Seth Blumenthal is Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. In his new book, Children of the Silent Majority: Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980, Blumenthal considers the conservative youth of the Nixon era, the young voters long overshadowed by their counterparts in the counterculture. In his outreach to young people, as in so many other ways, Nixon offers an interesting comparison to Donald Trump.
ECM: Richard Nixon imagined his supporters as a white, patriotic, God-fearing, Middle American “silent majority.” Your book is about their kids. Why focus on them?
SB: They were an example of Nixon’s counter-intuitives. Most people don’t really think that there was a story here, because the common narrative suggested that the children of the silent majority did not support Nixon, but rather his opponent, George McGovern. But as I began to dig down beneath the surface image of this group, I realized that there was a lot more substance.
ECM: There was a lot of discussion about a “generation gap” in those days, suggesting that young adults held positions sharply at odds with those of their parents. Was that perception incorrect?
SB: There was a generation gap to a certain extent, and it’s true that young people did identify with each other in a way that set them apart from their elders. Nixon’s people, especially after the 26th amendment to lower the voting age, tried not to attack the young as a generation because they felt that an attack on one was an attack on all.
But as we’ve seen in a lot of generational theory going to back to Mannheim’s notion of generations, there are cohorts within generations, and a generation is defined not by shared values, but by issues that divide. Nixon’s approach to young voters was correct but limited, and he could certainly segment off the patriotic or square young voters to do what he wanted, which was to split the youth vote. I don’t think he was particularly concerned with what it would take to attract the young people who did not fit the description of his preferred voter.
ECM: How did he split the youth vote?
SB: The fascinating part is that it was sort of a détente for young people in the middle. In that way, Nixon did more than just divide and conquer—he marginalized and conquered. He worked to attract the people from the middle, appealing to moderate interests like ending the draft or protecting the environment. Even his youth campaign, in a lot of ways, was a gesture to a more moderate political campaign, at least in 1972.
ECM: Billy Graham was famously chummy with Nixon. Did he—or other Christian elites—play a role in moving young voters into the GOP?
SB: Certainly. Evangelical leaders were essential to Nixon’s youth effort that expanded the GOP reach in the Sunbelt. Nixon spoke at Graham’s Youth Night rally of 100,000 evangelical young people at the University of Tennessee, but also Graham put the campaign in touch with fifty major Christian youth groups and their vast mailing lists. Bill Bright, for example, was very important because of Campus Crusade for Christ. In 1972, he held a huge gathering called “Explo” that drew almost 100,000 people.
It was an interesting relationship between those two, and I think it reveals the extent to which politicians were pursuing evangelicals much earlier than most historical narratives testify. Even before 1980, before the appearance of the Moral Majority, that important relationship was developing. And while there is a general sense that evangelicals imposed themselves upon politics, the story of 1972 shows that it was Nixon who really wanted to ingratiate himself with evangelicals. He wanted to go to Explo, but Bill Bright was resistant. Instead, he sent a taped message and, when they took a straw poll of the 100,000 attendees, Nixon won 2-1.
ECM: Was there any middle ground between the radical-secular-left and conservative-religious-right identity groups? For instance, did any significant faction of religious progressives emerge from this era?
SB: There was an element of the anti-war movement that abhorred the drug use, the sexuality, and the permissiveness of this era while also dressing and talking like hippies. The Jesus Freaks, for instance, rejected a lot of elements of society by building communes and opposing the war but remained set apart from the rest of the counterculture in terms of their morality and religion.
ECM: How did these young Nixon supporters react to Watergate? Did it deter them from supporting Republicans later on?
SB: That’s a very interesting question, and it gets at the heart of why this story matters. It’s tempting to look at Watergate and at Nixon’s fall as the end of—or at least a pause in—conservatism. But you have to look at the way young conservatives spun Watergate. Mainly they blamed Nixon personally and government excess more generally as violations of conservative principle. In that light, the fiasco ended up becoming an unexpected yield for conservatism in that it fit cleanly into the anti-government narrative that they espoused.
That said, Watergate was a career-killer for some Young Voters for the President (YVP) and a lot of them that I interviewed told me that they left politics after that and those who stayed were not accepted in Washington circles initially because of their relationship to the Nixon campaign in 1972. I also got the sense that many of the people who worked on that campaign were reluctant to talk to me and a little suspicious of my motives. So I think that, in many ways, Watergate cast a long shadow over the conservative experience and I am following a number of other historians in trying to look past Watergate to understand how and why the Nixon administration was so important in realigning party politics in the United States.
ECM: How indebted was Ronald Reagan to Nixon’s organizational work with this demographic?
SB: Reagan was indebted in three ways. First, the structure of the youth campaign for Reagan in 1980 followed the Nixon formula. It involved a separate, junior campaign staffed entirely by young people and committed to mobilizing young people for the candidate.
Second, many of the leaders from the YVP or who were trained as leaders during the 1972 campaign later became politicians and aides in the 1980s, including some in the Reagan administration.
Last, young voters under Nixon opened up new constituencies for Reagan and the GOP in the South and in working class, white ethnic urban enclaves that had traditionally provided loyally Democratic voters.
ECM: In 2016, Donald Trump reprised the term “silent majority” in reference to his white evangelical base. What can your history teach us about this political moment?
SB: It’s tempting to look at a lot of the rhetorical similarities, but to be honest, I think that Trump is very bad for the Republican future. The GOP is hemorrhaging young voters, as we saw in the recent midterm elections, and I think the current Republican strategy is very myopic in its emphasis on short-term gains is not assuring any long-term victories.
Nixon was able to do both. He created his silent majority and won his landslide victory in 72, but he was also able to use his victories to energize and strengthen the Republican Party for the next thirty years.
ECM: Do have any thoughts on where the legacy is headed? What do you foresee for the children of the children of the silent majority?
SB: I think we’re at an interesting time right now, in that we have a generation that is up for grabs. It’s the same situation that we had with the Baby Boomers between 1968 and 1972—a generation that is very large, incredibly active, and extremely independent.
Back then, Nixon decided that he was going to try to win them over, and he did. That set the stage for a generation of politics. Right now, there is another opportunity—for both parties. But it seems that only one party is taking that opportunity seriously.
This is a huge test for my thesis that young voters matter in long-term political realignment. We will see whether Republicans can alienate young voters and still sustain their successes.