Why protests matter in American democracy

Why protests matter in American democracy

By Daniel Q. Gillion

As protests continue nationwide in honor of George Floyd and to express outrage with systemic racism, it remains to be seen how the current civil unrest will shape democracy long term, and impact voting in the fall. The “silent majority”—a phrase coined by Richard Nixon in 1969 in response to Vietnam War protests and later used by Donald Trump as a campaign slogan—refers to the supposed wedge that exists between protestors in the street and the voters at home. The Loud Minority by Daniel Q. Gillion upends this view by demonstrating that voters are in fact directly informed and influenced by protest activism. Consequently, as protests grow in America, every facet of the electoral process is touched by this loud minority, benefiting the political party perceived to be the most supportive of the protestors’ messaging. Read a free sample of Gillion’s important book here.

And we had an election for president that was determined on a slogan called the silent majority. Do you remember that? And if you weren’t in the silent majority, you were in the loud minority. That was me [laughs]. And there was something wrong with the loud minority. It was like “us” and “them.” And we’ve been having those “us” and “them” elections ever since.—William Clinton, March 4, 2000

“I would like to punch him in the face,” Donald J. Trump bellowed into the microphone with a schoolyard bully stare in his eyes as a protester was escorted from a campaign rally in February 2016. The attendees cheered and applauded emphatically. Trump paused, looked out over the crowd, and took in the favorable response. As he basked in the appreciation of his followers, he smiled contentedly, pleased to have shown up the protester. It was clear Trump was not a fan of the protests. In that moment, however, Trump had done something more than just express his disdain for a disruptive protester: he established a political narrative. To the rambunctious crowd at the rally and some viewers at home, the protester became the villain of this American story, and the contrarian political message he espoused was the evil that Trump would guard against.

Trump strove to make it clear that this and other protesters did not reflect the public’s concerns. Rather, they were isolated and erratic abnormalities—distractions that needed to be shunned. The rooting crowd of potential voters was “us,” and the rude protesters were “them.” This creation of a wedge between the public and protest activists, while far from original, warrants a closer look. In order to understand the contemporary narrative surrounding political protesters, we must understand the background story, which began nearly fifty years ago with the birth of the silent majority.

The Back Story

On November 3, 1969, President Richard Nixon appeared on televisions across the United States to make an important speech about the Vietnam War. The opening wide-screen video shot showed Nixon in the Oval Office, sitting at the Wilson desk. California gold-colored drapes framed the background, and the American flag hung behind his right shoulder. It was a classic presidential shot. He firmly grasped his prepared remarks with two hands. Repeatedly glancing downward at his written statement so as not to misspeak, Nixon discussed his approach to the Vietnam War moving forward. Despite cries for him to rapidly end the war, Nixon told the American people that he would not immediately remove troops from Vietnam but rather would offer a peace proposal. This peace proposal would include a complete withdrawal of all outside forces within one year, a cease-fire under international supervision, and the pursuit of free elections in Vietnam.

Toward the end of his speech, Nixon grappled with the opposition that he predicted would arise from those who disagreed with his plan. In an attempt to ward off criticism, Nixon recounted his interaction with a protester in San Francisco—an experience that stuck with him. The protester held a sign that read, “Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home.” Nixon acknowledged the freedom that the citizen had to voice this opinion. Yet he considered this protester and the activists accompanying him as belonging to a small minority in the nation.

Nixon used this experience as an opportunity to push back against antiwar protesters: “I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street. . . . If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.” In concluding his speech, the president made a heartfelt appeal to those not participating in the antiwar demonstrations. He pleaded, “Tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”

Nixon’s speech introduced the notion of a “silent majority” to many in the public. The term had not been widely used at the time, but it had a nice ring to it. It made individuals in the majority feel as though they had power, but they were modest and measured in how they implemented their power. If these individuals who sat quietly watching the political activism from a distance were referred to as the silent majority, then the protesters in the streets could appropriately be referred to as the “loud minority.” Although the president did not verbalize this latter term, the implicit antithesis of the silent majority was a small group of whining complainers who did not reflect the true concerns of the American public or the reality of the times. Hence through his rhetoric, Nixon separated the concerns of protesters from those watching events unfold from the comfort of their homes.

The creation of this juxtaposition also established an atmosphere of “us versus them.” But who belonged to “them”? Historian Rick Perelstein indicated that protesters against the Vietnam War constituted a wide array of individuals that included feminists, hippies, students, and even rock and roll bands. “It was everything that threatened that kind of 1950s’ Leave It to Beaver vision of what America was like,” said Perelstein (quoted in Sanders 2016). This wasn’t just a distinction in political beliefs: the people in the “them” group were othered in more ways than one.

Opposition to Nixon’s military actions emerged from all walks of life, but some of the most ardent critics of the Vietnam War came from the black community. Thus not only was the loud minority a statistical one in the eyes of Nixon but it also constituted a large percentage of racial and ethnic minorities. Adding the contentious state of race relations to political difference about the war only increased the distinction between Nixon’s “us” and the protesters’ “them.” The negative connotation of racial division that became attached to the silent majority now reflected another prominent divide in the United States at that time.

By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had won many battles, not least of which were the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965. The civil rights movement’s attention quickly turned to the Vietnam War, however, when it became clear that a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos were returning home in body bags (Appy 1993; Baskir and Strauss 1978). Unfortunately, racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to be placed on the front lines of the war, and thus were exposed to a greater level of danger than their white counterparts. Furthermore, to civil rights leaders the deaths of many innocent Vietnamese children and destruction of land were unacceptable by-products of war. The fights for civil rights and international peace were inextricably linked.

Up until his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was adamant in his opposition to the Vietnam War. In his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered in the heart of New York City at Riverside Church, he encouraged fellow racial minorities to push back against the war. He went as far as imploring young college recruits seeking military service and ministers of draft age to become conscientious objectors, which meant they would refuse to serve in the armed forces due to a sincerely held moral or ethical belief that war is wrong. In referring to Vietnam, King (1967) stated that “these are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”

Indeed, protesting the Vietnam War became a priority for the civil rights movement—a fact well known to the American people at that time. So when Nixon asked for the silent majority to stand up and push back against the loud minority, the suggestion had a racial bent that insinuated a hard line of competition between voices in the minority community and broader US preferences.

The divisive “silent majority” term and racial connotation that it carried in the 1960s died out in political discussions over the next several decades following Nixon’s presidency. Yet this hiatus from the use of this term in political discourse came to an abrupt close as the controversial millionaire mogul Trump entered the world of politics. During his campaign for president, much of Trump’s rhetoric tugged at the nostalgia felt by some of his supporters for the “good old days” of America.

Walking along and fielding questions from reporters in 2015 early in his campaign, Trump turned to a camera to address the momentum he had gained in the polls. “You see what’s happening and now they say I’m going even higher. The country is fed up with what’s going on.” Trump continued his explanation by resurrecting the famous phrase from Nixon: “You know, in the old days they used the term ‘silent majority’; we have the silent majority back, folks.” President Trump’s revitalization of the phrase “silent majority” cleverly linked his campaign with that nostalgia. By indicating that the silent majority was back, Trump established that his supporters, “us,” were the majority, and quite different from the disruptive protesters, branded as the less popular “them.”

Trump would go on to make this tagline a staple of his presidential campaign, now rebranded and with more vigor. In a rally hosted in Alabama on August 21, 2015, he announced, “We are going to have a wild time in Alabama tonight! Finally, the silent majority is back.” In Arizona on October 29, 2016, he declared, “The silent majority is back. In ten days, we are going to win the state of Arizona.”

The Trump campaign and supporters even created signs that stated, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” These signs continued to be sold online on Amazon for the low price of $14.35 even after the election. What was once an implicit divide, alluded to by President Nixon, was now Trump’s explicit line drawn in the sand separating protesters from nonprotesters. And if protesters crossed that line, they would be met with unwavering hostility.

Trump’s words not only established a divisive political mood; they were demeaning and vitriolic to protesters. In June of the 2016 election year, Trump could be heard stating that he longed for the good old days when people could directly confront protesters and send them out of events on stretchers. Just a few months earlier, a protester was beaten to the ground and repeatedly stomped in the head by Trump supporters at a campaign rally. When asked about the situation, the then presidential hopeful confidently replied, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Even after Trump was elected to office he acknowledged that he knew there was a negative perception of the divisive term and how it related to protests. In remarks given at a roundtable discussion with county sheriffs and reporters, Trump (2017) stated,

And a lot of people agree with us, believe me. There’s a group of people out there—and I mean much more than half of our country—much, much more. You’re not allowed to use the term “silent majority” anymore. You’re not allowed, because they make that into a whole big deal. . . . But there’s a group of people out there—massive, massive numbers, far bigger than what you see protesting.

Trump’s words, like Nixon’s statements a half century prior, indicate that protesters in the streets and the nonprotesters observing them at home have conflicting political perspectives on issues. It is therefore widely assumed that the act of protesting is the sole indicator of political discontent, and inaction is a validation of the status quo. The duality suggested by notions of the silent majority poses important questions: Do protesters remain on the opposing side of the political aisle from nonprotesters, or do protests resonate with the American public and shape political preferences? Do protests affect the outcome of elections and shape our democracy? This line of questioning rekindles an old debate regarding whether the silent majority, nonprotesters, is influenced by the loud minority, the activists in the streets.

This book attempts to answer these questions by making a bold shift away from separating protest and elections, and instead showing how protest activity spills over into the electoral process. Historically, political protest has been spurred by voices within marginalized groups, by those people who express the concerns of the repressed, and are seen as belonging to radical and isolated segments of society. Conversely, electoral outcomes in democracies demonstrate the will of the people and represent majoritarian preferences. As a consequence, political protest is often viewed as being a contrarian perspective to the outcome of political elections. I posit, though, that protests are a part of the social learning process, and act as an avenue of social communication between activists and nonactivists. In particular, protests serve as an informative cue that voters use to evaluate candidates as well as social conditions. The increasing engagement with social media by members of all social groups has allowed protest activists to interact more directly with citizens and politicians. Activists connect through popular media outlets, which disseminate persuasive information on the particular details of an issue. Protesters can now reach the silent majority in ways never before possible, figuratively moving the public ever so closer from the comfort of their homes to the activists in the streets. Protesters and nonprotesters now occupy the same rhetorical spaces for political deliberation.

Because protests place issues on the political agenda, and work to make those issues salient to the public and individuals in power, protests have the potential to shift voters’ evaluation of political candidates. These informative protests can act as a mobilizing force that draws passion from constituents, heightens their interest in a relevant topic, and later increases the likelihood that they turn out on Election Day. At the heart of this influence is partisanship ties; voters use their partisan lenses to translate protest messages into ideological fodder that then propels their political actions. Not only are voters influenced by protest activity, but potential politicians looking to run for office assess their political chances of success by observing the level of activism in congressional districts. Conceived in this manner, protests are the canaries in the coal mines that warn of future political and electoral change. And it is the loud minority communicating to the silent majority that makes this possible.

This is an excerpt from The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy by Daniel Q. Gillion.

Daniel Q. Gillion is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Political Power of Protest and Governing with Words.