Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Silent Majority

Before we invaded Iraq, all over the U.S. people who were against the invasion sat at their kitchen tables talking about how to persuade their neighbors to join them in protesting against the impending war. Would marches be a good way to get people's attention or would silent vigils be more effective? Should the message be that all wars are immoral or that this war was not justified? Should it be pointed out that war would hurt our economy? Should religion be invoked? Should banners be erected? Should there be a march on Washington? Should people be asked to call their congressmen or to sign petitions?

We tried everything. Nothing worked. The majority of Americans let the war happen, and they let it drag on, until finally the second president to preside over the war told us that he was stopping the war, not because we told him to and not because it was too expensive and not because it was morally wrong to continue. He never really told us why he was stopping the war. He just said the time had come.

Back during the Viet Nam war, the politicians told us that they felt justified in keeping the war going because, although a vocal minority opposed the war, there was a silent majority of Americans who wanted it to continue. It wasn't clear at the time whether the majority of Americans actually wanted the war or just didn't have any strong objection to it. It's hard to know what silent people want, because they don't tell you. Their silence makes it easy for the government to claim their support.

This time, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, a sizable minority of Americans very vocally asserted their objections, and there was, again, not much indication that the still silent majority of the country wanted it. Once again, the majority just went along with the war.

Eventually the majority of Americans grew tired of the war in Iraq. But they never abandoned their silence. They watched this war the way an audience watches a movie. They may have found the war interesting. They may have been moved by the suffering that was reported in the news. They may have become emotionally involved. But they said nothing and they did nothing.

The problem democracies face is that most of the time majorities are silent. If the representatives listen only to the vocal minority, they risk acting undemocratically. If the representatives listen to no one, they risk becoming dictatorial. The absurdity of our present situation is that the majority of Americans, although they remain silent, are upset because they feel that their representatives are not listening to them. They feel the government is exercising power not for the good of the people, but in order to further their own interests. What do these silent people expect?

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