The Myth of the Silent Majority

Americans have learned the wrong lessons about the political consequences of protest.

photo of protesters with 'George Floyd' banner
Protesters marching in Manhattan on May 29, 2020 (Mel D. Cole)

I drove 1,200 miles, from Philadelphia to Minneapolis, to be a part of the George Floyd protest movement. Throughout the city, from the predominantly white neighborhood of Bancroft to the more diverse streets of Bryant, I saw signs in living-room windows that read black lives matter and we stand for equality. As I drove up Cedar Avenue, heading to 38th Street, I also saw signs in the windows of stores and restaurants that read minority owned—an indication that these businesses stood with the Floyd movement, but also that they hoped to be spared should the protests turn violent.

Pressed together with protesters adorned in masks, I stood on the unofficially renamed George Floyd Avenue, across the street from Cup Foods, where Floyd had been killed after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. As I scanned the crowd, I saw what I had seen in the other cities I’d visited as I made my way west: a shockingly diverse group of protesters. As a Black man, I found myself standing next to many people who did not look like me—sometimes, their cries even drowned out my own. The coalition has changed. It has grown.

Of course, not all Americans have embraced Black Lives Matter. Some look at the men and women demanding reform and see only looters and thugs. They are nurtured in this view by the president of the United States, who greeted the outcry following Floyd’s murder with threats of violence against the protesters and tweets about “LAW AND ORDER” and the “SILENT MAJORITY.”

Richard Nixon introduced the latter term to the American people during another moment of ferment, one to which the current unrest has been compared. During the 1968 presidential campaign and into his first years in office, as anti-war demonstrations took place across the nation, Nixon sought to ostracize the protesters, painting them as radicals whose views did not reflect those of law-abiding Americans. The term, which he introduced in a speech in 1969, cut along racial lines: The leaders of the civil-rights movement had become prominent opponents of the war in Vietnam, where a disproportionate number of Black Americans were fighting and dying. Martin Luther King Jr. went so far as to discourage Black college students from enlisting.

Donald Trump borrowed from Nixon’s playbook during his presidential run in 2016. During a rally in Las Vegas early in his campaign, he villainized a protester by saying, “I would like to punch him in the face.” The rambunctious crowd cheered in response. In the months that followed, as his campaign stops continued to be disrupted, Trump turned the protesters into a useful foil: The roaring crowd was us; the demonstrators were them. They did not belong to the silent majority, whose prerogatives Trump intended to restore. Enterprising supporters even created signs: silent majority stands with trump. Months after the election, the signs were still available for purchase on Amazon, for the low price of $14.35, with positive reviews for the sturdiness of the paper.

The specter of Nixon’s victory in 1968—and Trump’s in 2016—has haunted the George Floyd protests. By channeling Nixon once again, Trump clearly hopes to revive his political fortunes. Polling shows that a majority of Americans view the protests positively. Trump’s fractious response to the Floyd killing, coming on the heels of his administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic, seems to have left him badly damaged politically.

Yet Trump has seemed damaged before. Some fear that, in the privacy of the voting booth, the American electorate will back the status quo over the calls for change in the streets. As of this writing, the protests have remained outraged yet largely peaceful. What if they turn violent and support for the cause they are championing erodes? “THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER!!!” Trump tweeted in mid-June. But the silent majority need not be stronger than ever to reelect the president. Trump has to persuade only a small number of voters in a handful of midwestern states in order to win a second term.

My own view, having spent the past decade studying protest movements in the United States, is that we’ve always overestimated the power of the silent majority, and that we’re giving it too much credence now. Righteous, nonviolent demonstrations are a hallmark of a functioning democracy. They provide catharsis for the participants and show the nation at large that something is wrong with our society and needs to change. Protests can also spark that change, by channeling energy, resources, and votes to candidates who take up the cause. Even 1968, the year that supposedly proves the risk of backlash, fails as an example if we consider the presidential race alongside the congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral contests that year, which swept reform-minded politicians into office.

Far from playing into Trump’s hands, the demonstrators demanding justice for Floyd are engaged in a movement that is likely to aid those candidates who oppose the president’s policies in November—and that could reshape American politics for years to come.

Clockwise from top left: Harlem, May 2020: a rally against police brutality; Washington, D.C., May 1957: the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, calling on the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; Minneapolis, May 2020: protesting the murder of George Floyd; Chicago, August 1968: demonstrators confronting federal troops during the Democratic National Convention. (Kevin Claiborne; George Tames / The New York Times / Redux; Brandon Bell; Raymond Depardon / Magnum)

I’ve looked closely at how protests and elections have interacted in America since the 1960s, and I’ve found that protests nearly always benefit candidates associated with the causes being fought for—helping them build bigger war chests, bring more voters to the polls, and ultimately win.

Both the people marching in protests and those observing them are inspired to contribute to candidates who are perceived as being committed to change. Consider the wave of protests that followed Trump’s inauguration. The most high-profile of these were the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and the counterprotests at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But anti-Trump protest was widespread across the United States; hundreds of events occurred in his first year in office alone. Zip code by zip code, demonstrations on behalf of liberal causes were associated with a significant increase in donations to Democratic candidates; controlling for other factors, such as neighborhood wealth, the places that saw protests saw more money flow into campaigns. Spread across the nation, political activism was the source of millions of dollars in additional campaign giving.

This is not to say that protest doesn’t inspire backlash. I also found a connection between liberal protests and donations to Republican candidates. But these contributions were smaller, overall. When liberal protests occur, all candidates make money. Democrats just make more of it.

Protests likewise increase voter turnout. For example, although Black voters cast ballots in lower numbers in the 2016 general election than they had in 2012, the drop-off was less pronounced in areas where Black Lives Matter was active. And in areas that witnessed heightened levels of protest activity, Black voter turnout increased.

All of this energy helps candidates affiliated with protesters’ goals. On average, a district that sees 50 liberal protests in an election year sees the Democratic candidate in that district increasing his or her vote share by 2 percent and the Republican decreasing his or her vote share by 7 percent compared with the previous election. In a close race, such swings can be decisive. During the 2018 midterms, eight liberal protests occurred in the average congressional district. In districts with greater protest activity, liberal candidates fared well. Sixteen liberal protests in Charleston, South Carolina; 36 in Tucson, Arizona; and 43 in Miami helped Democratic candidates Joe Cunningham, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Donna Shalala flip seats in their respective districts.

This was hardly the first time that protests had fueled successful challenges against incumbents. In the 1960s, for instance, the civil-rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests descended on Abner Mikva’s Chicago neighborhood. Mikva did not immediately champion either cause, and he lost in his run for Congress in 1966. Over the next two years, during which Illinois’s Second Congressional District was the epicenter of protest activity in the state, he reinvented himself as a strong advocate of the campaign to end racial discrimination in housing. He also acted as legal counsel for protesters jailed by an aggressive police department during anti-war protests.

Mikva’s embrace of these movements rattled Chicago’s Democratic machine, led by Mayor Richard Daley, who infamously ordered the police and the National Guard to crack down on protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention. Mikva unseated a superannuated Democratic incumbent during the primary and then roundly defeated his Republican challenger, even as Nixon carried Illinois. Mikva was not alone: Democratic candidates across the nation benefited from liberal protest, which helped the party maintain control of the House and the Senate.

Focusing too narrowly on Nixon’s victory in 1968 has also encouraged Americans to overlearn another lesson from that year: that violent protest will necessarily provoke a backlash. The fact is, many protests turn violent when the supposed enforcers of law and order do harm to demonstrators, whether it’s an Alabama state trooper fracturing John Lewis’s skull in Selma in 1965 or Park Police dispersing the people who congregated in Lafayette Square in 2020. Voters understand this. While wanton, opportunistic destruction of public property can certainly undermine an otherwise righteous protest movement, nightsticks, rubber bullets, and tear-gas canisters can draw attention to—and sympathy for—a cause and those brave enough to advocate for it.

The point of protest is rarely to swing a single race, however momentous that race may be. It is to change the terms of political debate, and ultimately to change society itself. And indeed, protest has always foreshadowed the most radical shifts in American history.

Protest calls attention to problems with the status quo—and often spells political doom for those who have upheld it. In my research, I’ve found that frequent liberal protest in a given congressional district increases the probability that a serious Democratic challenger will enter the race for that seat, whether it’s occupied by a Republican or a complacent Democrat. Of course, those challengers don’t always carry the day. But when they do—when they are propelled into office by a protest movement—they become its institutional allies, introducing bills and supporting policies that reflect protesters’ concerns. In this way, protest not only affects electoral outcomes today, but establishes the conditions for change in the future. Abner Mikva went on to be a leading progressive voice for decades and helped launch the careers of Elena Kagan and Barack Obama.

The Floyd protests likely arrived too late in the 2020 cycle to push new candidates into the field, but they have shifted the dynamics of some races, helping progressive candidates win primaries and topple entrenched incumbents such as Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who lost his race despite the support of the Democratic establishment. We will continue to see the effects of these demonstrations in years to come. When protest occurs, we can expect that change is coming—change that reflects the evolving will of the people.

This article is adapted from Daniel Q. Gillion’s book, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy. Copyright © 2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. It appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Protest Works.”