In our democracy, the principle of free expression is almost universally accepted. Yet, competing political groups identify expression as power and therefore try to control it. Words and language are political weapons and groups seek to influence whether and how those weapons are deployed.
Naturally, amid intense partisan battles over free speech, Americans feel confused and likely frustrated. Things change quickly. Established expressions are questioned, reinterpreted, and sometimes eliminated. New vocabulary is championed by one side and challenged by the other.
Many people respond by self-censoring. While a sensible reaction to an uncertain, volatile, and potentially explosive political climate, it’s nevertheless a troubling outcome. After all, the architects of our Constitution believed freedom of expression so important they enshrined it in the 1st Amendment.
Let’s consider the extent of self-censorship.
Yes, I am afraid to share my views
The percentage of Americans that self-censor is high and on the rise. Recent surveys show nearly two-thirds of Americans – 62% say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find it offensive. Sixty-two percent!
The overall numbers are alarming, majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans perceive the political climate as an obstacle to free expression. Clearly, people are anxious, and prolonged self-suppression cannot be a good thing – especially for a country founded on liberty.
In addition, while fears cross partisan lines, a significantly higher percentage of Independents and Republicans feel they cannot express themselves. The strong partisan polarization and harsh rhetoric now common among elected officials likely amplifies the perceived strength and hostility of opposition opinion. Republicans appears most sensitive to these dynamics.
The pattern looks similar for political ideology. At least a majority of every ideological classification – except strong Liberals, self-censor. The most shocking numbers are again on the Right side of the political spectrum – among conservative and very conservative people.
Without question, political expression divides Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative. But equally true, a remarkably high percentage of all partisan/ideological categories self-censor.
The phenomenon is in fact spread broadly across demographics groups. Strong majorities of men (65%), women (59%), wealthy (60%), poor (58%), young (55%), old (66%), Latinos (65%), and Whites (64%) agree that the political climate prevents expression of their beliefs.
On the rise
Fortunately, the Cato Institute asked this same question 3 years ago. At that time, 58% felt the political climate prevented them from saying things they believed. Thus, overall, more people today feel reluctant to express their views.
The increase occurs among Democrats (+6%), Independents (+1%) and Republicans (+4). In addition, the changes across ideological groups is striking. Strong liberals increased the most, rising 12% points. The share of moderates grew by 7 points and conservatives rose as well from 70% to 77%. Strong conservatives are the only group that exhibited modest change.
Three implications standout. First, because self-censorship appears broadly across demographic and political groups, this implies moderate as well as extreme beliefs are being withheld. It is not necessarily radical ideologues or extreme partisans unwilling to share beliefs, but rather middle of the road Americans. Paradoxically, centrists believe their political views would not be well received.
And, perhaps they are correct. Given the extraordinary political climate, partisans may treat any view outside their own as offensive. In other words, “You’re either with us, or against us”
Second, the comparatively low percentage of Democrats and Liberals self-censoring suggests they may feel more strongly about their beliefs than other groups. If so, they calculate the “risk” of offending others much differently – prioritizing speech over social considerations. In any event, the Left’s willingness to speak out and the Right’s reluctance demonstrates an important disparity in public discourse.
Third, the comparatively high percentages of Republicans and Conservatives that self-censor may signal a misreading of the political climate, perceiving significant political and social distances from others that may not be true.
Or, alternatively, Republican and Conservative perceptions of the political climate may be accurate. Trump’s approval ratings are modest and evening newscasts of his administration’s handling of the pandemic and economy are overwhelmingly negative. Moreover, a Harvard University study found the negative coverage began in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, setting new standards for unfavorable press coverage of a president. Accordingly, there is much information in the political climate that may discourage Republicans and Conservatives from expressing their views.
Related, the partisan and ideological imbalance in self-censoring renews a wider debate about the so-called shy Trump voter or the “silent majority”. Because comparatively more Conservatives and Republicans are self-censoring, does that mean Trump’s support is understated? There is significant evidence that dispels this theory, though it does not consider the data here.
Finally, despite the fact that free expression receives broad public support and strong constitutional protections, the growing number of Americans that feel they cannot discuss their beliefs suggests free expression is an ideal that we have yet to reach.
Look for Part 2 next week.
 There are likely a number of other reasons that help explain differences between conservatives and liberal’s assessment of the political climate.