations in the last three paragraphs. Thank you.

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  6. I don’t know if Bill Clinton was confronted with full-strength Gingrich. He made two appointments to the supreme court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer). Under Obama, the republicans simply refused to talk about a new appointment. That is what I would call undiluted, 100 % proof Gingrich.

    Another thing … “Feminism; gay, lesbian, and trans equality”.
    Why are these value-laden controversies so important? It’s an interesting question.

    Is it because people are being told continuously that that all the rest – outsourcing, the closing of factories etc. – are simply unavoidable, facts of life just like it’s a fact that the moon circles the earth?

    Once you accept that, there’s not much left to direct your anger to. You can’t complain that a factory is polluting the area (if you complain, it’ll be closed and people will lose their job – fact of life!), you can’t complain that you don’t have a decent pension (to pay for it, taxes would have to go up and that’s bad for the economy – fact of life!), you can’t complain that CEOs make gazillions (it’s their market value, dumbo – fact of life!) … but you can complain about the lesbos and the gaybos and the feminists and so on.

    Perhaps the democrats are confronted with another version of this dilemma. Once you accept these “facts of life” – and I think the democrats largely did – there’s little left to uphold your “leftist” credentials. You are condemned to defend gay, lesbian, trans, feminist etc. issues. You’re condemned to become “la gauche caviar”, with “le cœur à gauche, mais le portefeuille à droite”

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  7. Dan, I recognize this as a careful and intelligent analysis even though I do not share many of the assumptions or seek the specific goals you discuss. I am not in the target audience.

    Just one point, a fairly obvious one. I would say that all ideologies – and ideological groupings – are currently in a state of flux, even unstable. I see many signs of fragmentation. There is nothing to say that the grouping which you (or I) identify with will maintain its coherence or identity into the future.

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  8. Clinton was a horrid candidate – a boring wonk who thought that ‘her time had come’ because she had played the game since Bill’s re-election to governor of Arkansas. She had no feeling for the working class, and nothing to offer them. The notions that it was ‘her turn now’ and that this election would ‘break the glass ceiling’ were both privileged and self-righteous to begin with and also unrealistically idealistic. Election campaigns are not about breaking glass ceilings! They’re about winning! While his candidacy benefited by an energized Black electorate, Obama did not win because he was black, he won because the economy was a disaster and McCain was clearly going to continue Bush policies that had caused that..

    In the event, Obama practiced a nuanced Clintonomics when a more aggressive job-creating public works project was needed; consequently the working class never realized the full benefit of his recovery.

    It was sad that Joe Biden, who could connect with the working class, did not run. Sad also that Elizabeth Warren did not run, since she could have articulated an economic vision and ‘break the glass ceiling.’ Sad that it wasn’t Bernie; but Bernie’s position in the current Democratic Party was sealed before he even started.

    In fact Clinton had no economic vision. She even once touted that Bill would be her primary economics advisor. As the Republicans attacked her marriage as an embarrassing joke, she wisely began to distant herself from him; but that only revealed that she had no economics savvy of her own. Think of all her speeches and her campaign ads – I mean, the upbeat, positive ones. All social issues all the time. Never ‘how to get the good jobs back again.’

    Pundits liked to remark that the Republicans had chosen the only candidate that Clinton could defeat; but in fact the Democrats had chosen the one candidate that any Republican could defeat. Unfortunately for America, and the world, that happened to be Trump.

    There are two general paths going forward: If Trump is content to be a figurehead for the Republican government, then the Party will run the state, and we effectively hit reset to 2005 – the Democrats never won in Congress, the Recession never happened, Obama was never elected. Sad, but survivable.

    But if Trump decides to act hands-on as Chief of State, chaos ensues. And although we have hints of what precisely that means, the problem is that Trump is entirely unpredictable. But it would certainly mean problems, confusions and conflict, internationally as well as domestically, and within the Republican Party itself. The one certainty is that his followers will suffer enormous disappointment sooner or later.

    As for the Democrats, if they pursue the trajectory well outlined in this article, then they are finished as anything other than the ‘loyal opposition.’ If they choose to learn their lessons and regroup and rebuild, that process will take some three election cycles before they will be in a position to win either White House or Congress.

    Unfortunately, health issues suggest I won’t be around to see that. But, Buddha be praised, I do have some ability to detach and see the issues as what they are. I realized, the day after the election, that I had enjoyed some prescience the week before. My reading of the Satyricon should have reminded me that no empire lasts for ever; indeed none such are worthy of that. Empires always promise the realization of the best potential of the human being – and they always end up revealing the worst of it. Every great temple is built with the flesh and bone of the casualties of the empire that ordered its construction. Eventually the surviving inhabitants realize they are not in a temple, but a mausoleum. Then they just walk away.

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  9. Assumptions: I have different political and economic views from you (and most Democrats). And so my goals (some of them) will differ also. Your readers, I suspect, are less keen than you are for an elaboration. 🙂

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  10. Hi Dan, that was an excellent essay, where I agree with many things (especially your concluding options), but disagree with a lot as well.

    Regarding Hillary’s loss, I think it has more to do with what EJ described in his (brilliant) comment, and less to do with the larger scale trends and issues relating to pace of change.

    While there is some truth to the US population’s general conservatism, that the cultural “back and forth” (I was about to say “culture war” but hate that term) is still ongoing, and that there was a natural reaction to the shrill, almost baiting quality of so-called SJWs, I don’t believe for a second that Bill Clinton was some wise politician moving things forward at the “right” pace for US citizens.

    He was (like Hillary) a socially conservative opportunist. While much can be said for Bill Clinton regarding budgets, he ended up selling out the poor, the sick, many students, and minorities. And as far as the environment goes, he and Gore were more concerned with promoting environmental hysteria than understanding, or finding solutions, in order to grow their power base. My time at the EPA under their administration was eye opening to say the least.

    There is nothing to learn about how change need be handled from Bill Clinton.

    Except perhaps a counter-lesson which is not to pander to progressives while giving in to republicans and big business, in the hope that they will deliver results for the US through free market mechanisms.

    If this election was about the public wanting more conservatism, slower change, they would have voted in Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, or Rick Santorum, not a loudmouth “New York values” billionaire who is the bloated poster boy of an equally bloated materialist culture, the guy from one of the most “decadent” cities building gaudy casinos and throwing wild parties all over the place. Sure, you are right that this was a middle finger to all those that were sneering down at the middle and lower classes, especially from conservatives among those groups who kept having their values mocked.

    But it was also about an authentic outsider (regardless how crass) versus establishment opportunists that have been feeding off the public for years. That the democratic party did not recognise the anti-establishment mood of the electorate, the desire for an outsider… especially after seeing how Obama beat Hillary previously (did they just think it was about race?), and that she nearly lost to Sanders* this time on that very issue… was a major oversight on their part.

    If the democrats had run a relative establishment outsider, or at least some new face without heavy historical baggage and decent credit among blue collar types, they might have gotten more of their base (and perhaps some independents) out to the polls. It wouldn’t have taken much to change these results.

    In the end the silent majority of the US population (nearly 50% didn’t even vote) may not be all that conservative, though it is clear that in this election those that were silent during polling and ended up voting likely were.

    *Yeah, yeah I know Sanders has been in politics forever, but he was politically independent and not part of the democratic establishment. If nothing else, the party elite’s unified work against his winning the nomination should prove that.

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  11. Traditionally, leftist politicians, in the US and in Europe, have claimed, and are still claiming that they are speaking “the voice of the people” and that they represent “the masses”. I agree with the author of this interesting piece that this is no longer true and perhaps never really was.Trump, Le Pen, Orban, Farage et consortes now have the people’s ear.
    Only lofty intellectuals believe that “radical intersectional climate policies” and alike should be easily bought by “everyone between New York and California” as Kaufman eloquently put it.

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  12. “good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”
    ― Donald J. Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal

    Interesting that this ‘bad publicity’ interview on 60 Minutes with a record national audience following the 1992 Superbowl is what propelled the Clintons into the national conscience. Clinton went on to win the New Hampshire Primary which was the springboard to the Democratic Nomination. Like Trump who does his branding of ‘losers’, ‘pigs’, ‘low energy’, ‘little marco’, ‘lyin ted’ etc. Bill Clinton branded himself as The Comeback Kid.

    Of course Bill and Hilary read the Art of The Deal which was published in the 1980’s.

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  13. Though everybody thought of Trump as the upstart, amateur, clown, neophyte etc., to many of the other 16 in the Republican field and the Clintons, was he more like their father badgering them the way his own father Fred Trump probably badgered him?

    Or as Bill Maher intimates with his comedy towards both sides, are we constantly witnessing the death of American Politics?

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  14. “We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers”……Marx

    Archie the laborer who works on the company loading dock so he literally handles the products of man’s labor that he cannot own, is also the only guy in the household who has the job to support them. Archie is also branded the miserable bigot crank who works all day. The genius of Norman Lear is that this aligns with the WikiLeaks dump where Podesta and others say that the aim of politics is to keep them in an endless narrative.

    What we are witnessing here in this country is very real.

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