Occupy backlash: Will the ‘Silent Majority’ rise again?

Is Richard Nixon, ensconced in the afterlife and watching what’s going on right now in the United States, savoring the fact that the East Coast political and media establishment are once again going to be exposed as hopelessly out of sync with how Americans think — just as they were in 1968 and 1972 in not understanding what Nixon called the “silent majority”? I think so. As I’ve watched coverage of Occupy protesters in California making life hell for commuters in Los Angeles, hassling Black Friday shoppers in San Bernardino and Orange County, and costing hundreds of middle-class truck owner-operators millions of dollars at Oakland’s port, I can’t help but think this abuse of the “99 percent” by those who pretend to be their defenders will affect our politics.

Like many Americans, I initially sympathized with what seemed to be the main gripe of the Occupy movement: the fact that we’d had a catastrophic economic contraction, but those largely responsible for it seemed to pay no price. (I blame Washington, though, not Wall Street.) But as the message morphed into a broader mix of themes — capitalism is bad; having to obey laws is bad; having to pay back student loans is bad; paying for stuff in general is bad — I just felt like groaning in exasperation. That was especially true when seeing the media coverage of Occupy, which has a generous tone that was nearly completely absent in coverage of the last U.S. major protest movement.

I know I’m not alone. I was talking with a journalist with Bay Area roots who loved Occupy until hearing about how its protests may have done permanent damage to struggling small businesses and bistros in Oakland’s waterfront district. “F—ing a–holes,” she muttered.

The broad enthusiasm seen earlier this fall just isn’t in evidence.

Except, that is, on some college campuses and within the wing of the U.S. media and political establishment that believes those running the Obama administration are cautious moderates and that opposition to Obama policies is a sign of stupidity, amorality, racism or all three.

Paul Krugman has continued to say the Occupy Movement’s criticism of America is broadly correct even as it gets vaguer and more esoteric. Really?

Meanwhile, his New York Times colleague, Nicholas Kristof, asserts that Occupy is now setting the national agenda by putting the focus on income inequality.

Sure, people are upset about income inequality. But anyone who thinks this specific issue dominates the national agenda is in a bubble talking with like-minded people. What I see is broad distress over the economy and the lack of the jobs and the perception that what Washington tried to fix the problem didn’t work. Gallup’s polling reflects this.

Nevertheless, because the Occupy movement’s blame-the-rich theme echoes the apparent No. 1 2012 narrative of President Obama and many Democratic lawmakers, and because it reflects what so many Democrats believe, it continues to draw praise from the establishment left.

All of which brings us back to Richard Nixon, pride of Orange County (but not the first president born in Orange County).

Nixon looked at the discord of the LBJ years and concluded that most of the Americans who weren’t being heard from were not comfortable with anti-authority movements. There certainly were ugly racial aspects to this thesis — i.e., Nixon’s Southern Strategy. But in general, Nixon believed that for tens of millions of Americans, anti-authority views translated into anti-Americanism — and into an enduring enmity for the protesters and their supporters.

Nixon was right, says one of the most acclaimed historians of our time: Rick Perlstein, the liberal author of a tour de force of a book released in 2008 called “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.” This is from a Chicago Tribune review of the book:

Nixon’s insights into the possibilities of harnessing voter resentment, Perlstein maintains, derived from his own; indeed, he was a “serial collector of resentments.” As a student at Whittier College, a young Nixon addressed his own painful exclusion from the school’s social elites, the Franklins, by forming his own club of outsiders, the Orthogonians, open to “the strivers, those not to the manner born.” …

His signal achievement was in successfully casting his Democratic opponents as Franklins and enlisting many non-elites into the Orthogonian ranks. He thus seeded the ground for the culture wars that sprouted during the 1960s and persisted, in varying forms, ever since. For the white suburban middle class, admiring Nixon involved “seeing through the pretensions of the cosmopolitan liberals who claimed to know so much better than you … what was best for your country.” As a presidential candidate in 1968, he gave them a name: “the ‘silent center,’ ” those “‘millions … who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly’” and who “lived virtuously.” Within a few years, he fastened on the term that would endure: the Silent Majority. …

But Nixon only cultivated and harvested forces that were already at work. The 1960s of popular memory — of anti-war protesters, the New Left, civil unrest — was only half of the story. Below the radar of contemporary liberals and the media (though not of today’s historians) was another, far more conservative ’60s. If some students protested the Vietnam War, others rallied to support it. Patriotic Up With People concerts were packed. … The ’60s saw the emergence and consolidation of … Nixonland, “where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans … . It is still the country we inhabit, Perlstein believes.

Nixon’s successful depiction of the American left in the 1968 campaign as hostile to middle America — to the silent majority — preceded a series of presidential elections in which the Democratic candidates got 43 percent, 39 percent, 50 percent, 41 percent, 38 percent and 46 percent of the popular vote. In the Electoral College, that translated into four landslide losses, one narrow loss and one narrow win.

Occupy is an out-of-left-field gift to the GOP: an opportunity to revive the silent majority themes that served Republicans so well from 1968 into the 1980s.

To be certain, the paroxysms of the 1960s dwarf those seen in 2011, so maybe the backlash will be muted. And the conventional wisdom, not just from the liberal media but also from some dispassionate observers of the political scene, is that 2012 is a dead heat, with perhaps a slight edge to the incumbent. But if it is a dead heat decided on issues, ads and strategies that move voters slightly in one way or the other, even a small backlash could turn the election.

How helpful to Democrats will it be see Occupy continue to draw headlines for defiance, violence and worse for months and months as the 2012 race comes into focus? How helpful will it be for video to keep circulating like the clip last week in which the president told Occupy protesters in New Hampshire that “you’re the reason that I ran” — after they had heckled him? How helpful to Democrats is it that there is so much fodder with which to sell the perception of Democratic elites holding broad swaths of the public in contempt?

Somewhere, Richard Nixon is cackling. Meanwhile, on this mortal coil, the Karl Roves are assembling focus groups, showing them videos, testing out themes, fine-tuning attacks.

The Democrats aren’t the only ones who are going to mount an “us vs. them” campaign. So will the political heirs to the theorists who crafted the Silent Majority strategy and the most effective “us vs. them” campaigns of the past 70 years.

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