The Middle Americans

January 5, 1970

"Middle America did not really exist as a popular term before the 1960s." Jonathan Rieder, sociologist, "The Rise of the 'Silent Majority'"


Why this emergence of the "so-called 'Silent Majority,'" or "Middle American," in 1969?

What did it mean?

As 1969 drew to a close, readers of TIME sent in their suggestions for the magazine's Man of the Year award. Ranking high were the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts, Ralph Nader, Spiro T. Agnew and the American G.I. In the end, though, the editors decided -- as did a number of readers -- "that the events of 1969 transcended specific individuals. In a time of dissent and 'confrontation,' the most striking new factor was the emergence of the so-called 'Silent Majority' as a powerfully assertive force in U.S. society.

Excerpts from the cover story follow:

"The Supreme Court had forbidden it, but they prayed defiantly in a school in Netcong, N.J., reading the morning invocation from the Congressional Record. In the state legislatures, they introduced more than 100 Draconian bills to put down campus dissent. In West Virginia, they passed a law absolving police in advance of guilt in any riot deaths. In Minneapolis they elected a police detective to be mayor. Everywhere, they flew the colors of assertive patriotism. Their car windows were plastered with American-flag decals, their ideological totems. In the bumper sticker dialogue of the freeways, they answered MAKE LOVE NOT WAR with HONOR AMERICA or SPIRO IS MY HERO. They sent Richard Nixon to the White House and two teams of astronauts to the moon. They were both exalted and afraid. The mysteries of space were nothing, after all, compared with the menacing confusions of their own society...

But in 1969 they began to assert themselves. They were 'discovered' first by politicians and the press, and then they started to discover themselves...It was their interpretation of patriotism that bought Richard Nixon the time to pursue a gradual withdrawal from the war. By their silent but newly felt presence, they influenced the mood of government and the course of legislation, and thus began to shape the course of the nation and the nation's course in the world. The Men and Women of the Year were the Middle Americans..."


Did politicians and the press discover "Middle America," or create it?

"The culture no longer seems to supply many heroes, but Middle Americans admire men like Neil Armstrong and, to some extent, Spiro Agnew. California Governor Ronald Reagan and San Francisco State College President S.I. Hayakawa have won approval for their hard line on dissent. Before his death last year, Dwight Eisenhower was listed as the most admired man in the nation -- and Middle America cast much of the vote...

"Middle America's villains are less easily singled out. Yippie Abbie Hoffman or S.D.S. leaders like Mark Rudd are hardly important enough by themselves to constitute major devils. With such faceless groups as the Weathermen, they merely serve as symbols of all the radicals who pronounce the country evil and ripe for destruction. Disliked, too, are the vaguely identified "liberals" and "intellectuals" who are seen as sympathizing with the radicals. Perhaps the most authentic individual villains to Middle America are the Black Panther leaders, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale.

"But there is a danger of oversimplifying both the loves and hates of Middle America. Despite all the evidence of a shift to the right, Middle America for years -- certainly since the New Deal -- has been part of the country's basic leftward trend, and still is. The Middle is located much farther toward the left today than it was a decade ago.


Was this a turning point in American politics?

"Who precisely are the Middle Americans?...They are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. As a rule, they are not the poor or the rich. Still, many wealthy business executives are Middle Americans. H. Ross Perot, the Texas millionaire who organized a group called "United We Stand Inc." to support the President on the war, is an example. Few blacks march in the ranks of Middle America. Nor do the nation's intellectuals, its liberals, its professors, its surgeons. Many general practitioners, though, are Middle Americans...They are not extremists of the right despite the fact that some of them voted for George Wallace in 1968. They are both Republicans and Democrats; many cast their ballots for Richard Nixon, but it may be that nearly as many voted for Hubert Humphrey.

"Above all, Middle America is a state of mind, a morality, a construct of values and prejudices and a complex of fears. The Man and Woman of the Year represent a vast, unorganized fraternity bound together by a roughly similar way of seeing things...

"Where will the Man and Woman of the Year be led by their discontent? The left sees the nation already on the edge of a long night of repression. Nixon, says the left, is subtly calling for the night riders. The liberal-oriented National Committee for an Effective Congress worries that the Administration is molding the Middle Americans into a respectable new right based on the militant Goldwater morality. 'The administration is working the hidden veins of fear, racism, and resentment which lie deep in Middle America," says the committee in its annual report.'


Was "Middle America" giving expression to legitimate grievances?

Racism and fear?


"Home and family are the focus of Middle American morality. Thus the women of Middle America are often more disturbed than their husbands by the assaults on that morality...Their voices are not so much shrill as perplexed.

Mrs. Mildred Budion, 39, wife of a New York City patrolman: "...And then there's the 'mixture' in public schools. I lived on this block practically all my life, and there were very few changes. But more and more it's changing now...I'm not against all blacks. If they're halfway decent, who minds them? I lived on 18th Street with a colored family. They were nice. If you get the right people, okay. But not the families that come here. These are from down South. Most of them are on welfare and have no sense of values. With the Negro people coming, I feel we'll have to get out. It won't be a safe city."

Mrs. Madeleine Winter, 47, newspaper librarian in Pittsfield, Mass: "Dissent is disgusting. If you have a complaint, write your Congressman or the President. School is to get an education. Nobody asked the student dissenters to go to college, so what right do they have to dissent?

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