POLITICO poll: A plurality of Americans think “cancel culture” has gone too far

Well, my title comes from the headline of this article in POLITICO describing a poll that it took along with the firm Morning Consult to suss out what Americans think about cancel culture (henceforth “CC”). Everything jibes—until you get to the end.  Click on the screenshot to read.

I’ve put below the poll’s main conclusions about cancel culture, defined by the pollsters (and posed to the respondents) as “the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.” That’s a bit milder than Ross Douthat’s definition of CC as ‘. . . an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.” In the POLITICO definition, you suffer by having “support” withdrawn; in Douthat’s, you suffer a loss of reputation and/or your job. (POLITICO, by the way, appears to be a mildly liberal site, but pretty much centrist.)

So, taking into account this milder definition, here’s POLITICO’s polling results (their words are indented):

1.) A plurality of Americans think cancel culture has gone too far and is harmful to society. 

Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming. A plurality (46%) of Americans believe that cancel culture “has gone too far.” About a quarter of Americans — many of whom are perhaps blissfully offline — said they didn’t know or had no opinion on the matter. When they are removed from the results, a clear majority — across almost every demographic category — says that cancel culture has gone too far.

Twenty-seven percent of voters said cancel culture had a somewhat positive or very positive impact on society, but almost half (49%) said it had a somewhat negative or very negative impact.

2.) Most of the polled didn’t participate in CC, and those who did are mostly on the Left rather than the Right. 

While online shaming may seem like a major preoccupation for the public if you spend a lot of time on Twitter, only 40% of voters say they have participated in cancel culture and only one in 10 say they participate “often.” It appears to be more of a liberal pursuit: Half of Democrats have shared their dislike of a public figure on social media after they did something objectionable, while only a third of Republicans say they have.

If this result be true, it goes against the contention that the Left and Right are both equally culpable in CC activities. And the greater propensity of the Left to cancel is supported by data from FIRE’s disinvitation database over the last ten years or so, showing that most “cancellations” at colleges, i.e., disinvitations to speak or get honorary degrees, comes from the Left rather than the Right.

And the general association of CC with the Left will give a boost (hopefully not a big one) to Donald Trump’s bid for reelection.

3.) Older people are less likely to cancel. 

Note the link in the excerpt below.

Age is one of the most reliable predictors of one’s views. Members of Generation Z are the most sympathetic to punishing people or institutions over offensive views, followed closely by Millenials, while GenXers and Baby Boomers have the strongest antipathy towards it. Cancel culture is driven by younger voters. A majority (55%) of voters 18-34 say they have taken part in cancel culture, while only about a third (32%) of voters over 65 say they have joined a social media pile-on. The age gap may partially explain why Ernest Owens, a millennial journalist, responded to Obama’s criticism with a New York Times op-ed that amounted to a column-length retort of “OK, boomer.”

I have to say that this goes along with my own experience, which of course is anecdotal. Get off my lawn, Generation Zers!

There are other results as well, but I’ll give just one more:

4.) Most Americans aren’t aware of the kind of CC activities we discuss here, but those who are are anti-CC.

Not surprisingly, the POLITICO poll reveals that many Americans aren’t paying attention to many of these controversies. We asked about the Weiss resignation and the Harper’s letter. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed didn’t know about or had no opinion of the Weiss controversy and 42 percent didn’t know about or had no opinion of what, in the insular world of Acela corridor media, has become known as The Letter. [JAC: the letter in Harper’s.]

But in both of those cases for those Americans who did offer an opinion, the anti-cancel culture warriors had the majority view: 56% approved of The Letter and 70% approved of [Bari] Weiss’s decision to quit “because of perceived harassment and her perception of self-censorship within the New York Times due to Twitter.”

The article goes on to describe what they see as a cooling of CC, like the recent NYT article that wasn’t too hard on Steve Pinker (it’s striking that this is taken for evidence that cancel culture is losing steam), or the pushback by some journalists like Matt Taibbi (see yesterday’s post).

But at the end of the POLITICO piece, there’s one polling result that seems to undercut the rest, with most people saying there should be “social consequences” to expressing unpopular opinions:

In the POLITICO poll, 53% agreed with the statement that “even though free speech is protected, people should expect social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people,” while only 31% said their view was closer to the following: “There should not be social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people because free speech is protected.”

Now whether this contradicts the rest of the poll of course depends on what you mean by “social consequences.” I’m just guessing, but I interpret this as meaning more than just “verbal pushback” or “arguments against your views.” Rather, I take it to mean “social consequences” like demonization of a person or even calls for firing. Yes, of course if you express white supremacy or Nazism in public, you’re going to suffer a decline in your reputation (that’s one of the arguments for allowing free speech: to out the deplorables). But CC goes further than this in trying to attack someone’s entire character for much milder speech, and in reporting them to their bosses to get them fired.  I wish POLITICO had been more specific in this question about the definition of “social consequences.”

h/t: Greg Mayer

32 Comments

  1. Mark Clements
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I think the modal “should” in “should expect social consequences” is the key to that final polling result. By my interpretation, the respondents are saying that because those who step outside the “proper” lines of discourse will probably receive negative social reactions (whether they deserve them or not), they might as well be prepared.

    • jezgrove
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Interesting, I hope that you’re right.

  2. A C Harper
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    You could make an argument that ‘power’ has been shifting from the older generations to the younger generations for more than 50 years. Now the exercise of power by those who have little to lose and little experience of nuance is quite risky.

    Perhaps those that facilitate that exercise of younger power want to ensure the breakdown of society – but if they think they can control what rises from the ashes they are in for a surprise.

  3. DrBrydon
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Yes, if social consequences mean not being invited to dinner, fine. If they mean losing one’s job or being held up as a pariah by the media, not fine. As someone wrote recently (maybe Glenn Loury), free speech is a social value. If we don’t have social consequences for stiffling speech, we won’t have it.

  4. Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Some religious groups practice shunning. Isn’t that a kind of cancel culture?

  5. pablo
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I saw the beginings of cancel culture in the mid to late aughts. I used to read Pandagon which was originally run by Ezra Klein and some other guy whose name I can’t remember. They left and turned it over to Amanda Marcotte, Pam Spaulding, and another guy whose name I can’t remember. It didn’t take long for Pam, and other guy to drop out, leaving Marcotte as sole blogger. That’s when it started to lean into intersectional feminism. I also started to check out other feminist blogs from the blogroll. At the time the called cancel culture, “call out” culture and public shaming and de-platforming was advocted as a way to advance their agenda. At the time I didn’t think this would go far as it seemed to me to create infighting and that being scolded would be off putting to the general public. Guess I was wrong.

  6. eric
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I wish POLITICO had been more specific in this question about the definition of “social consequences.”

    Yeah, I don’t think that polling question tells us much. Given that they wanted to learn about people’s opinion of CC, why not be more specific and ask about it directly? “Even though free speech is protected, people should expect to be fired or have their speaking engagements cancelled for expressing unpopular opinions in public.”

    • AlTazim
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, “social consequences” is way too vague. At my work-study job in college, one of my coworkers started a nasty rumor about one of the girls working there. She found out about it, and showed a bunch of us some 99% irrefutable proof that the whole thing had been made up out of spite. The result was that nobody trusted the guy who had spread the rumor anymore, and he got a talking-to from the supervisor about workplace gossip. According to this poll, this would be considered “cancel culture”.

  7. Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Just some clouds on the silver lining. Of course feel free to explain why these are wrong.

    Something close to 50% of the country is conservative, so defenders of CC will of course seize on the point that a goodly portion of those against CC are from the right. This will automatically be seen as a positive thing.

    A large portion of those who view CC favorably are young people, and they are our future. Lefties that are agin’ CC are older lefties.

    • AlTazim
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think this really differs at all from “you become more conservative as you age”. When you’re young, and don’t have a lot at stake, the only way to, quote unquote, “hold people accountable” who are in your same position of having nothing to lose is through social pressure. It’s why high school is particularly rife with bullying. As you get older, and have things at stake like a career, long-standing reputation, a mortgage, or certainly a spouse and children, you will look askance at destroying other people’s lives over social squabbles, given that the same thing could easily happen to you.

      • Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        It seems to me, however, that a lot of SJWs are suburban white women (like my neighbors) who participate with relish in those social squabbles and demonstrations of outrage, yet have careers, a mortgage, and spouses and children. Hypocrisy rears its head when an exterior, socio-political cleansing substitutes for a lack of self-insight and/or an unwillingness to confront personal demons that are the real issue.

        • AlTazim
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          Fair point, but cancel culture hasn’t really come for the suburban, or for that matter wealthier urban, liberal white women yet. The only one I can think of, and it’s very recent, is that lady who called the police on the black birdwatcher in Central Park because they had a confrontation after he nicely told her to leash her dog. It will only take a couple episodes of “Jennifer has a successful consulting career at 41 and posts about social justice, but back when she was in her late teens she used a number of slurs for lesbians and said she’d never want to ‘live with a d***’; this is how LGBT folks struggle for access to housing” and “Melissa says she believes women, but her CFA/CPA husband raped me and another girl at his frat when he was in college, no woman should have to associate with a rapist when she just wants her money taken care of” for this to change.

  8. Patrick Clark
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Is this really new? Jane Fonda experienced years of opprobrium for her activities during the Vietnam War. Isn’t this the same thing that happened during the black listing period in Hollywood?

  9. Posted July 22, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Cancellation is far worse than “withdrawing support”. If the signatories of the LSA letter simply said they were not going to read Pinker anymore, who would care? Instead they attack his character and demand the LSA disown him. The CC culture traffics in character assassination, and tries to destroy people’s livelihoods.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    And the general association of CC with the Left will give a boost (hopefully not a big one) to Donald Trump’s bid for reelection.

    I don’t see how anti-CC sentiment can be a boon to Donald Trump’s reelection chances, at least among anyone capable of thinking it through sufficiently to see that Trump himself is perhaps CC’s most active practitioner. (The Politico piece itself links to a list of dozens of examples.)

    This is a guy who claims NASCAR’s ban on Confederate flags constitutes an infringement of free speech, yet who urged that ballplayers who take a respectful knee during the playing of the national anthem are “sons of bitches” who deserve to be banned from the NFL and who calls the stenciling of “BLM” onto Fifth Avenue (with the NYC mayor’s authorization) bannable “hate speech.”

    Incoherency thy name is Trump.

    • Posted July 22, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      But he says he passed an intelligence test with flying colors. He says they were amazed at how well he did!

      • phar84
        Posted July 22, 2020 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        It was a test to detect dementia.

        • jezgrove
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

          They were still amazed he passed, though.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 22, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Dude seems awfully proud of being able to tell “camel” from “lion.”

        Maybe it’s the only test he’s ever actually passed on his own, without paying Joe Shapiro to take for him, the way he did with his SATs.

        • jezgrove
          Posted July 22, 2020 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          Always assuming Shapiro didn’t have to take the dementia test on Trump’s behalf, of course.

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      “Incoherency thy name is Trump.”

      I agree 100%, however not much coherence or common sense coming from the democrats either.

      I find it interesting that the republicans/democrats in the US and the tories/labour in the UK has had terrible party leaders at the same time for the last 5 years.

      Has it ever been this bad?

    • Filippo
      Posted July 22, 2020 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      ‘ . . . yet who urged that ballplayers who take a respectful knee during the playing of the national anthem are “sons of bitches” who deserve to be banned from the NFL . . . .”

      I wonder why the national anthem should or must be played before the start of the professional sports business day. Sports team owners should come down to center field and sing solo and earn those big bucks. Why not before the start of each shift at, say, Amazon? Why not before taking an exam, or eating lunch in the cafeteria, at school?

      Why don’t they also require the recitation of the pledge of allegiance? 50-60 years ago it was mandated before the start of concerts at many public college campuses. That that is no longer required is progress of a kind. I think tRump should require both before the start of golf tournaments he sponsors. In fact I think he should get up and caterwaul it solo. I think he should do it before he squats on the toilet.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 22, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

        Our boy The Donald doesn’t actually seem all that real clear on the words to our National Anthem himself:

  11. jezgrove
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    “Get off my lawn, Generation Zers!” Am I the only one hearing an unwarranted “OK, boomer” ringing in my ears?

  12. dd
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    A very worthwhile interview with Jonathan Rauch on cancel culture and the open society…..

    https://reason.com/podcast/jonathan-rauch-on-cancel-culture-and-the-unending-battle-for-free-speech/?utm_medium=email

  13. Tim J Reichert
    Posted July 22, 2020 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t the real problem what people are getting cancelled for? I don’t care one iota if Richard Spencer gets #cancelled. I do care if Steven Pinker gets cancelled for the things people were trying to get him cancelled for. And I care even more for the unknown girl who made an ill advised dark joke before getting on a plane and is cancelled and fired before touch down.

    The woke are using a level of opprobrium that we save for real Nazis, and real rapists. And we correctly use it on those most heinous of offenders. But the woke are now using this emergency level of opprobrium as a weapon on anyone who dares to break a dogma that most of them don’t even understand and are equally afraid of breaking.

    I don’t think we are best served by attacking this thing called “cancel culture” I think we did ourselves no favours choosing it as our named foe. Kind hearted people can’t understand not wanting to cancel actual Nazis. The problem is they have been brainwashed by many political factions to extend the meaning of Nazi and rapist to include everything that breaks the narrative they have been seduced by.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 23, 2020 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      ‘I don’t think we are best served by attacking this thing called “cancel culture” I think we did ourselves no favours choosing it as our named foe.’

      What ought one name this foe (assuming naming is allowed)?

      May one not at least defend oneself against it, or is defense construed as attack?

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 24, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Not sure where you get the idea that I’m in the position of “allowing” or “disallowing” anything. You “may” do whatever you like.

        • Filippo
          Posted July 25, 2020 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          ‘I don’t think we are best served by attacking this thing called “cancel culture” I think we did ourselves no favours choosing it as our named foe.’ What ought one name this foe (assuming naming is allowed)? May one not at least defend oneself against it, or is defense construed as attack?

          Not sure where you get the idea that I’m in the position of “allowing” or “disallowing” anything. You “may” do whatever you like.

          ‘You “may” do whatever you like.’

          I thank you kindly. I will cheerily accept that you are apparently not inclined to offer a preferred substitute name for “cancel culture.”

  14. Tim Harris
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    ‘Yes, of course if you express white supremacy or Nazism in public, you’re going to suffer a decline in your reputation (that’s one of the arguments for allowing free speech: to out the deplorables).’

    But a great many people express precisely these opinions, including the president of the United States and Tucker Carlson, and have expressed them, as in Germany in the 20s & 30s, and though they may suffer a decline in their reputations among civilised and fair-minded people, they do not among people who share their beliefs, and a great many people do, alas, share their beliefs. It is fortunate now that, in most Western countries, civilised and fair-minded opinions still hold an (increasingly endangered) sway, that is to say, to put it brutally, these opinions have power; for power is important. But this will not necessarily always be the case. It really is not getting better all the time, as Anne Applebaum’s recently published book ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’, and Nick Cohen’s excellent piece on her book in the Guardian, clearly demonstrate.


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