Ideally, governments and other decision makers should consider public opinion and let it guide them in designing policies that benefit the general public. Problematically, sometimes the opinion of the public simply cannot be heard. Sometimes this happens when a very loud minority drowns out the voices of the silent majority. In such cases, the opinion climate in a society may seem to be more radical than it actually is.
Nixon famously used the term "silent majority" when he appealed for support to what he perceived as the majority of American voters who did not publicly oppose the Vietnam War. He saw this group outclamored by a small but noisy minority that did protest. This was actually a clever strategic argument on Nixon's part. Noelle Neumann's Spiral of Silence, which we have introduced here on this blog, posits that most people would follow the majority because they don't want to be isolated in society. If one opinion is heard more and more often, it may be perceived as majority opinion, even though it isn't. And then, if it's become almost ubiquitous, it might be perceived as majority opinion and people may change their own opinions to fit this "opinion climate." This way, over time and with a lot of help from the media, a minority opinion, for instance an extreme political opinion, may actually become the opinion of the majority.
Just recently an interesting initiative has started to make the silent majority in the US more visible shortly before the upcoming mid-term elections. The Daily Show, a political satire show, with its head figure Jon Stewart, has called for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" and wants to bring those people together that are usually too busy with their lives to start radical political action: "Ours is a rally for the people who've been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) -- not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority." This is a strategically noteworthy initiative to turn the opinion climate in the US by making the silent majority heard and seen: "We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard."
From the viewpoint of someone who studies public opinion, this is noteworthy from at least two perspectives. First, it will be interesting to see whether the silent majority can indeed be mobilized - and how, and how! - since there is a good reason why it's usually silent. Second, it seems unusual to me that it is the media, although a rather untypical outlet, that is focusing on the moderate voices - since when does sanity sell on television? The Rally is on October 30, 2010, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I wager many American public opinion scholars will be in attendance just to see how loud the silent majority can get and whether it really can be mobilized.
Picture credit: Flickr user Was guckst Du?