Which are you, silent majority or vocal minority?

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 19, 2021

How often we hear the lament that the “vocal minority” is winning at the expense of the “silent majority.”

The recent local example has been in Rockport, where the Select Board voted to table plans for a Short-Term Rental ordinance (full disclosure, we previously editorialized in favor of a short-term rental ordinance). Keep in mind, there is nothing to stop the select board from picking that ordinance right back up off the table, especially after elections in June have passed.

I’ll pick on Rockport here, not to push an agenda on the STR thing, but because I think it is a good example.

Chair Debra Hall’s comments make it clear she sees the dynamic of a “silent majority” and “vocal minority.”

“Unfortunately, the residents who have supported regulation have largely been silent through the process,” she said. “...They should not be criticized for opting not to enter the public fray, particularly since a small minority of residents have targeted anyone who supports regulation for personal attacks...”

She goes on to say, “As elected officials we want to hear from all residents — not just the loudest voices. That was the purpose for putting this proposed ordinance on the ballot...”

She is by no means alone. Back when I was a young editor at The Republican Journal, there was a debate about whether to bring Walmart to town. People who were passionate in their opposition to big box stores were very vocal. They showed up to meetings. They wrote letters and guest editorials to the local newspapers. There may even have been songs and poetry.

Frankly, I often suspect people protesting issues are just that, a vocal minority. Don’t get me wrong, that does not mean I do not think they have a right to win the day.

By and large, however, my guess is most people in Rockport don’t really care about a short-term rental ordinance at all. Those who have vocally opposed it, in many cases, are people who rent out rooms and have a stake in it.

But undoubtedly, we heard more from the people who opposed the STR ordinance than we did from people who supported it.

Who is the system designed to work for? Who deserves to win?

I am forced to respect the people who fight for what they believe in.

This can be taken too far. I’m not talking about riots and name-calling and attacking government buildings or burning cars.

What I respect are people writing letters to their select board and to their local paper. It’s good to hear them make comments at meetings. When passions run high, some of them are going to get a bit too heated, but it is important to remember not all of these citizens are professional politicians. This may be their first select board meeting.

On the other hand, you have the silent majority. First of all, we don’t even know that the majority supports something unless it speaks up or goes to a public vote. I have to give credit here to Doc Wallace, who I seldom agree with, in that talking about this in an email, he pointed out that essentially in determining what the silent majority wants, one is really guessing or divining what that might be.

One has to think that if they are silent, they do not care as much.

Perhaps the group that is most passionate, most willing to work and put themselves out there, deserves to win. Certainly that seems to be the way our democracy is set up.

The counter-argument is that people are intimidated by their neighbors and afraid to tell them what they think. It may just be me, but I do not find the people of Rockport, even the passionate ones, particularly scary.

You have a right to say what you want to say, and as long as you are respectful and politically correct, and stick to the issues rather than the personalities, you probably will be OK even after you have said your piece. There is a whole other column and debate in the fact that there can be serious consequences for what one says publicly. We see people losing their jobs after tirades online or comments made in a passion.

I know people who are shy. I know people who are, as my parents’ generation would say, “Private people.”

The vote at the polls is the equalizer here. You can put a question out to the populace and in the voting booth they can have their say. Those who didn’t turn out have no right to complain.

However, if you can find it within yourself to speak up on the issues, I would urge you to do so. I’m not sure being part of the silent majority counts for much, and I’m not sure that it should. After all, the term “silent majority” was popularized by President Richard Nixon.

On one of my favorite science fiction shows, Firefly, the dashing captain once said: “More than 70 earths spinnin' about the galaxy, and the meek have inherited not a one.”

Or if you prefer something more universal, the Gospel of Luke brings us the story of the bad judge who gives a woman justices so she will stop bugging him.

Be bold and you may just get your way.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Susan Reider | Feb 19, 2021 14:10

Well said, Dan. Especially here in New England, where we have a tradition of direct engagement in town matters, we all have a responsibility to participate. Not everyone wants to blab in public, of course, so other means of communication might include writing a note to the Select Board, making a phone call, or even suggesting a ballot initiative on a controversial issue where elected officials try in vain to imagine what their constituents really think and get blasted when they’re wrong. I personally think anyone who serves in local elected office is a saint.

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