The Righteous Man — Conservative Ideas

(Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

One of the most powerful ideas that American conservatives have ever created is the that of the Silent Majority. Brought into the popular imagination by Richard Nixon in the 1960s, the Silent Majority is the law-abiding, middle class mass of Americans that pay their taxes, go to church, and just want the same opportunities as everyone else. The threats to their safety change over time. Sometimes it’s politicians and big government, sometimes it’s gang members and criminals, and sometimes it’s even the rich elites. But this Silent Majority will always stand for what is good, and take the righteous path in opposition to the evils of their opponents.

William Graham Sumner

While the idea of the Silent Majority was popularized by Nixon, the idea goes far back in American politics. It is recognizable in early writings about Jeffersonian democracy and the yeoman farmer, but by the end of the nineteenth century it began to take a more explicit conservative framing. One of the most eloquent descriptions of the this conservative model came from William Graham Sumner in What Social Classes Owe To Each Other, written in 1883. In this book, Sumner criticized social activists of the day who attempted to force the government into the world of free markets. While Sumner did believe that the errors of civil institutions could cause societal ills, he believed that the solution to this was not government meddling, but a “society of free men, united by contracts.” In this free contract system, the best would rise. the worst would fall, and progress would continue in America as it had since its founding. When social activists interfered with this system, the only thing they did was put people out of place and create inefficiencies and injustices even greater than what they were trying to solve (this is also known as the perversity thesis).

Sumner believed that the “schemes” of social reform all fell under the same pattern: A and B decide what C shall do for D. A and B were the social reformers, D was the poor man being helped, and C was the “Forgotten Man.” According to Sumner, the Forgotten Man is the

Despite the book being written in the nineteenth century, one can imagine the Forgotten Man as the typical 1950s suburban patriarch, looking over his immaculate lawn and white picket fence. Under Sumner’s formulation, it is this honest man that always has to foot the bill for frivolous social reforms that gave the poor more than their due. The Forgotten Man was always the righteous one, always the hard-working one, but always the victim.

It is important to note that the “Majority” half of of the “Silent Majority” is absent here. When Sumner developed this concept, America was becoming more unequal than ever before. Farmers and factory workers were rapidly losing their standing while titans of industry gained more and more power. As a result, populist economic appeals, from free silver to nationalization of industry, were becoming more and more more popular.

In this world, the Forgotten Man was not the majority at all; that is why the threat of government reform was so dangerous. In the eyes of many of the time, unrestrained democracy in a society that was full of poor people was a disastrous notion. For Sumner, that meant retaining some patrician values and making sure that institutions worked for everyone. For others, it went further.

From the Forgotten Man to the Silent Majority

Nixon campaigning in 1972

The idea of the Forgotten Man had appeared in a different form about a decade prior in the Reconstruction South. Before the Civil War, most southern governments had been highly elitist and hierarchical, held up on the backs of slaves and subsistence farmers. After the war, however, the Republican government gave voting rights to freed slaves and (temporarily) took them away from Confederates. Overnight, the political landscape of the south was transformed. States like South Carolina were staring down the barrel of a majority-black, majority-working class voting population. The former slaves and the Congressional Republicans that backed them to began to push for an agenda of land distribution and free education, based on the idea of free labor and free land that had driven the Union cause.

But that push did not last long. From Andrew Johnson’s conservative Presidential Reconstruction to the more violent Redeemer Democrats, Radical Reconstruction was hampered at every turn. These counter-attacks did not purely use the language of pure racial hatred. If anything, these racist attacks backfired. Openly anti-black tactics by Southern Democrats created waves of sympathy among the northern Republicans that controlled national politics after the Civil War.

Instead, Southern Democrat adopted a rhetoric of class warfare, blaming government by the poor and lazy (blacks) for drastically raising taxes on the honest and hardworking (whites). In the 1870s, white southerners formed Taxpayers’ Conventions, which argued for the dismantling of these new social programs and the return of government to the upstanding property owners who actually had a stake in society.

This anti-poor, pro-middle class argument was much more palatable to the Republican government than the previous white nationalist justifications for southern home rule. After all, they were dealing with their own proletarian uprisings in the North. So in 1877, they were not overly resistant to the compromise which put Rutherford B Hayes in the White House and took federal troops out of the South. Over the next several decades, all of the progress of the Reconstruction years were rolled back. Programs were dismantled, thousands of blacks were assaulted and lynched, and the period of Jim Crow and austerity government took its iron grip on the New South.

An Anti-Reconstruction Poster

Of course, the idea of the Forgotten Man is not inherently racist, or anti-democratic. Decades after the fall of Reconstruction, that same phrase was used by Roosevelt to vastly expand the welfare state in America and begin the process that would ultimately bring black voters into the fold of the Democratic Party. But some of those same programs would end up laying the groundwork for the ascension of the Forgotten Man into the Silent Majority.

The years after the Second World War, which combined a strong economic position with high union density and a robust social welfare system, saw one of the greatest increases of prosperity in American history. One of the changes that came out of this period was the rise of the middle class suburbanite. Suburbs had existed before the war, but the combination of FHA-backed mortgages, the Federal Highway System, and the GI Bill created a rush of (mostly white) middle class families to the suburbs. This trend expanded even further in the 1960s and 1970s when racial unrest and multiple failed attempts at urban renewal caused white families to flee the cities.

What this trend created was a massive group of people who thought of themselves as good, law-abiding, tax-paying middle class citizens. They weren’t racist, but they were just tired of massive government programs that they were paying for giving help to people who didn’t deserve it. The economic and cultural elements of the late 1960s finally created the perfect conditions for the Forgotten Man to take control, and with the election of Richard Nixon and the conception of the Silent Majority, he did.

The Problem of the Righteous Man

It is at this point that I want to change terms. The “Forgotten Man” and the “Silent Majority” are both brilliant rhetorical flourishes that captured the same idea at different times in different conditions. However, they are not fully representative of what they’re trying to describe. The Forgotten Man is not necessarily forgotten if he can make his voice heard in the political process. And the Silent Majority doesn’t have to be a majority to be a useful concept.

Instead, I use the term “Righteous Man”. The Righteous Man follows the law, he pays his taxes, and he goes to church. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t expect anything from anyone, he’s not a radical, and he’s not a racist. But because he does all of these things he is taken advantage of by those who are not able to rise to his standards. And that is the tragedy that conservatives are trying to fix.

Now that the situation and background of the Righteous Man is firmly established, it’s time to deconstruct it a bit. This is a difficult task for several reasons. First, it’s such a well-established trope in American politics that the very suggestion that it even is a trope seems odd. Second, because it is such a well-established trope, many people identify with it, and most people do not want to have their identities wrestled away from them. Finally, any critique of the Righteous Man idea can be easily misinterpreted as critiques of the good behavior that the Righteous Man follows. Look no further than the modern Republican Party to see how eager conservatives are to frame anyone who opposes them as enemies of the American Dream.

However, the prevalence and influence of this concept is what makes it so important to address. I do not seek to say that people that identify with the Righteous Man idea are wrong, or should stop doing what they’re doing. What I intend to do is show how that the politics that emerge from the trope, focused on personal responsibility and hostile to government intervention, are based on flawed premises.

1. Personal Responsibility

The first assumption that underlies the Righteous Man idea is that one’s status in life is largely determined by personal responsibility. Under Sumner’s construction, the whole problem with C (the Forgotten Man) paying to support D (the poor man) is that D should be able to support himself, and instead chooses to essentially rob those who are more responsible than him. If D were unable to make a living, or caught in circumstances outside his control, the situation becomes a little different.

One of the most vivid illustrations of the connection between personal responsibility and economic success in conservative circles is the “Success Sequence”. The success sequence states that if you get an education, a full-time job, a spouse, and then a child (in that order) then it is almost impossible for you to be poor. The point of this process is that poverty is driven by people making the wrong choices: not graduating from high school, having a child out of wedlock, or being too lazy to get a job. However, as Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project points out, the only part of that sequence that really matters is getting a full-time job:

Therefore, when we’re looking at how personal responsibility determines economic success, we need to look at both the ability to find a job and the ability to work.

The ability to find a job is the part that most people focus on. It’s not just a conservative focus either; access to jobs was a driving idea behind the civil rights movement and the modern push for a job guarantee. However, what these movements understand that can elude conservatives is that access to jobs isn’t equally distributed across time or place.

When a recession hits, it’s not the laziness of workers that causes them to lose their jobs. In the same way, the deindustrialization that led to the decimation of inner-city industry and rust belt factory towns was not the fault of any individual. In a pure mathematical sense, access to jobs varies from month to month and state to state. And when there’s more workers than there are jobs, whether during a recession or in a town where the jobs were shipped overseas, some people will always be left out.

(source: People’s Policy Project)

On top of that, the ability to find a job is dependent on the ability to work. There are lots of people that might want to work but are not able to for various reasons. When you look who was below the poverty line in 2016, only 16% were in the labor market, either employed or unemployed. The rest were either children, elderly, disabled, students, or carers. Due to disability, circumstance, and age, millions of people across the country find themselves unable to meet the standard of the Righteous Man, as much as they may want to.

When these nuances are added, the D that Sumner speaks of begins to take on a different form. Instead of the dirty, unwashed masses, it’s the auto-worker that got laid off when their job was moved to China, it’s the first generation college student trying to graduate without debt, it’s the person whose chronic pain condition makes it difficult for them to hold a steady job. It’s a group of people that find themselves in situations outside of their control, and many times the only way to help them is with a government program. That brings us to our second assumption.

2. Government Ineffectiveness

Given the arguments above, there is still a very clear rebuttal within the Righteous Man framing. To deal with unemployment, just loosen regulations and taxation to create more jobs. For the people that can’t work, that’s what community is for. Family, friends, neighbors, and church. These institutions, helmed by the Righteous Men who are willing and able to work, are more effective at solving problems than the government ever could be.

The first part of that argument is worthy of a whole other post, as it deals with a framework outside the Righteous Man trope. The second part, however, is worth responding to. Now, these non-government institutions are not bad. In fact, they’re quite necessary. A network of family, friends, neighbors, and churches (or other non-religious institutions) is an important part of a strong community, and these networks can be found in even the most impoverished areas. However, they alone are not enough to deal with the broader societal problems that the Righteous Man trope runs into.

To put it bluntly, the government is actually very good at solving big problems, especially when those problems are related to income. Social Security alone lifts 21.6 million people out of poverty. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program lifts 8.4 million people out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit lifts 5.6 million people out of poverty. In other countries, child allowances and universal health care do even more to meet people’s basic needs. While local institutions can help solve a variety of personal problems, and can do so better than the state, they simply can not match the raw poverty-busting power of the federal government.

How far you want to go with this is a matter of political principle, but it’s important to remember that even the foundations of the Righteous Man lifestyle are based on a more silent form of government intervention. Many long-time Americans live on land that was initially a government-issued homestead, in a home with a government-back mortgage, driving to work on government-built highways. While Obama caught a lot of flack for saying “you didn’t build that”, he struck on something important. In the modern age, no one does anything by themselves, good or bad.


The Righteous Man trope is a very powerful force in American society. In deconstructing it, however, I don’t mean to disprove it. For one, a trope can never be disproven, only exposed, examined, and critiqued. On top of that, many of the elements that make up the trope are admirable. I generally support being honest, sober, and industrious, paying your debts and taxes, and supporting your local institutions.

However, it is still important to understand where these ideas came from, what their flaws are, and how they can be used to advocate for harmful policies. The Righteous Man has essentially served as the social base of conservatism, from Reconstruction to Trump. In good times, it can cut the social safety net. In bad times, it can turn violent.

So, the next time you hear these tropes used by politicians, the media, or everyday people, remember that they are not value-neutral.



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