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March 30, 2022+Eric Kaufmann
+Campus Climate+Campus Policy

Cancel Culture Is More Important, and Less Important, Than You Think

The New York Times recently editorialized against cancel culture, generating a storm of indignation among many progressives. Meanwhile, at a speech in Washington, D.C., British Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden declared a trans-Atlantic war on wokeness, an ideology that he believes is replacing freedom with cancel culture, and sapping the vitality of Western democracies while emboldening autocratic challenger states like China and Russia. French president Emmanuel Macron has, like Dowden, condemned the same ideas.

Cancel culture and political correctness were once internal affairs of universities, but they are a growing issue that is starting to decide elections. At the same time, the wider political environment increasingly shapes what happens on campus. Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently passed the Stop WOKE Act to ban critical race theory in schools, but there are concerns the ban could spill over into college classrooms. We face a vicious cycle where cancel culture threats in education and in society operate in both ideological directions, undermining liberalism.

For some, cancel culture is everywhere, limiting freedom and instilling fear in the population. For example, when popular podcaster Joe Rogan apologized after coming under fire for inviting an anti-vaccine guest on his show and using the N-word in previous episodes, Donald Trump and other conservative critics accused him of caving in to cancel culture.

Yet for others, cancel culture is a rare beast: a moral panic, based on a few selected anecdotes, that the right-wing media and politicians have whipped up.

According to a new survey I conducted, the answer lies somewhere in between.

On the one hand, cancel culture is clearly not an imaginary phenomenon among the public. Echoing previous research, more than 6 in 10 Americans say that “the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive.” As with the oft-cited Hidden Tribes report, nearly 8 in 10 people said political correctness had gone too far. Trump voters were 20 to 30 points more likely to agree with these statements than Biden voters, but a majority of the latter also concurred.

More important, when voters were asked to name their top three out of nine issues, “political correctness, free speech, cancel culture, wokeness, and people falsely accused of racism and sexism” ranked fourth (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Top Issues Facing the Country, US Voters

Source: Kaufmann, E., “The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America,” Manhattan Institute, Jan. 25, 2022.

Among Republicans, 48% ranked this suite of issues in their top three, second only to COVID-19 and the economy (63%) and immigration (60%), and well ahead of moral values/religion (37%). Thirty-three percent of Independent voters and 20% of Biden voters also placed these issues in their top three. Other recent surveys find that “political correctness/cancel culture” is a solid mid-ranking issue. Democratic voters tend to be divided in their assessment of instances of cancellation, such as the firing of James Damore at Google, whereas Republicans and Independents are more resolutely opposed. Clearly, there is some division over the extent and gravity of this issue in the United States.

Cancel Culture Off-Campus Is Less Extreme

Cancel culture is clearly a big problem on educational campuses. Heterodox Academy’s 2021 Campus Expression Survey reveals that 6 in 10 students are reluctant to discuss certain topics, with the share higher among Republicans than Democrats. However, it is not completely true that “we all live on campus now.” On campus, the proportion of Trump-supporting professors who say they would reveal their views to a colleague on campus is less than 1 in 10. But, as my recent research shows, once you leave campus, 57% of Trump-voting employees feel free to share their views with workmates, 47 points higher than their academic counterparts. While 87% of Trump-supporting academics say their departments are hostile climates for their beliefs, just 23% of Trump-supporting employees outside academia say likewise. Finally, though 35% of Trump voters worried about being fired from their jobs “because someone misunderstands something you have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from your past online,” so did 36% of Biden voters. Trump voters, on balance, are no more fearful of cancel culture than Biden voters.

A major reason why Trump voters are not more affected by cancel culture than Biden voters is that workplaces in America, like social networks, are fairly segregated politically. While it is true that fewer than 3 in 10 Trump-voting employees who say their colleagues lean Democratic feel free to express their views, fully 75% of Trump voters in Republican-majority workplaces say they would do so. And as figure 2 reveals, close to 6 in 10 Trump voters work in Republican-leaning organizations, a similar share to Biden voters. Trump voters are also more likely to be older, employed in smaller businesses, and living in less diverse and more rural areas, all of which correlate with less fear of being disciplined for speech. This insulates them from cancel culture.

Figure 2.

Source: Kaufmann, “The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America.”

Running counter to our usual assumptions, then, people’s worries about being canceled do not differ by 2020 vote, and personal fear is not associated with ranking cancel culture a top issue. Instead, concern over cancel culture, as with problems such as crime and poverty, stems more from beliefs about society in general — gleaned mainly via the media and other people — than from personal experience. The explosion in media coverage of the culture war since 2015 may be creating the mood music that is elevating these issues in the public consciousness.

Beyond Cancel Culture

What, then, divides us? When it comes to new culture war issues, the politics of cancel culture takes a back seat to conflicts over critical race theory. As Jonathan Haidt has shown, conservatives differ little from liberals on the moral foundation of liberty, but greatly on group loyalty. While they care about both cancel culture and critical race theory, Republicans are more exercised by perceived attacks on America, white people, and men than limits to free speech.

While cancel culture tends to divide Democratic voters, questions such as whether to teach children that America is built on stolen land or is inherently racist arouse stronger passions among Republicans than instances of cancel culture or speech restrictions such as the Rogan affair. The data shows that partisan differences on cancel culture questions average 20 to 30 points, while on many critical race theory items, the divide reaches 50 or 60 points.

Looking ahead to the midterms, this means Republicans like Glenn Youngkin or Ron DeSantis are more likely to center questions of critical race theory in schools than the boycotting of Joe Rogan or deplatforming of Donald Trump.

The rising profile of culture war issues is likely to mean greater Republican scrutiny of, and intervention in, publicly funded universities, perhaps encompassing grants and student loans. The rising focus on diversity and inclusion in universities is on a direct collision course with this new brand of conservatism, one more focused on culture than on conservatism’s traditional free market, faith-based, and foreign policy concerns.


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