September 4, 2020

Free to Speak or Fear to Speak: America Walking on Eggshells.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Yes, we Americans are free to speak our minds. Sadly, though, when it comes to politics, an ever-increasing number of Americans, today, admit to and act on, a fear of speaking their minds.

There have, of course, always been those who prefer to keep their political views private, but solid research demonstrates that fear of speaking (politically) is increasing at a rate that should concern us all.  Forget the deluge of bot (or robot) generated and troll-generated junk disguised to look like individuals commenting or sharing news on social media. A growing number of Americans are self-muzzling out of fear of being penalized socially and, more significantly, economically, through retribution at their place of employment. Yes, fully one-third of Americans are afraid to openly criticize or support political candidates or parties out of fear of losing their jobs.  This is not 1930’s Germany. This is 2020’s America.

This is not a Left or Right phenomenon. The Left has its cancel-culture minions, and the Right has outrageous Bully-Pulpit insults directed from on high. Both the Left and the Right are intent on suppressing or ridiculing dissent. It’s a dicey time in America. The level of robotic and party surrogate attacks directed against political opposition from the Left and from the Right is unprecedented and out of control.

A new national survey by the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute finds that self‐​censorship is on the rise in the United States. Overall, nearly two-thirds of Americans say the political climate today prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. An astounding share of Americans, 62%, admit to self‐​censoring today compared to the 2017 high when a depressing 58% of Americans agreed that they feared retribution if they expressed their political views. This is not good. A climate in which there is such widespread fear of expressing a political opinion is remarkably un-American.

The study analyzed responses from 2000 Americans 18 years and older with a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 2.36 % and a 95% confidence level. That means, statistically, 95 times out of 100, you would get the same result within 2.36% accuracy. The panel of respondents was drawn from the YouGov analytics group which the Pew Research Center says consistently outperforms other survey organizations for accuracy.

Most disturbing, the survey found that fear of speaking or expressing political views transcends all party affiliations. Fifty-two percent of Democrats, 59% of Independents, 64% of moderates, and an astounding 77% of Republicans all agree that they are “afraid” to share their political views with others.

What’s changed? In 2017, most centrist liberals felt confident (54%) they could express their views. However today, less than half (48%) feel the same way. The share who feel they cannot be open increased 7 points from 45% in 2017 to 52% today. In fact, there have been disturbing shifts across the political spectrum. More people among all political groups feel they are walking on eggshells. While people who identify as strong liberals or strong conservatives feel somewhat freer to speak their minds, the vast majority of Americans have become intimidated by the downward spiral of public discourse.

Self‐​censorship is widespread across demographic groups as well. Nearly two‐​thirds of Latino Americans (65%) and White Americans (64%) and nearly half of African Americans (49%) have political views they are afraid to share. Majorities of men (65%) and women (59%), people with incomes over $100,000 (60%) and people with incomes less than $20,000 (58%), people under age 35 (55%) and over age 65 (66%), religious (71%) and non‐​religious (56%) all agree that the political climate prevents them from expressing their true beliefs. Let that sink in.

The mood is ugly and it transcends the normal rough and tumble of raucous American political give-and-take. Get this: nearly a quarter (22%) of all Americans would support firing a business executive who personally donates to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Nearly a third (31%) support firing a business executive who donates to Donald Trump’s re‐​election campaign. Thus, more than half of our citizens would support firing an employee who donated money to one or the other of the candidates. The more strident we are about our political views the more intolerant we’ve become of those with opposing views. For example, 50% of strong liberals support firing executives who personally donate to Trump, and more than a third (36%) of strong conservatives support firing an executive for donating to Biden’s presidential campaign.

Young Americans are also more intolerant of those who support the opposition. For example, 44% of voting-age Americans under the age of 30 support firing executives if they donate to Trump. Americans do, it seems, mellow with age. Only 22% of Americans over 55 years of age would fire an employee who voted for Trump. Similarly, 27% of voting-age Americans under 30 support firing executives who donate to Biden compared to 20% of those over age 55. Thus, over 70% of young, voting-age Americans would condone firing an executive for donating to “the wrong candidate” in the forthcoming election.

There are many more demographic stratifications found in the survey data—certainly, enough to numb the reader. There are, however, very serious issues here. Public discussion and debate are ordinarily healthy, even vital, in a democracy like ours. Today, too many Americans with diverse political views and backgrounds are clamming up, self‐​censoring their political opinions. The cause of American democracy is poorly served when an ever-growing number of our citizens feel they cannot discuss important political issues with colleagues, friends, neighbors or even within families.  

You have a republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin announced to an anxious crowd in Philadelphia all those years ago. It’s time to decide. Can we?

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11 responses to “Free to Speak or Fear to Speak: America Walking on Eggshells.”

  1. susan duman says:

    I wish I could refute what you say. I’ve found it to be true in downtown Chicago and suburban Chicago.
    I’m searching for optimism. Not there right now.

  2. Bruce Olson says:

    Hal, your essay is unfortunately the accurate and quite alarming phenomenon we find our country embroiled in today. The first Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is not just being ignored and disrespected, but is dangerously under attack. While this country has always vigorously debated political differences, it is no longer a spirited discussion. In many situations it has become total intolerance for another’s viewpoint as you point out.

    The cancel culture and in particular, the BLM organization is a major reason for figuratively and literally fueling the fire against freedom of speech and expression.

    I have begun supporting a very worthwhile organization, CURE, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. If you are not familiar with this non-profit think tank, I urge you to spend some time on their site . Here is one of their columns about BLM and suppression of speech…..

    “Shutting down dialogue, shutting down free and open exchange of ideas, is exactly what Black Lives Matter wants.“
    by Star Parker | Founder, CURE, August 25, 2020

    https://urbancure.org/a/1450/blm-suppresses-the-truth-about-poverty

    Hopefully, passionate, yet polite, respectful political discourse will someday return. However, sadly, I am not very optimistic that it will…….

  3. Paul Lubar says:

    Universities were always the places where the free exchange of ideas was essential and protected. How else can students formulate a philosophy that appealed to them? All sides must be heard. Unfortunately, that sifting and winnowing for truth no longer exists on many(?most) campuses. With a few exceptions the voices which have been shut down are those of conservatives and libertarians.
    The quote” I disapprove of what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it” no longer exists on all too many campuses.

  4. Paul Lubar says:

    According to John Bolton, who is an opponent of Trump, and 9 other witnesses who were there at the time, The Atlantic story is totally false.

  5. Betty Wolf says:

    Your essay is on target, Hal, thank you for your research effort. The statistics regarding freedom to express one’s opinion with subsequent detrimental consequences are sobering.

    Mr. Olsen, thank you for the CURE reference. It captures the essence of BLM, which is particularly troubling. I look forward to exploring this organization further.

    I suspect many readers here have grandchildren approaching or currently attending universities. I agree with Mr. Lubar’s comments, sadly. We see and hear about negativity of differing points of view (primarily conservative) in our local public high school teachers from our open minded grandchildren.

    Is this due to the teacher’s union? Is school choice, as Dr. Thomas Sowell supports, the best way to educate our children? I do not have answers, however, I remain optimistic for honest and civil dialog to occur.

  6. Steve says:

    Why is it at all surprising that in an era where the biggest megaphone on the face of the earth has legitimized “destroying” those who publicly differ with him, that people are afraid to express opinions contrary to him and others? And remember, there’s no subject in American life that the megaphone hasn’t expressed strong opinions on, to the point of suggesting others be fired for expressing opposing opinions.

  7. Larry Katzen says:

    I think the number one cause of our division is our press and TV coverage. If you watch almost any “news” show they talk in such hate full terms that people take sides. They are always trying to play “I got you” to create headlines. There is no more gray. No human is ever 100% right or 100% wrong, yet the press presents them as such. Bring back Walter Cronkite!

  8. qua says:

    There is no question that it is truly abhorrent that anyone
    could be fired for donating to one’s campaign. Any CEO or
    executive that takes this position themselves should be fired.

    Have never been bothered by others who espouse differences
    from my own. I do take exception with those that hide their
    feelings out of fear.

  9. Steve Prover says:

    The President never misses an opportunity to openly and viciously attack any outspoken individual or organization with whom he disagree….even members of his own administration… demanding legal retribution or actively blocking their efforts to continue their employment (or reelection)…. Ignoring this the conservative readers of this blog trot out the usual objects they employ to deflect attention from their favorite elephant (pun intended) in the room… As for BLM impacting free speech as described in the essay I find it almost laughable… The BLM movement enjoyed a brief moment in the sun and now daily appears to enjoy diminished impact. Find me some evidence of their widespread impact upon free speech…
    Bruce Olson: I read the essay by Star Parker…. It was a superficial emotional piece with not a shred of evidence supporting her assertion…. If that is the best you can do I suggest you would do better to rely on Fox News…
    Paul Lubar: Nice try but even Fox News has substantiated many of the incidents described in the Atlantic piece.
    SGW: Steve: Excellent comments… I could not agree more whole heartedly,

  10. charles anderson says:

    I rarely comment on your essay but this could not let pass.
    Kudos to Steve Prover, & SGW.
    I am deeply troubled that several readers of this blog apparently see a moral equivalent between Trumps behavior and that of, well, almost anyone else; Hal, I hope you don’t.
    A hypothetical situation, damn right I would call for the resignation of my CEO had he/she actively supported Hitler, Putin, Stalin, or Nicolae Ceausecu. In my opinion those who don’t see a difference between Trump and those or other dictators thru history and Joe Biden,the other candidate for the presidency, have lost their own moral compass.
    Hal, you open your essay stating this is not 1930’s Germany & you are correct, thankfully so far. However, I believe we need to acknowledge that Trump is pushing us in that direction. In other essays you (and other respected followers of politics) have correctly expressed concern for our democracy & the threat becomes more real every day. Trump & Barr assault on the election process send a clear message to that effect.
    Yesterday we saw elements of the far right Son’s of Liberty, Posse Comitas , & others in full military hardware at
    peaceful rallies (yes there were some arms on the other side but not with assault weapons).
    Germans saw that same ‘political’ belief system in the early actions of the Brown Shirts in Germany in the 1930’s but didn’t recognize the danger because, after all, they were just representing another point of view. Hitlers political party denied the Brown Shirts were to do anything but ‘keep order’, well, we know how that turned out.
    Advocating firing a CEO because he/she supports a political Candidate who has demonstrated otherwise reasonable judgement and ethical behavior just because one disagrees with their political view is inappropriate but what of the candidate with a proven lack of ethical, moral, reasonable behavior & judgement, like Donald J Trump for example. Were my CEO to support Trump, damn right I’d call for my CEO’s resignation because that CEO support ultimately represents a true threat to my freedom.

  11. Stuart Goldfine says:

    Amazing that no one criticizes the left wing media who turns all stories against Trump. They never have praise for his destroying ISIS, stopping illegals coming in our country by building the wall on our Mexican border, moving our American Embassy to Jerusalem, a new NAFTA treaty, our becoming energy independent, tearing up a worthless Iran nuclear treaty, toning down rhetoric of North Korea, , and more, but the left will never acknowledge his victories.
    The Democrats are left with Biden (not one person is really pro-Biden) after parading about 20 poor candidates.
    Now they hope Biden will die in office or be in an extended care facility allowing Kamala Harris to succeed him and carry out their Bernie Sanders leftist agenda to destroy America. We are much stronger in the world today than the last 20 years.
    There is no Freedom of Speech for any conservative or Republican view on college campuses today. Witness rioting in Berkeley a few years ago. Freedom of Speech was born there about 1970 and died in Berkeley, CA.
    I agree with Paul Lubar and Bruce Olson.

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