Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History

First Advisor

Thomas J. Sugrue

Abstract

“The Real Silent Majority” offers a new assessment of late-twentieth century U.S. political realignment, overturning previous explanations focused on the supposed death of liberalism and rise of the New Right. Instead, it traces the emergence of a pragmatic, self-interested, and only weakly partisan “quality of life” politics in America’s metropolitan areas from the late-1960s onwards. A case study of Denver, Colorado, and its surrounding metropolitan region, my study is a political and spatial history that incorporates perspectives from cultural, intellectual, and policy history as well as the interdisciplinary fields of metropolitan and urban studies. In examining the new definitions of citizenship and democracy that emerged in places like Denver, my dissertation promises a thorough re-conceptualization of a pivotal period in U.S. history that has profound implications for American politics and government today.

The transformation in Coloradans’ political attitudes and behavior were symptomatic of a broad, national political realignment. This shift was not away from Democrats and towards Republicans, as is often described, but rather away from the party system and conventional notions of liberal or conservative ideology altogether. On issues ranging from school desegregation and metropolitan growth to taxes and gay rights, Coloradans asserted their rights as tax-paying citizens to direct control over democratic decision-making. Moreover, they began to define “quality of life,” an amorphous category encompassing everything from the protection of public parkland to the location of public housing and the content of school curricula, as a fundamental right of American citizenship. I emphasize both the constitutional and democratic means by which citizens sought to institutionalize their new political culture at the state and local levels, examining grassroots efforts to pass constitutional amendments and elect sympathetic candidates. These local battles, fought in the rapidly shifting physical, demographic, and cultural landscapes of growing metropolises, had broad implications. I show how the “quality of life” politics reverberated upwards over a forty-year period to influence the politics and policy of both the Republican and, especially, Democratic parties.

The project is organized in two parts. Part I uses local case studies of issues such as school desegregation and regional governance to trace the emergence of a grassroots quality of life politics that was, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, largely off the radar of both major parties. It culminates in 1974 with the election of a cadre of reform candidates, showing how the new ethos that had been percolating at the grassroots both shaped and was transformed by formal politics at the state and national levels. At the same time, it shows how black and Hispanic Coloradans engaged with this increasingly dominant political discourse.

Part II examines issues including anti-tax politics and family values that are generally viewed as unambiguous parts of America’s conservative turn, showing instead how the new politics inflected these debates in complex and surprising ways. In 1992, Coloradans’ support of both the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) and anti-gay Amendment 2 led observers to view Colorado as part of a national conservative vanguard. Yet that same year, Coloradans decisively rejected George Bush and the GOP’s unabashedly conservative “family values” platform, making Bill Clinton their first Democratic pick for president in thirty years. Exploring the deep history of TABOR and Amendment 2, I reveal the predominance of market-oriented and quality of life ideas—not a burgeoning cultural conservatism—in shaping public responses to both issues. This insight has important implications, calling into question the pervasive understanding of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican Revolution as a popular rebuke to the Democrats and a culturally conservative mandate for Republicans. Indeed, far from representing opposing impulses in American politics, I argue, Clinton’s election and the Contract with America two years later together marked the fullest expression of the new market paradigm in American politics.

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