Part 2. Concerned about Expressing Your Beliefs? You are not Alone.

In the last post, the data showed a large percentage of Americans self-censor.  Over the past several years, that percentage increased.  People think the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe – because others might find it offensive.

What caused this?  Why are people walking-on-eggshells?   Offensive?  It must be something more.    

People are worried about losing their jobs          

As it turns out, social confrontation is not the only thing people are anxious about.  Nearly a third – 32% are worried their political views may jeopardize their current employment and future job opportunities.  You may recall this data is from a representative survey – thus, 32% translates into millions of employed people.  

Free speech protections in the Bill of Rights do not cover employees in the private sector.  Rather, it prevents governments from infringing upon citizens’ liberties.  In addition, federal anti-discrimination laws protect private sector employees from discrimination based on sex, race, age, and religion – but not partisan identification or political ideology. [i]  

It’s therefore a good idea to leave politics outside the office.  Indeed, Colin Kaepernick’s  NFL pre-game protests against racial injustice educated many on the perils of mixing politics and profession.   Similarly, we see jobs lost over ill-conceived social media statements about politics.  The widespread news of coverage of these events undoubtedly compounds existing anxieties about expressing political views. 

Parsing the data by party identification, the share of Republicans worried (38%) is a bit higher than either Independents (31%) or Democrats (28%).  Likewise the share of Conservatives (41%) is higher than Moderates (30%) and Liberals (27%).  So, while partisan and ideological divisions exist, they are not especially large. 

However, partisan divisions increase notably when considering education attainment.  For example, among the college educated – the share of Republicans that worry is 16% higher than Democrats.  The gap grows even larger among post-graduates.  Sixty percent of post-graduate Republicans worry their political views risk their employment while only 25% of Democrats – a 35-point divide.  Educated Independents follow the Republican trajectory.  


Why? 

Unfortunately, the survey does not offer complete answers – though I will speculate. 

  1. Employment:  At their place of employment, many educated Republicans and Independents may be the minority – leading them to worry more about their jobs.  Industries and occupations like tech, academia, media, research, physicians, and engineering are primarily Democrat and require considerable education.  Conceivably, Republicans and Independents in these industries weigh heavily in the survey results.
  2. College:  At a four year institution, or pursing advanced degrees, Republicans may perceive their political views as largely unpopular on college campuses – producing a habit of self-censorship.  A number of studies show professors lean Left and that imbalance has grown in recent years.   In addition, the sharp focus by Republican media outlets on student free-speech issues and long-standing assertions by Republican leaders that campuses are hostile to conservative thought likely adds to Republican’s worries.     
  3. News Media:  In general, educated people follow political news more so than less educated.  Republican news outlets are quick to spotlight cases of employment termination or career threat due to conservative political expression.  Because educated Republicans and Democrats follow different news media, they may not share the same concerns about their employment.         

Implications

The data presented here and in the last post are unique.  Few opinion surveys ask people to consider the political climate or assess the personal risks associated with political expression.  Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann would have been pleased to know her vision of public opinion as our “social skin” remains alive and well.  

Nevertheless, the data are troubling.  Far too many people, across most political and demographic groups, are self-censoring.  There is a cost – and it’s not only personal.  Free expression checks political power.  It also improves decision making by allowing citizens to sample from a broad spectrum of opinion.  Ideally, there is not a dominant voice but rather a competitive pluralistic information environment.      

To achieve that diversity, it’s essential people feel free to express themselves.  When individuals think others will find their views unacceptable, or worse, believe others will threaten their livelihood, we know something is wrong.      

The opinion climate mirrors the character of party competition.  Right now, that climate is red hot, raw, and unforgiving.  We can be sure that partisans will blame each other, yet, candidly, both sides are responsible.        

Do not depend on party elites to reconsider matters.  Rather, it will be ordinary Americans that must take the necessary steps toward civility.   

[i] There are a few states and cities with laws that protect employees for political activity and prevent discrimination based on political ideology.  

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