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.