Centered

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

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