Anna von der Goltz, Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson. Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States: Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. XIII, 412 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-16542-7.
Reviewed by Ryan Glauser (Freie Universität Berlin)
Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States: Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, edited by Anna von der Goltz and Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson, demonstrates both the fragility and durability of the silent majority as a social movement and political force on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Following the current trend within the historiography, the editors challenge the notion that the 1960s and 70s were solely moments of the New Left. Instead, “the political and cultural shifts that fostered the rise of the New Left also spurred the reorientation and revitalization of the center-right in many Western European countries” and the United States (p. 5). By examining conservative movements through a transatlantic lens, the volume highlights the national peculiarities of each political movement and the similarities and differences among them.
Part 1 focuses on the origins and ideas of the silent majority. In the first chapter, Julian E. Zelizer discusses the evolution of conservatism in the United States, from opposing the New Deal in the 1930s to “ideas that were increasingly off-center from the mainstream of the polity” in the 1970s (p. 37). His reasoning is grounded on several developments: the creation of a vocal religious minority, a reaffirmation of ardent free-market ideology, the mobilization of corporate funding, and the reaction against the ongoing racial tensions. This unique combination of elements faced a weakened liberal opposition, which allowed Richard Nixon to term the conservatives the “silent majority,” thereby legitimizing the movement. Chapter 2 delves into the radicalization of free-market economic theory. “Neoliberalism” became an economic and political theory. Daniel Stedman Jones argues that “Friedman, Stigler, Buchanan, Tullock, and Becker forged ahead on the path that led to radicalization,” while Friedrich Hayek remained active but accepted more of a philosophical role (p. 59). This radicalization took several decades to accomplish, but at the end, the new economic theory was based on a rational, self-interested actor; deregulation of the social welfare state; the rise of public choice theory; and the use of statistics to support economic arguments. Part 1 establishes the broad and general reasoning behind the silent majority and the New Right, while part 2 activates this politically silent group.
Part 2 opens with a discussion about the silent minority of conservative students in British universities during the 1968 movements and the ways the New Left triggered a conservative response. John Davis uses oral testimonies from several prominent conservative students, most of whom later served at Westminster, to demonstrate the ideological and political differences between liberal-conservatives and the popular conservatives of the 1970s. Chapter 4 focuses on West Germany in order to highlight the vocal moderate-conservative student minority. As in Davis’s chapter, the conservative students responded to the 1968ers. The German students,however, quickly lapsed into political debates that permanently fractured the conservative student movement. According to Anna von der Goltz, “real political conflicts characterized student activism in the wake of West Germany’s 1968, which tends to be overlooked” (p. 104). Bernard Lachaise examines the mobilization of the French silent majority in the fifth chapter. In France, the silent majority reacted to May 1968 by associating itself with rural life and “common sense,” and became a tool to use against the communists and socialists. Yet, despite the meteoric rise of the conservative movement, the socialists and communists remained important and critical components to political discussions in France through the 1990s. The final chapter in part 2 addresses the conservative moment in the United States through a Humean perspective. Donald T. Critchlow states that “politics in the 1960s and 1970s can be framed as a radical challenge to dismantle the existing consensus and the conservative response in this contest” between the New Left and the political establishment (p. 125). Therefore, according to Critchlow, the failure of the Left and success of the Right was determined by the amount of faith the population had in existing institutions and the rule of law. It was not due to an inability to secure the proper political moment.
Part 3 homes in on the issue of race within the silent majority. Following the work of Critchlow, Bill Schwarz discusses the means through which private issues entered the political realm and lexicon. Schwarz uses the political stories of George Wallace, Enoch Powell, and Mary Whitehouse to demonstrate that “the silent majorities had to renounce their commitments to the private and to the ordinary in order to embrace the public world of politics” (p. 148). By doing so, the private sphere was able to utilize mass media to spread their political message and latch onto the lingering racism within the private. Chapter 8 returns to the United States and investigates a minority of African Americans who remained loyal to the Republican agenda of black capitalism. Joshua D. Farrington argues that despite the obvious social and cultural reasons to vote Democratic in the 1970s, a group of African Americans voted Republican because of the economic support offered and obtained under the Nixon administration. They saw themselves as part of the silent majority; thus, “the need to expand parameters beyond the white silent majority” becomes obvious (p. 184). In sum, part 3 successfully complicates the typical historiographical narrative of race as a weakness for the conservative movement.
In a similar vein, part 4 contemplates whether religion was a strength of the conservative movement during the 1960s and 70s. The debate around the rise and political role of the American Christian Right is opened in chapter 9 by Mark J. Rozell and Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson. The authors trace the origins of the American Christian Right to the 1960s because of a series of Supreme Court cases which prompted religious pastors and communities to challenge the separation of faith and political activity. These attempts had not succeeded during the 1960s and 70s, but a “second-coming of the Christian right” occurred in the 1990s as it merged with secular conservatives (p. 208). In chapter 10, Thomas Großbölting asks why there is no Christian Right in Germany. His answer revolves around the lack of political acceptance of religion as a political lens, the history of the Nazi movement as a history of conservative backlash, political and social concerns within the religious communities that kept them divided internally, and the inability of Protestant and Catholic communities to bridge the religious divide. Germany has a heterogeneous Christian Right rather than a unified political movement. Marjet Derks concludes similarly in chapter 11 in regards to a Christian political movement in the Netherlands. Unlike Großbölting, Derks argues that secularization and the desire for a greater divide between church and state meant a long-term undoing of the Christian Right. As chronicled in chapters 10 and 11, the Christian Right failed to coalese, and the end result was a scattered and disunified religious political movement.
In part 5, the conservative use of mass media is examined, a commonality among all the previous chapters. Martin H. Geyer argues that Die Schweigespirale (Spiral of Silence) was a scholarly theory-building exercise developed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in tandem with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to which she was affiliated politically. This theory was used by the CDU to diffuse its political ideas deeper into German society and influence the formation of a true silent majority. Thus, “her theory can be understood as an academic interpretation of Nixon’s utterances on the silent majority” (p. 273). In chapter 13, the CDU’s campaign against “Red Public Television” in the 1970s and the debate about German state-owned media’s ability to influence political thinking is questioned by Frank Bösch. The CDU began to campaign against state-owned media after the Social Democratic Party (SPD) gained control of the chancellorship and Bundestag. Bösch traces the long-term effects of the debate within the German politics and the ways the debate changed in response to similar debates in other countries, such as politicized discussions over the Public Broadcasting Act in the USA, the dualistic approach adopted in the United Kingdom, and the free-market approach of Italy. Bösch argues that these debates helped commercial media into German society, but also that “West Germany’s left as well as its conservative middle class became more silent” (p. 294). Chapter 14 attempts to broaden the Western European conservative movement by examining the quest for a common conservative political language in the 1960s and 70s. Martina Sterber demonstrates that the ability to consolidate a conservative lexicon was easier for West Germany and the UK, but nearly impossible continent-wide because of divergent national histories and political meanings. As Sterber states, “any attempt to define European conservatism must therefore be elastic enough to do justice to the plurality of conservatism” (p. 314).
The final section, part 6, focuses on cultural diversity within the conservative movement. In chapter 15, Stacie Taranto shows how housewives on Long Island reacted against feminist initiatives, specifically the New York abortion reform law of 1970 sponsored by the Rockefeller Republicans, to promote and defend “clearly delineated sex roles” which were “the basis for a moral and successful capitalist America” (p. 321). By utilizing radio, flyers, and television, this small group of women was able to expand its influence countrywide and help brand feminism as anti-family. Chapter 16 investigates the emergence of New Right sexual politics by using pornography and comics as the lens of analysis. Whitney Strub traces the legacies of Cold War homophobia and Jim Crow segregation to the Helms amendment, an analysis facilitated by “the naming practices of queer theory and critical race studies” (p. 355). The Democratic Party offered neither a plausible opposition to the Republicans nor a staunch defense of the successes of the LGBTQ community during the 1980s and 1990s. In the last chapter, Lawrence Black highlights the differences between Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s cultural preferences by contrasting the British youth movement, educated conservatives, and Mary Whitehouse with their American counterparts. Black states that “British New Right culture was less distinct from the ‘old right,’ and where it was more strident, struggled to gain traction in wider society,” which meant that Thatcher tended to win economic arguments, but lose the cultural ones (p. 374). Although this section focused mainly on sexual politics, it successfully pulls middle-class and grassroots cultural norms into the debate surrounding the rise of a New Right culture.
Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States delves into the many debates within the historiography surrounding 1968, conservative backlashes, and the formation of a New Right, as suggested by the name of the volume. Most importantly, the chapters within the volume either challenge previous notions and ideas or complicate the narrative by including analyses of previously understudied groups within conservative movements. The volume offers intriguing and controversial claims, even though it also remains grounded in the formation of a multitude of diverse New Right movements because of national specificities and histories. The volume focuses mainly on the United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany, the transatlantic specializations of the editors. This volume is highly recommended because it offers an in-depth and critical analysis of both the effects and failures of the New Left, as well as the influence and creation of the New Right.
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Ryan Glauser. Review of Goltz, Anna von der; Waldschmidt-Nelson, Britta, Inventing the Silent Majority in Western Europe and the United States: Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s.
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