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New poll finds many feel the cost of free speech is too high to actually speak

America once believed in the maxim expressed by Voltaire’s biographer, which was often attributed to the French philosopher himself: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Today, forget it. Speak out now, and those who disapprove want you canceled, doxxed and perhaps physically harmed. 

This is why, according to a new poll by the libertarian Cato Institute and YouGov, a solid majority of Americans say they fear publicly discussing politics.

Not surprisingly, conservatives worry most about talking politics, while staunch liberals don’t feel all that inhibited.

Overall, Cato found 62 percent of Americans “say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” That’s up from 58 percent just three years ago.

This fretting cuts across party lines.

Among Democrats, 52 percent “agree they have political opinions they are afraid to share.” With independents, the ratio rises to 59 percent.

Yet 77 percent of Republicans feel the need to keep quiet.

Things change somewhat when the question turns to ideology.

A narrow majority of “centrist” liberals (52 percent) believe they must self‐​censor. Among moderates, the sentiment grows to 64 percent. But more than three of every four conservatives (77 percent) think silence isn’t just golden, it’s necessary.

On the other hand, “Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) of staunch liberals feel they can say what they believe,” Cato found. Interestingly, Cato noted that was down from 70 percent in 2017.

“More people among all political groups feel they are walking on eggshells,” Cato stated. But it seems the retreat of centrist liberals has opened a no man’s land.

The difference between staunch and moderate liberals “demonstrates that political expression is an issue that divides the Democratic coalition between centrist Democrats and their left flank.” 

Considering demographic groups, self‐​censorship is strongest among Hispanics (65 percent), whites (64 percent), men (65 percent), senior citizens (66 percent) and religious folks (71 percent), according to the poll.

The workplace offers some of the most glaring gaps.

For instance, a third of Americans believe their careers could be harmed if they openly expressed their political views. But conservatives are more tolerant. Just 36 percent of “strong” conservatives believe an executive should be fired for being a Joe Biden backer, while 50 percent of “strong” liberals think it’s acceptable to fire one who supports President Donald Trump.

Education level also illustrates a stark divide.

While the ratios are even between Democrats and Republicans up to college, about a quarter of Democrats with either a four-year college degree or a postgraduate degree worry their careers could be hurt by political expression. Among Republicans, however, the rate jumps to 40 percent with bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent who have an advanced education.

In conclusion, Cato noted, “Taking these results together indicates that a significant majority of Americans with diverse political views and backgrounds self‐​censor their political opinions. This large number from across demographic groups suggests withheld opinions may not simply be radical or fringe perspectives in the process of being socially marginalized. Instead many of these opinions may be shared by a large number of people.”

“If people feel they cannot discuss these important policy matters, such views will not have an opportunity to be scrutinized, understood, or reformed.”

We’re in an odd place. We claim to value free speech, but most of us are afraid to speak out. 

PHOTO: iStock

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