Political tension is high. The major parties face a realignment, while the nation struggles with protests, riots, and rising crime. Democrats are divided over whether to embrace the new radical demands of an energized far-left faction or to keep to the traditional values of the coalition built by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has sustained them for decades.
That was the American political scene in 1970, when Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg wrote The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate . It is also the scene today, 50 years later. Scammon and Wattenberg’s book was a bestseller and the best examination of the rising Silent Majority. Many in that majority were former Democrats, repelled by their ancestral party’s growing radical fringe, who found a home in what would become Richard Nixon’s vast supermajority in 1972.
As we assess the results of the 2020 elections, we find ourselves in a similar place. The Democrats face a repetition of their polarizing choices. The Real Majority is relevant again and has lessons for both parties, if they are willing to listen. Foremost among these: The radicals appear to have the energy and momentum, but elections are won and policy is made at the center.
Scammon and Wattenberg were both Democrats in 1970 and wrote the book as advice to their own party, but it proved more useful to the other side. Nixon had already begun to emphasize the Silent Majority theme by then, and The Real Majority fleshed out the idea with psephological rigor. The authors contended that the New Deal coalition was splintering, threatening the decadeslong dominance of the Democratic Party.
That resonated with Nixon. He was among the “me-too” Republicans of the 1950s who had made peace with FDR’s expansion of government rather than continue the increasingly futile effort to roll it back. Nixon, like Dwight Eisenhower before him, knew that votes and policy were made in the center, not at the hardcore edges of either ideology.
The New Deal, in the authors’ telling, was an economic shift but not a social one. Voters typically were more interested in economic issues then, and both parties organized their platforms accordingly. The culture was what it was, and if there were changes in it, they were largely out of the control of the politicians.
By the 1960s, that had begun to change. Some of the cultural shift had been brewing for a while. We think of the 1960s as the time when everything became different, but that probably reflects the contemporary bias of those who lived through that decade; many historians point to the 1910s and 1920s as the first Sexual Revolution, when Victorian-era customs about interaction between the sexes began to break down. Likewise, the hippies of the ‘60s were preceded by the beatniks of the ‘40s. In those days, though, the countercultural currents remained subcurrents of the American mainstream. In the second Sexual Revolution, they broke through to the surface.
Or, at least, they appeared to do so. Early counterculture centered on the rich and upper-middle class, but if the later version started there, it did not remain. Mass media, written and published by members of those same classes, projected the ideas they observed among their own as though they were becoming standard, the forefront of the new American culture. Many people did not recognize the country they saw on the evening news.
Vast cultural changes like this contributed to what Scammon and Wattenberg called “the Social Issue” that began to displace “the Economic Issue” in determining voters’ choices. Factors contributing to the prominence of the Social Issue included rising crime, increasing violence in protests, campus unrest and the counterculture there, a reaction against more permissive social values, and concern about the course of the Vietnam War. None of these was in itself a massive change, but taken together, they added up to a disorienting shift in the average American’s world.
In the lifetimes of the authors and readers of The Real Majority, elections had not been fought on these lines. Taxes, tariffs, the gold standard, and other economic arguments had dominated the political landscape for decades. Perhaps this was because in a country (and a world) where most people were poor, jobs and money are paramount considerations. By 1970, many Americans had joined the middle class and were comfortable enough to consider less immediate worries. That trend continues today, when social issues often rise to the top of voters’ concerns. For people outside the college campuses and urban media bubble, though, economic issues still matter.
Race was no small factor in the rise of the Social Issue, but as Scammon and Wattenberg note, the major changes to the once-prevailing system of segregation in the South had already been made. “The racial question has always been with America,” they write, “but in the last decade there has been a sharp, yet apparently paradoxical change in the perceptions that white Americans have of black Americans.”
What that change boiled down to was that there was widespread acceptance, for the first time, of the civil rights acts that demanded people of all races be treated equally under the law. The sit-ins and school desegregation of the 1950s were winding down, and for many, that was good — and enough. The riots that came later, in Watts, Detroit, and elsewhere, provoked a more apprehensive response. The authors believed that “at the same time that white fear and resentment were growing, white attitudes toward civil rights for blacks were probably liberalizing.”
Now, as then, the loudest opinions are spinning out toward the extremes and are taken as representative of the whole country. We are constantly presented with an image of a world spinning out like William Butler Yeats’s widening gyre, where things fall apart and the center cannot hold. It looks like the second coming of the ‘60s, but observers today are missing the same thing they missed in Scammon and Wattenberg’s time: Even if anarchy is in the headlines, elections will be fought in the center, which is holding together just fine.
Consider the situation today, in which many marched in support for police reform after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of this year but opposed the riots and violence that followed the once-peaceful protests. Extremists on the Left call them racist for not embracing every new permutation of the so-called “anti-racist” agenda, while hardliners on the Right castigate them for giving in to any progressive demand. But this is the opinion of the vast center. David Shor, a liberal data scientist, tried to make this same point to his fellow lefties this year and was fired for it. But in 1970 or in 2020, that is the opinion of the center, and the center is where elections are decided.
To the extent there was backlash against the civil rights movement in 1968, it was concentrated in the independent candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between then and now, but for all the time the authors spend on the question of Wallace, his threat to the two-party system faded soon after their book was published. Instead of forming a third party, voters used Wallace as a halfway point. For conservative Democrats, especially in the South, voting for Wallace was their entry into the post-Civil War order that the rest of the country had long endorsed. Their votes became ideological, and their ideology no longer had a home in the Democratic Party.
The far-left faction of the Democrats chalked up Wallace bolters’ motivation to racism and nothing more. And to be sure, many of them were motivated by precisely that. But Scammon and Wattenberg believed that there were other motivations as well. Asked whether they favored a return to “strict segregation,” 38% of Wallace voters said “yes.” These voters’ motivations have to be considered racist by any definition, as do the 11% of Nixon voters and 9% of Humphrey voters who answered the question affirmatively.
But on other questions, these voters were scattered along the left-right axis, as it is generally perceived. The authors note that Wallace voters were “to the right of Republicans on race, law and order, and big government — the Social Issues. But they [were] to the left of Republicans on the bread-and-butter Economic Issues.”
It is easy to see the parallels to today. Some of the Wallace voters had backward racial ideas, which caused members of their erstwhile party to paint them as all racist, to the exclusion of other motivations. But there is a through line of socially conservative, economically liberal voters from Wallace to today’s working-class Democrats. The 2020 version of this voter must increasingly feel at home with the Republican Party of Donald Trump and Josh Hawley and repelled by a Democratic Party that turns on the Wall Street-Silicon Valley axis.
Scammon and Wattenberg described the question in terms that 2020 readers would understand immediately: “Under the banner of New Politics there is talk of forming a new coalition of the left, composed of the young, the black, the poor, the well educated, the socially alienated, minority groups, and intellectuals — while relegating Middle America and especially white union labor to the ranks of ‘racists.’” The authors believed this stratagem to be worse than electoral fool’s gold. “The march of the left-leaning Democrats must certainly yield up a prize of some new, even baser political non-metal; perhaps we might call it jackass pyrite,” they wrote.
But if there is any cry that is universal in politics, it is that “this time is different.” Those on the Left who believe it often cite some version of the “demographics is destiny” argument, saying that changes in the population mean that this time, at last, the radical coalition can win. But Scammon and Wattenberg anticipate this argument; indeed, they are the ones who coined the phrase in the first place.
Modern Democrats have picked up on the triumphalist argument. In 2013, Ronald Brownstein renamed those under the banner of New Politics the “ coalition of the ascendent.” But then, as now, the demography in question shows a vast center of the country that does not fall into one of these groups. Barack Obama was not elected as the vanguard of the new radicalism but rather because he was seen as a centrist, a conciliator, and distinctly not a representative of the radical Left. Despite a few gaffes of the “bitter clinger” nature, he worked hard to maintain that image.
Democrats who want to recreate the Obama coalition (itself formed from the remnants of the FDR coalition) would do well to remember that it included a great many people from the political center. Joe Biden appears to know this, which is why he consistently downplays radical ideas, such as the Green New Deal, and dissembles regarding others, such as court-packing. For every screaming socialist on Twitter, there are dozens of center-left, center-right, and center-center voters who are not crazy about Trump but will also not join in the full dismantling of the American system that radicals desire. But, as in 1970, the real beneficiary of the authors’ advice would seem to be their opponents.
How we select candidates has changed since 1968 and is now almost entirely a product of primary elections. Will the Democrats, whose base is increasingly enamored of socialism, continue to choose candidates who can compete for the center? In 2020, they have done so, largely through the votes of black Southerners whose opinions on social issues are closer to the center than the woke would-be ascendants. If they continue down this path, they will do what the 1972 party of George McGovern could not, but it will require snubbing the loudest, most active cohort in their electorate.
Republicans are also controlled by the primary voters, but in endorsing Trump, the new Republican base set the party on a nonideological course. Trump is not a centrist in the sense of one who unites the parties. In a polarized time, few are. His politics, on the other hand, do align with the socially conservative, fiscally liberal views held by independents for decades. His version of centrism is not nonideological but a reshuffled ideology, a combination of views that did not fit entirely on the Right or Left in the old system. That is a centrism of a sort, and welcoming to a voting bloc that has been ignored by both parties for decades.
It was not enough, in 2020, to pull him over the finish line for a second time, though it came close. Along with the Economic Issue and the Social Issue, a new Temperament Issue motivates a great many voters, especially when one candidate’s unusual temperament is so fully on display through social media. But ideologically, Trump may have laid a path that puts his party, if not himself, on the path toward dominating the center.
Whether either party can learn from The Real Majority depends on whether a party can even be said to learn at all, anymore. Because of how we select nominees, parties can only “listen” to advice if their voters listen to it. Temperamentally, if not politically, Biden is of the center, and Delaware was a swing state when he was first elected to public office. He may have even read The Real Majority, which was released that same year. Working with a Republican Senate may return him to his centrist roots.
But as the post-election recriminations bear out, some congressional Democrats in 2020 are blind to the problem, or else completely at the mercy of primary voters who show no interest in accommodating centrist voters. After losing seats in the House, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn cautioned his caucus against radicalism, warning that if “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we're not going to win.” Far-left members rejected the advice as loudly as ever.
Richard Scammon died in 2001, and Ben Wattenberg followed him in 2015. We cannot know their views on the 2020 election or its candidates. But both parties should consider the advice with which they closed their book: “We recommend to would-be leaders of the people that they trust the people and listen to the people before they lead the people. Listen to the center before leading the center.”
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