This is an interesting study. It appears that self-censorship is rooted more in fear of offending others in one’s immediate circle than in actual fear of institutional censorship (whether public or private). The apparent cause is the level of general political polarization that exists in the wider society. This fits with my view that the polarization is rooted less in geography and demographics and more in individual lifestyle preferences. For example, whether one is a vegan animal welfare advocate or a meat-eating gun owner hunter. While issues like geography, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and gender overlap with the polarization process, none of these factors alone are fully explanatory. Political party affiliation is a much better indicator of tribal affiliation but the question is why? Lifestyle values seem to be the common denominator, which explains why even families, friends, co-workers, and neighbors are divided by these things. The difference between now and the McCarthy era is that McCarthyism was a crusade against an unpopular outgroup and the danger was guilt by association. Nowadays, the public is much more divided with large numbers of people being on different sides.
By James L. Gibson and Joseph L. Sutherland
Over the course of the period from the heyday of McCarthyism to the present, the percentage of the American people not feeling free to express their views has tripled. In 2019, fully four in ten Americans engaged in self-censorship. Our analyses of both over-time and cross-sectional variability provide several insights into why people keep their mouths shut. We find that:
(1) Levels of self-censorship are related to affective polarization among the mass public, but not via an “echo chamber” effect because greater polarization is associated with more self-censorship.
(2) Levels of mass political intolerance bear no relationship to self-censorship, either at the macro- or micro-levels.
(3) Those who perceive a more repressive government are only slightly more likely to engage in self-censorship. And
(4) those possessing more resources (e.g., higher levels of education) report engaging in more self-censorship.
Together, these findings suggest the conclusion that one’s larger macro-environment has little to do with self-censorship. Instead, micro-environment sentiments — such as worrying that expressing unpopular views will isolate and alienate people from their friends, family, and neighbors — seem to drive self-censorship. We conclude with a brief discussion of the significance of our findings for larger democracy theory and practice.