This phrase was made popular by Richard Nixon around 1968 when he attempted to discredit Vietnam war protestors as a group of vocal fringe elements, while he was secretly escalating the war into Cambodia. “The silent majority”, it was supposed by Nixon, still supported the US involvement in Vietnam.
It must be admitted, that 40 years later, the phrase still resonates with us. But as clever and smart as Nixon was, he did not come up with it himself; the phrase actually had its origins in classical literature. It was used to describe dead people. So, surely that must mean that in Nixon’s democracy, we should always respect the opionions of the dead, since there will always be more of them than of us. This need to respect their opinions is made more urgent by the fact that dead people cannot speak for themselves, and thus have no voice of their own in our political discourse. In addition, most of them are hard-working dead people who have never committed crimes.
In recent elections, however, dead people have in fact lent their weight to various political parties by voting in several recent elections in several states in the US. Dead people have also run for political office, and one of them won an election in a race against John Ashcroft. In America, dead people are full participants in the democratic process, benefitting both Democrats and Republicans.
Surely, Nixon’s phrase has resonance, not in the apologetic, hawkish, warmongering sense, but in the originally intended sense, backed by over 1000 years of classical European literature. I think Nixon really was referring to dead people, and he may have even been invoking the spirit world.
What is the true origin of that phrase? I was itching to find out.
At first, I thought “silent majority” must have originated from Dante’s Inferno, where would likely have used it to describe the dead. It turned out to be too juicy a fact to be true. He doesn’t use the phrase.
Phrases close to this have been pointed out a few years ago by the late classical scholar James B. Butrica, who quoted several writers, including the ancient Roman writer Petronius (AD 27-66): “Abiit ad plures” or, “S/He’s gone to the majority”, a fancy way of saying “S/He’s dead”. Butrica says that the same phrase was also used some 200 years earlier by Roman writer Plautus (circa 254–184 BCE).
At any rate, all I have to say is: one man, one death. It wouldn’t be terribly democratic if one man had two deaths. And also, I believe quite strongly that if you vote when you are alive, then if you die right after you leave the polling station, then you shouldn’t be allowed to come back and vote again as a dead person before the polls close.
In closing, I must say that the constant invocation of “the silent majority” over the years whenever most discourse opposes what a politician does, is a fallacy. We only have one way to read “silent majority” (I’m talking about the living this time), which is to say that if you don’t speak up, it is because it (whatever “it” is) doesn’t arouse your passions, and thus you don’t care. If the majority of voters decide not to vote, for example (as is too sadly the case most of the time), then their silence is not seen as a vote for anyone, and their non-votes are never counted. A politician cannot “listen” to the silent majority, because there is nothing for them to hear.