July 28, 2020 at 10:09PM
Americans are getting more nervous about what they say in public
TO UPSET THE twittersphere often takes no more than sharing your thoughts. For David Shor, a data scientist who until recently worked for Civis Analytics, a Democratic polling firm, all it took was sharing someone else’s. On May 28th Mr Shor tweeted a straightforward summary of a paper by Omar Wasow, a Princeton professor, which argued that, in the 1960s, violent protests were less effective than non-violent ones at swaying American public opinion in favour of the civil-rights movement. (Several news outlets, including The Economist, covered the study when it was published.) Ordinarily such a tweet would not have caused a fuss. But given its timing, amid a wave of protests and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, some Twitter users deemed the tweet hostile to the cause. Mr Shor’s bosses appear to have agreed. Two weeks after the offending post, he was sacked. (Mr Shor has signed a non-disclosure agreement which prevents him from disclosing why he was let go.)
Is the Twitter mob that went after Mr Shor a sign that free speech in America is under threat? Commentators on the left do not think so. The free-speech “crisis”, they say, is a myth manufactured by privileged elites who face few barriers to expressing their own opinions. Yet polling data suggest that plenty of people feel they are being muzzled by contemporary politics. A new survey from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, finds that 62% of Americans say they cannot express all of their views in today’s political climate, up from 58% in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, respondents from the two big parties are split on the issue. According to the Cato survey, roughly three-quarters of Republicans now believe they cannot share their political views, compared with a little more than half of Democrats. Four in ten Democrats say they would support the sacking of a business executive for donating money to Donald Trump’s election campaign; only two in ten Republicans would favour firing someone for giving cash to the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.
There is an educational divide, too. Although better-educated Americans are more likely to identify as Democrats, they are also more fearful of mis-speaking at work. Cato’s data show that 44% of respondents with postgraduate degrees fear they might lose their jobs if they made their political views known, compared with just 34% of people with bachelor’s degrees and 25% of those with no more than a high-school qualification. This may be because degree-holders are more likely to work in places dominated by leftists, where conservative views are marginalised. Only 25% of Democrats with advanced degrees are worried their political views could harm their employment, compared with 60% of Republicans.
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