The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirteen
SUBURBAN STRATEGIES

THE VOLATILE CENTER IN POSTWAR AMERICAN POLITICS

Matthew D. Lassiter


THE POLITICS OF MIDDLE-CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS

DURING THE LATE 1960S and early 1970s, a populist revolt of the Silent Majority rippled upward into national politics and estab- lished powerful constraints on Great Society liberalism and civil rights reform. In an opening phase, suburban parents in the Sunbelt South launched grassroots uprisings to defend their children’s neighborhood schools against the legal challenge of court-ordered busing. White-collar home owners who claimed membership in the Silent Majority invented a potent “color-blind” discourse that portrayed residential segregation as the product of economic stratification rather than historical racism. This political formula eventually gained national traction as a bipartisan de- fense of middle-class consumer privileges and suburban residential bound- aries. The rise of the Silent Majority reflected broader trends spreading throughout metropolitan America, a politics of middle-class consciousness based in subdivision associations, shopping malls, church congregations, PTA branches, and voting booths. The political culture of suburban popu- lism—from taxpayer revolts and antibusing crusades to home owner movements and antisprawl campaigns—galvanized a top-down response marked by the persistent refusal of all three branches of the federal govern- ment to address the historical legacies of residential segregation through collective remedies for metropolitan inequality. From the “conservative” subdivisions of southern California to the “liberal” townships of New England, the suburbanization of American society and politics has empow- ered a bipartisan ethos of private-property values, individual taxpayer rights, children’s educational privileges, family residential security, con- sumer freedom of choice, and middle-class racial innocence.1

The growth policies of New Deal liberalism and the rise of the Cold War military-industrial complex shaped the patterns of postwar residen- tial expansion and transformed the South and West into the booming

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