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

Political Studies Quarterly 2023, forthcoming

51 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2020 Last revised: 22 Dec 2022

See all articles by James L. Gibson

James L. Gibson

Washington University in St. Louis - Department of Political Science

Joseph L. Sutherland

Columbia University; Emory University; Princeton University; Washington University in St. Louis - Department of Political Science

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 2020, more than four in ten people engaged in self-censorship. Our analyses of over-time and cross-sectional variability suggest that: First, self-censorship is connected to affective polarization among the mass public, with greater polarization associated with more self-censorship. Second, levels of mass opposition to full civil liberties bear no relationship to self-censorship. Third, those who perceive a more repressive government are slightly more likely to self-censor. Fourth, conservatives report engaging in more self-censorship than liberals (but this is not true when comparing Republicans to Democrats). Together, these findings suggest that one’s larger macro-environment may have 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—may be the driver of self-censorship.

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). Political Studies Quarterly 2023, forthcoming , 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

Emory University ( email )

Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

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

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

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