As it is used in political discourse, the term “the silent majority” is a supposed group of people who make up most of society who feel a certain way but do not express their opinions publicly. The term has a long history around the world, with documented uses going as far back as the early 19th century. Richard Nixon used it in his 1969 speech about the Vietnam War against a backdrop of large anti-war protests, where he asked the “silent majority” of the American people to support the war effort so that “peace with honor” could be achieved. The speech was very well received by much of the American public. The term was also used in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
I have a bit of a different take on who constitutes the silent majority that is probably pretty novel, but it can be empirically proven.
To wit, the silent majority doesn’t vote.
Time for some numbers.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of the United States was approximately 328 million as of 2019. Let’s keep playing with that number for 2020 since it’s the most recent data we have. According to numbers we’ve seen in recent days, it is estimated that 161 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election. That’s record turnout. It also means that 167 million Americans didn’t vote. Let’s break that number down further.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington DC based think tank that promotes bipartisanship, the number of eligible voters in the United States in 2020 is approximately 239 million. That means that of the total population, 89 million people didn’t vote because they were not eligible to do so. This includes people younger than 18, people who are declared legally incompetent and thus can’t vote, people who are not U.S. citizens and convicted felons.
So in 2020, 239 million people could vote, and 161 million did vote. That means that approximately 78 million people who could have voted did not do so. “But wait, Caleb,” you might be saying right this second! “You said that the silent majority doesn’t vote, but these numbers prove you wrong!”
Follow me further down this here rabbit hole, Faithful Reader, and I’ll show you why I’m not.
According to the most recent numbers I could find (the votes, of course, are still being counted), approximately 77 million people voted for Joe Biden, while 72 million voted for Donald Trump. Sundry third party candidates — Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarians, Howie Hawkins for the Greens, Brian Carroll for the American Solidarity Party and a few others — split up the remaining 12 million or so votes.
That means that even 2020, where election turnout was reaching new heights, more people who could vote decided not to vote than decided to vote for any individual presidential candidate.
That means that more people who could vote found no candidate appealing enough to vote for than the number of people who voted for any given candidate.
That’s what I mean when I say that the silent majority doesn’t vote.
In a year of unprecedented turnout, if you can get 77 million of the United States’ 239 million eligible voters to vote for you, you can be president. That’s about 32% for those of you keeping score at home. Get about one-third of eligible voters, and to the White House you go.
If you bring total population into it, that means that in a nation of 328 million people, every single one of whom are affected in some way by the decisions made by the president, 77 million elect that president. That’s about 23%. Less than a quarter of the country. And again, that’s with record turnout.
So, less than a quarter of the country elects the president, and the other three-quarters plus people live with the results.
It’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately. A contradiction within democracy.
I have wondered more and more in the years since I voted in my first election at 18 why so many people who can vote choose not to do so. Why a greater number of people choose not to vote at all than to vote for the choices presented to them. I’m sure there are myriad reasons, but there’s one that I hear most consistently from people: That they do not find their views even remotely represented by either major party and, since voting is ostensibly an exercise in having one of the choices put before you represent you, do not see the point in voting.
I vote in every election, and I expect I’ll keep doing so, but it’s a viewpoint I’ve grown to understand more and more the older I get.
And even among people who choose to vote, many often say that most of the time they’re voting for what they perceive to be the lesser evil, not someone they feel actually represents them.
What does that say about the state of our republican experiment?
When it comes to being governed, how much of our consent is simply manufactured, as opposed to being given?
And has manufacturing that consent become the de facto purpose of our political economy?
Or is that the way it’s always been?
I’m really not trying to give you things to bake your noodle in the small hours when you should be sleeping. Really.
But these are things I think about. I know I’m not the only one. But sometimes, especially around election time, it feels that way.
But at any rate, vote early. It’s what I do. Shorter lines.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]