What the new silent majority means for Texas—and the rest of the nation.

August 2007By Comments

Nixon in ‘08: His spirit will haunt the next election.
Illustration by David Foldvari

It hardly needs to be noted that the last time our country voted for a president, Texas was at the center of things. We not only provided the victorious incumbent and Karl Rove’s smashmouth political playbook, but we also witnessed what was touted as the triumph of the same faith-based “values voters” who have powered our state’s political engine for more than a decade. In November 2004 it seemed that America was strongly trending Texan.

Or not. Six months from now, in the most hurried-up presidential campaign in our nation’s history, a flurry of primaries is probably going to anoint the two candidates who will tilt to succeed George W. Bush—and anybody who isn’t well on his (or her) way to raising a $100 million war chest is already out of the picture. The sole Texan anywhere in sight is libertarian Republican Ron Paul (so far to the right that he’s become a cult figure on the left, getting an ovation from Bill Maher’s studio audience [see “The Elephant in the Room,”]), but more importantly, all those faith-based Texas values and their voters have yet to appear on the horizon. For months, the campaign narrative has focused on the failure of the Republican front-runners, led by thrice-wed, pro-choice former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to check out on the checklists of moral watchdog groups like Focus on the Family and win the hearts of true social conservatives.

According to the strikingly illogical conventional wisdom, having already cold-shouldered evolution-denying true believers like former Arkansas governor (and Baptist pastor) Mike Huckabee, values voters are now going to swoon over the candidacy of Law & Order DA Fred Thompson—even though earlier this year FOF founder James Dobson complained that the merely twice-married Thompson isn’t a “committed Christian.” Pro-life, marriage-defending (i.e., anti-gay) social conservatives who didn’t get Dobson’s memo may still believe they can mount a fall values surge behind Thompson—or even serial philanderer Newt Gingrich—but it’s all too patently going to be too little, too late.

What we’re seeing here, however, is a lot bigger than just the inevitable no-show of a credible “values” candidate for 2008. Texas-style values voters, overcounted and overrated in 2004, have already been overwhelmed by a far more enduring and potent political faction. While Republicans hope against hope to find the next incarnation of Ronald Reagan, both parties are going to have to contend with the legacy of a far less venerated Republican president. The name Richard Nixon won’t be invoked much during the frantic sprint to November 2008, but his “silent majority” is going to rise up and be heard again, a ghost from the past that is poised to rock the world—and eventually shake up Texas as well.

Nixon coined the phrase on November 3, 1969, less than a year after inheriting Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War, which the thirty-seventh president characterized in terms the forty-fourth will be able to recycle with only two name changes: “Many believe that President Johnson’s decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others—I among them—have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.” But insisting that “precipitate withdrawal” would embolden America’s enemies, Nixon announced a “Vietnamization” that would enable a beefed-up South Vietnamese army to hang on until a diplomatic solution could be negotiated. “And so tonight,” Nixon concluded, “to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.”

“The great silent majority” was a particularly trenchant phrase for both the new president and his war-weary nation. Like many Americans, Nixon detested the antiwar movement, which had already reached a pitch we can only imagine today; two weeks before Nixon’s speech, millions of Americans had protested in a nationwide Vietnam “moratorium.” Media coverage of the demonstrations often focused on the radical fringe, the tiny fraction who waved the Vietcong flag while burning ours, and the unpopularity of the war—just about the same majority that opposes the Iraq war today—was eclipsed only by the unpopularity of the “student protesters.” With an elaborate political Kabuki theater of Kissingerian diplomacy, actual withdrawals (U.S. combat deaths declined dramatically from 1970 until the end of our direct military involvement, in 1973), and withering attacks on the “liberal elites,” Nixon was able to blunt the wrath of an entire counterculture that had mobilized against him. In 1972, after four years of failing to achieve the “peace with honor” he had promised in 1968, Nixon crushed antiwar candidate George McGovern, winning 49 states.

Nixon lost his presidency when Watergate lost him the trust of his Great Silent Majority. The allegiance of the GSM then passed, briefly, to moralizing Democrat Jimmy Carter, the first Southern evangelical president. But the more secular Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California became a made man in the conservative movement by cracking down on student war protests, was far more effective at turning the GSM into an electoral franchise. Just as Nixon had appealed to the patriotism of demonstration-busting construction workers, Reagan won over blue-collar Democrats while building a base of religious conservatives into a “Solid South” that spread beyond the borders of the old Confederacy to include the millions of Yankees who were migrating to the Sunbelt suburbs. It was a sunny time overall, with few demands made on the nation; for all his tough talk, Reagan never started a war with anybody tougher than Grenada, famously bugging out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing and disappointing hard-liners by negotiating with valedictory Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And our only divorced president emphasized gentle moral prescription—those fuzzy “family values”—rather than fire-and-brimstone proscription.

It was the buoyant populist Bill Clinton, not the patrician George H. W. Bush or the dour World War II hero Bob Dole, who successfully wooed a mostly cheery second-generation GSM, stressing—and delivering on—the primary Reagan values of peace and prosperity while moving toward the cultural center with his “Sister Souljah moment” and his “safe, legal, and rare” stand on abortion. In the contest to succeed Clinton, both candidates battled for the GSM and neatly split it, with George W. Bush touting his feel-good compassionate conservatism and his bipartisan appeal (not to mention his carefully honed regular-guy image) and popular-vote winner Al Gore trying mightily (and, evidently, with some success) to avoid looking too much like a liberal elitist. The electorate was so evenly divided in 2000 that four years later, the Bush team and the media could interpret the incumbent’s 51 percent majority, which exit polls credited to a decisive turnout by pro-life, anti-gay values voters, as a major rightward realignment of the GSM.

But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, after confirming the values voters spike with its definitive post-election poll, soon downplayed its own conclusion, observing that “moral values” was the most nebulous of seven factors voters were offered to explain their 2004 presidential preference and thus the most likely to be chosen. However, this revision has had little effect on the vogue for values voters, which continues well after the 2006 midterm elections should have ended it. But while we’re still waiting for the incredible vanishing values voters to reappear, we’ve overlooked a more far-reaching political and cultural dynamic. Although the 2004 values voters are direct descendants of Nixon’s GSM, they have become a vocal, shrill minority. And as the GSM itself evolves, it is becoming ever more disenchanted with the worldview of its noisy ideological child.

Nixon’s GSM was mostly white, suburban, often Southern, usually religious, and deeply unsettled by LBJ’s expansion of the “welfare state” as well as the federally mandated remedies—busing, affirmative action—that had followed the civil rights legislation of the sixties. And as the counterculture of the sixties became the mainstream culture of the seventies, the GSM could believe that both big government and big media were conspiring against the American way of life.

By the end of the decade the silent majority had given birth to the Moral Majority, the organization founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1979 to voice the discontent of religious conservatives. Those who feared that the pernicious growth of government was matched only by the precipitous decline in morality quickly found a kind of ideological shorthand in Falwell’s twin demons: the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and an alleged “homosexual agenda.” These remain the banner issues for Moral Majority heirs like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, and they were the two issues cited most often by the 2004 values voters, who were really just moral majoritarians by another name.

But along the way, the Moral Majority abandoned the defining reticence of its parent. Falwell set a loudmouthed, combative tone, one echoed by anti-abortion activists who protested as angrily as the antiwar crowd of the sixties and similarly fostered a fringe that believed its violence was justified. This cacophonous counter-counterculture leaped successfully into the cultural mainstream, with Fox News dominating cable and intimidating the broadcast networks, while conservative superstars like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh stood atop the media elite even as they railed against it. And of course the born-again Christian in the White House hardly let an opportunity pass to remind the nation of his faith, even transforming a complex struggle against Islamic extremists into a battle, as much metaphysical as physical, against “evildoers.”

If never silent, values voters did have a moment when they looked like a majority, but it wasn’t 2004. The September 11 tragedy offered Bush an entirely unforeseen opportunity to lead a broadly bipartisan new GSM, and the president and his party rode the wave of resurgent patriotism through the 2002 midterm elections. But like LBJ with Vietnam and Nixon with Watergate, Bush lost the trust of the GSM, with a war he’s never been able to adequately justify or competently wage. What carried the president’s reelection in 2004 wasn’t Karl Rove’s gay marriage—bashing values voters but the Swift Boaters, who used Nixon-era smear tactics to raise fatal doubts about an already too liberal, too elitist John Kerry. In putting his Vietnam service at the top of his résumé, Kerry had set himself up for a backlash from the GSM, who gave him few points for winning medals in a war it hadn’t liked—and who liked him even less for having thrown away those awards to protest it.

As it turned out, Bush’s disastrous second term has only hastened the long-term leftward drift of the GSM—and created a widening rift with its values voters’ progeny. Earlier this year the Pew Research Center did a major trend-line study of American values over the past two decades, finding a new silent majority that remained unheard through six years of Republican hegemony. This majority favors expanding the government safety net and guaranteed national health insurance, even if it means raising taxes. The GSM looks favorably on unions, homosexuals, interracial dating (by a huge margin), affirmative action, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and increased government regulations to protect the environment and place more emphasis on saving energy. By an ever-widening margin, it does not want women returning to “traditional” roles in society, and it does not believe we need to give up our civil liberties to fight terrorists.

On the other hand, the GSM isn’t a slam dunk for Democrats: It is for the death penalty, against gay marriage (but not other gay rights), and strongly convinced that the government can’t do anything well. But in 2006 the Democrats did a better job than the GOP of understanding this paradoxical majority, adopting a measured, protest-free position on ending the Iraq war and putting forward brawny populist poster boys like Montana senator Jon Tester and Virginia senator James Webb. For 2008 the GSM remains up for grabs, with both parties’ front-runners, Giuliani and Senator Hillary Clinton, sharing a lot in common: They’re both pro-choice, gay-friendly New Yorkers, both supposedly on thin ice with their parties’ polarized bases—and for months both held solid leads over their challengers. (If New York mayor Michael Bloomberg runs as a center-hugging independent, the November 2008 ballot could conceivably offer voters three pro-choice, pro-gay New Yorkers.) The new campaign paradigm isn’t the old Bush-Rove feeding-the-base frenzy, with screaming, screened crowds predictably devouring the partisan raw meat; now it’s Giuliani telling a Baptist group in Houston that he’s not going to change his mind on abortion or Barack Obama (for all his star quality, another disciplined centrist) telling automakers in Detroit he wants to raise mileage standards.

Not only is Texas not leading this great American march to the middle, but our state’s leaders are rapidly being left behind. A number of our legislators tried to play catch-up in the last session, attempting yet again to oust anachronistic House Speaker Tom Craddick and grapple with the fraught future of public education, our water and energy supply, and our chart-topping carbon dioxide—laden air. But the result was a near meltdown of the political process. The sobering truth is that Texas, whose huge coastal urban belt is prime demographic turf for the increasingly diverse, tolerant, leftward-drifting new GSM, faces a steep political learning curve after a century and a half of rule by insular, predominantly rural interests. When our Brigadoon state legislature reconvenes two years hence, lawmakers will finally dump the uncompromising Craddick, but we’ll still be in desperate need of the kind of visionary, results-driven centrism that has made Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s Republican governor, the nation’s most effective leader. Sure, we’ll eventually move on and find our own Arnold, simply because we’re so big and so economically and culturally vital. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: Getting our rapidly evolving nation-state to the wise, progressive center is going to be a bumpy, ugly ride.

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