The ‘silent majority’: populist cliché or warning?

Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the run-up to the EU referendum in Britain in June 2016, at a time when the Remain vote was apparently enjoying a modest but clear advantage, one of the numerous opinion polls focused on public attitudes to immigration and on how this might affect the popular vote. When asked to assess the immigrants’s contribution to British economy, responses were split evenly between those acknowledging immigrants’s contribution to the economy and those questioning it. Yet very strong affirmative majorities were recorded by the same poll in response to questions about Britain being “overcrowded”, about the need to “significantly” restrict immigration through tighter border controls, to limit the migrants’s access to public services, and so on. When interviewees were asked to identify the one issue that could sway their vote in the referendum, respondents singled out immigration by a spectacular margin. Unfortunately, we know too well how this played out.

As the history of opinion polling shows, such social majorities can however be mercurial and hard to gauge. Societies typically host a wide spectrum of views on any given issue and, while it may be relatively easier to talk of ‘extremes’, the mainstream-as-majority view is often very hard to ascertain or deduce. Opinion polls go some way towards capturing the mood of society in a more focused, issue-specific format but they can also be misleading: their results hinge on the way the question is framed, the moment when or the medium through which it is asked, and the group that is sampled. Such parameters may all skew the findings, in some cases deliberately or as in most cases unintentionally. Thus to talk of ‘social majorities’ – or the general will of ‘the people’ – is very often a wishful projection or an educated guess with a very limited shelf life indeed.

Part of the problem is that social majorities do not always have a voice or a desire to speak loudly enough to be captured by the radar of public mood. Noisy minorities can easily skew impressions as much as boisterous leaders claiming that they bespeak the ‘real’ majority view. Meanwhile, the existence of social taboos about the public expression of particular views in any society may lead to tactical form of public self-censorship – a divergence between the private and publicly expressed views of the individual. “Regimes of truth”, Foucault perceptively argued, always produce “subjugated knowledges” – views and voices that have been de-legitimised and suppressed by a hegemonic discourse seeking to regulate knowledge and therefore public discourse itself.

When Nixon, for example, invoked the “silent majority” as the source of his popular mandate and his vice-president Agnew spoke of a small ‘liberal’ elite as the exclusive source of ‘truth’ in their contemporary America, the elected US presidential duo effectively questioned all sorts of orthodoxies about the country’s ‘mainstream’ society. The trope of the “silent majority” lays claim to a social majority that has been allegedly ignored, misrepresented by biased media, effectively silenced, and forgotten. It sounds anti-elitist and liberating, mixing lofty principles such as freedom and democracy with the call for radical change. For decades it and its various by-products like the “real people” and so on have become the discursive staple of right-wing populists across the world, uniting the language of very different figures such as Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, , the Tea Party radicals and of course Donald Trump. It has also become a favourite electoral stratagem for mainstream political campaigns, such as Vote Leave for the 2016 EU membership referendum in the UK or a series of elections in the 2000’s fought by Nicolas Sarközy as either incumbent or aspiring president.

The populist “silent majority” trope has been repeatedly exposed as a cynical misnomer and disparaged by mainstream media and academic research. It may be exactly that of course. Populist forces have rarely reached the status of expressing the views of an enduring social majority. It is also easy to mistake noise for public support, although this is an argument that cuts both ways. However those who take solace in arguing that populists are propelled by angry – and thus vocal – minorities may be drawing a false sense of security from this comforting illusion. Flimsy electoral results cannot be treated as the sole or most authentic expression of public political views. Voter dealignment from mainstream parties is typically – and misleadingly – lagging behind attitudinal shifts with regard to key political and social issues. In other words, majorities can be – and very often are – less politically progressive or socially/culturally conformist than either their voting behaviour or public opinions may suggest or indicate.

So here’s the thing: the social ‘mainstream’ is a far, far broader patchwork canopy than liberal and/or progressive opinion can comfortably profess. Mainstream acceptability is delineated by widely shared thresholds of acceptability on either side. Like taboos, these thresholds entail particular attitudinal and behavioural jumps that mark the boundaries of political legitimacy and ‘truth’. It is against these categorical extremes, Uwe Backes argued, that any “majority society” reflects its supposed normality. Yet relative silence or lack of voting majorities is not sufficient assurance of robust adherence to the mainstream, let alone of positive or moderate approval for its lofty normative declarations. Supported by rooted and robust Foucauldian “regimes of truth”, as argued above, normative mainstream discourses are powerful enough projections to effectively conceal opposition and drown out public expressions of resentment. Whether, however, relative silence can be taken as tacit or passive approval is another matter.

To take a recent example, recent polls conducted during the Black Lives Matter mobilisation in the USA have encouragingly revealed significant increases in public support against institutionalised racism. Yet they also typically show ongoing opposition to taking down symbols of the country’s imperialist and segregationist past. Supporting anti-racism when asked does not mean actively opposing racism. Protests, especially when they turn violent, can be divisive, pitting ideological support against the (always powerful) ‘law-and-order’ agenda. To declare support for racism publicly remains a very strong taboo; but to invoke ‘public order’ or national identity as under threat by such protests is also a strongly emotive tool that can make or break incidental social majorities, prompting a lot of people to add the conditional ‘but’ to potential declarations of support for a noble cause.

To conclude, then, the search for a political ‘mainstream’ is messy, often self-contradictory, fickle, and difficult to access in sufficiently high resolution. It is more reflective of a continuum of more or less acceptable views than of a stable positive majority. For a politician or movement to claim unique and/or privileged access on the supposed ‘real’ mainstream’s behalf is duplicitous hyperbole. But to trust either election results or opinion polls as the more accurate trace of ‘mainstream’ pulse is to put just a bit too much faith on the question asked as well as on the validity of the answers publicly given. The populist claim to give voice to silent majorities is more akin to a call for public insurrection by supposed underdogs against certain existing social and political taboos – and a promise of long-overdue redress. Seen from this perspective, it may be easier to comprehend why the populist trope has worked to shock electoral effect too often in recent years; and why it is a mistake to simply brush it aside as a misnomer or as a loud, manipulative social media fad. It is also just a bit closer to an uncomfortable truth that we may wish to admit and act upon: the ‘mainstream’ as a bundle of diverse social majorities (or in electoral parlance, ‘voting coalitions’) is generally less progressive and more erratic than often assumed. Populists may not be supported by “silent majorities” – but their transgressive arguments speak to, legitimise, and then normalise a number of “subjugated knowledges” that have the power to transform the complexion of the ‘mainstream’.

Professor Aristotle Kallis is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Keele University. See full profile here.

© Aristotle Kallis. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).