Americans Are Self-Censoring at Record Rates

The percentage of Americans afraid to share their political views has tripled.

By James L. Gibson and Joseph L. Sutherland

Dictators around the world muzzle debate. Autocratic governments label dissent as treasonous. The voice of the people is rarely heard.

The hallmark of a liberal democracy, by contrast, is that the people are allowed to assert their views and preferences even if the government, or the majority of their compatriots, don’t like it. They get to protest, to criticize, even to scream or holler or swear—and, on occasion, to listen and change their minds. But this dialogue, which is so central to our system of government, requires two essential ingredients: a willingness to put up with disagreeable views on the part of some and the confidence to express their opinions without fear of retribution on the part of others.

The most obvious threat to freedom of speech comes from the state: Citizens will only feel safe to criticize their president, for example, if they enjoy protections for their free speech and know that judges won’t do the bidding of the government. But as social scientists and political philosophers have long recognized, social pressures can be just as effective in making citizens afraid of expressing unpopular opinions: The more they fear getting fired from their job or publicly being branded as a “thought criminal,” the more likely they are to self-censor.

This is why it is so important to measure how free the citizen of democratic countries actually feel to express their views. Is it true, as some have argued, that the current cultural climate has made Americans more reluctant to speak their mind than in the past? Or do we live in a golden age for rollicking debate in which, as others have responded, a far greater number of people feel empowered to join the conversation?

In the 1950s, many social scientists worried that efforts by Joe McCarthy and his allies to root out left-wingers were creating a “silent generation” of Americans who were afraid to share their political opinions in public. To test whether or not this was really the case, Samuel Stouffer, a Professor of Sociology at Harvard, decided to conduct an innovative public opinion survey. “Do you or don't you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” he asked a representative sample of Americans.

Back in 1954, the answer Stouffer got was surprisingly reassuring. Only about one in eight Americans at that time felt scared to speak their minds. As McCarthy’s influence on the country waned, there was little evidence that he had managed to manufacture a voiceless generation.

But since the 1950s, answers to that same question have become a lot more worrying. The last time the question was asked, the percentage of Americans who fear speaking their mind had grown by threefold. At its high point in 2015, nearly half of all Americans reported that they do not feel free to express their opinions.

This trend is worrisome on its face. In comparison to the McCarthy era, it is ghastly. The answer to the question that is now so widely debated seems unambiguous: Americans are much more likely to self-censor today than in the past.

Perhaps, as some argue, we should not be too worried if some Americans feel the need to self-censor. If those who hold views that are racist or “deplorable” are feeling less free to hold forth than in the past, the country might become a more welcoming place for ethnic, religious, sexual, and other minorities.

But before we discount the large percentage of Americans who don’t feel free to speak their minds—or, worse, assume that they must feel uncomfortable to do so because they hold deeply despicable views—it is worth finding out who they actually are.

Three of the clearest findings from our research are negative in nature. First, one might suspect that many people are afraid to speak out because they fear the coercive force of the government. But the data suggest that this is not the case. Among those who believe that the government might prohibit certain political activities, such as organizing protest marches and demonstrations, 40 percent engaged in self-censorship. Among those who believe that it would not, 41 percent did.

Second, there is no clear partisan pattern. The percentage of Democrats who are worried about speaking their mind is just about identical to the percentage of Republicans who self-censor: 39 and 40 percent, respectively.

Finally, there is no clear relationship between the intensity of people’s views and their tendency to self-censor. Not only are those with right-wing views as likely to self-censor as those with left-wing views; moderates are just as likely to self-censor as those who fall on either end of the ideological spectrum.

So what does predict who is reluctant to speak up? The answer is that Americans are more likely to self-censor the more urban and educated they are. In a surprising reversal of the usual trends of political participation, in which citizens who have more resources feel more empowered to take an active role in civic life, it is the urbanites and the highly educated who are most afraid to speak their mind.

Consider education. Those who are more highly educated are far more likely to censor their views than their less educated brethren. Among Americans without a high school diploma, for example, 27 percent self-censor. Among Americans who completed high school, this goes up to 34 percent. And among those who have attended college for at least a few years, 45 percent do. This suggests that Americans are socialized into learning to keep their mouth shut: the longer you spend in the educational system, the more you learn that it is appropriate to express some views, but not others.

This helps to explain the nature of contemporary censorship culture. We might imagine that Americans engage in self-censorship if they lack the educational resources to know how they are supposed to talk about certain issues. But the evidence suggests that those Americans who have little education and live in the hinterland actually feel most free to speak their minds. Perhaps they have simply never been taught that it is wise to keep their mouths shut.

Far from becoming more comfortable with how to express their views as they become more educated, Americans who go to college appear to learn that they should shut up if they disagree with their peers. As a result, it is not those who feel that they have little to say about politics who have learned to hide their “aberrant” views; rather, it is those who live in the most urban and educated parts of the country.

Decades ago, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann wrote about what she called the “Spiral of Silence.” If they dare to speak up, those holding minority viewpoints get rebuffed. To avoid repeating the same unpleasant experience, they demur when the next opportunity to state their opinions presents itself. Pretty soon, a view held by, say, a quarter of the people in a particular group can, in this way, stop being expressed—or heard—at all. 

The spiral of silence need not be instigated by an oppressive government determined to quash dissent. Rather, it can arise spontaneously when the social norms governing interpersonal interactions provide insufficient support for those who are in the minority—either in the country as a whole, or in some local context—to feel comfortable expressing their views.

That is why high levels of self-censorship should be treated as an ominous warning sign. They signal the development of a culture of orthodoxy that is animated by a false sense of certainty about what is true and what is false—and a proud intolerance of those who might dare to voice an opinion that conflicts with the mainstream.

The sobering results of our survey suggest that this accurately describes today’s United States.

James L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in St. Louis and Professor Extraordinary at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is the co-author of Black and Blue: How African Americans Judge the U.S. Legal System. Joseph L. Sutherland is an analytics executive and publishes in politics and economics.