The “Silent Majority” of the Student Body: The Growth of Republicanism Across the Sunbelt and Across JMU
The Madison College student body became defined by a single event in the early ’70s – the protest that was held in Wilson Hall in March, 1970. While other student protests that occurred across America in 1970 reflected the overwhelming liberalism of their respective student populations, the Madison College protest showed only a small minority of the student body that subscribed to a non-conformist, anti-conservative political agenda. In the months following the protest, The Breeze consistently published articles that addressed both the radical liberal minority as well as the generally conservative student body.While some could argue that the Madison College students were an anomaly in the conservative South as a part of the student protest movement, that concept is simply incorrect. In the years following the tumultuous opening of the decade on campus, students fought to regain their reputation as a student body that was primarily concerned with not “rocking the boat” instead of political radicalism. In a letter to The Breeze in January 1971, student W.E. James condemned the newspaper as overtly radical in their praise of the student protestors of the previous year. “How shameful that some should have the right to criticize authority – and others should not be allowed to defend it. How absurd that leftists should accuse conservatives of being violence-prone in the wake of years of intimidation, disruption, damage and academic disaster wrought by radicals.” (The Breeze, 1971). This letter shows that although The Breeze did express the political views of some students, it ignored the beliefs and values of a vast number of other students, making them the “silent majority” of the JMU campus.
This concept of the “silent majority” was seen throughout the broader context of 1970s America. After the dramatic liberalism of the 1960s that ended with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, many Americans began to express disillusionment with the federal government, especially the white middle class. The Northeastern politicians from the “Frostbelt” that dominated the federal government throughout the ’60s became replaced by Southern politicians from the “Sunbelt” because of the population growth that corresponded with the increase of industry in the South (Schulman, 106). In his campaigns in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Richard Nixon sought to capitalize on this occurrence by appealing to white, middle-class Southerners. This “southern strategy” marked the first steps in the transformation of the South as a Democratic region to the South as a supporter of the neoconservative Republican Party.
The growing popularity of the Republican Party in the South throughout the 1970s was reflected on the JMU campus, particularly through the existence of the College Republicans. In 1971, the College Republicans saw “a year of growth and progress.” They became the fourth largest College Republicans club in the state with 190 members; in the Bluestone yearbook for that year, the Young Democrats were far less represented. This appeared to be the case until 1974, when the Watergate scandal soiled the reputation of the Republican party until Reagan’s election in 1980. The way that the College Republicans were represented after 1974 was significantly less flattering. In the 1975 edition of the Bluestone, the one image that the yearbook staff chose to represent the College Republicans was a photograph of Gerald Ford. Contrastingly, the Young Democrats were shown en masse, carrying a “Young Democrats” banner at a political rally. The representation of the Young Democrats as a cohesive student unit and the College Republicans as the political leader of the country, disassociated from any student group at Madison College, reflects the growing federal power of the Republican Party. Although the Young Democrats are shown to be a group of students, they are still only a group of students. By representing the College Republicans as the figurehead of political power in the American government, they are thus shown to be a group that also possesses a certain amount of power. The power that the College Republicans showed on campus reflected the growth of the power of the party as a result of Southernization in the 1970s.
James Madison University. The Bluestone. 1971. http://archive.org/details/bluestone197163jame
James Madison University. The Bluestone. 1975. http://archive.org/details/bluestone197567jame
Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press: 2001.
“Vast Majority Play by the Rules.” The Breeze. March 18, 1970.