Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Spiraling Self-Censorship in the United States

30 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2020 Last revised: 18 May 2021

See all articles by James L. Gibson

James L. Gibson

Washington University in St. Louis - Department of Political Science

Joseph L. Sutherland

Columbia University; Princeton University

Date Written: June 1, 2020

Abstract

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.

Keywords: political intolerance; freedom of speech; political repression

Suggested Citation

Gibson, James L. and Sutherland, Joseph L., Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Spiraling Self-Censorship in the United States (June 1, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3647099 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3647099

James L. Gibson (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - Department of Political Science ( email )

One Brookings Drive
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

Joseph L. Sutherland

Columbia University ( email )

New York, NY
United States

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

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