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?