How NYT Columnist Ross Douthat used ambiguous poll results to create a “public opinion” that conforms to his world view. - iMediaEthics

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In July 2020, the Cato Institute, described as a Libertarian think tank, released the results of its own poll focusing on the issue of self-censorship. 

In an article this month comparing life in Hungary to the U.S., New York Times columnist Ross Douthat used those year-old results to support his contention that “an important part of American life right now” is the fear that “progressivism already exerts this power – to make its critics fear for their livelihood.”*

There is nothing in the poll, however, that would substantiate his claim. His article is an example of how pollsters and pundits can use vague or ambiguous poll results to manufacture the illusion of a public opinion they prefer.

The Cato Poll

According to the poll, “62% of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” 

Another question in the poll, cited by Douthat, found that “Nearly a third (32%) of employed Americans say they personally are worried about missing out on career opportunities or losing their job if their political opinions became known.”

It’s important to note that the poll itself does not ask any follow-up questions as to why respondents felt the way they did. The first poll question does ask if the “political climate these days” caused people to be self-censorious, but there is no definition of what either the pollsters or the respondents meant by that phrase.

Douthat’s Interpretations of the Poll Results

The very ambiguity allows Douthat to fill in the blanks with his own interpretation as to why people might be cautious about expressing their views in public.

To support his contention that Americans are fearful of progressivism, he asserts:

“You can document this fear of sharing strong opinions, especially ones that conflict with progressive orthodoxy, by looking at opinion polls. (Italics added)

“For example, a 2020 survey conducted by the Cato Institute found that 62 percent of Americans felt uncomfortable sharing their views because of the political climate, and ‘strong liberals’ were the only ideological group where the majority felt free to speak their minds. 

“To the question, ‘Are you worried about losing your job or missing out on job opportunities if your political opinions became known?’ highly educated Americans were the most anxious, with 44 percent of respondents with a postgraduate degree and 60 percent of Republicans with a post-grad degree saying yes.”

That is it for the poll evidence. 

The logic Douthat implies: Because Republicans and conservatives reported being more constrained than Democrats and liberals in speaking out, Republicans and conservatives must be fearful of liberal orthodoxy. 

But there is nothing in the poll that explicitly mentions progressive orthodoxy. That addition is simply a creation of Douthat’s own mind.

Alternative Interpretations

There could be many other factors that caused people to be cautious in expressing their opinions. The poll explicitly mentions the “political climate” as the environment that produces the caution. Douthat seems to believe the political climate was indeed progressive orthodoxy. But that view is unlikely to have been the dominant one for the general public in the summer of 2020 when the poll was conducted and released.

One could argue, for example, that the most contentious events constituting the political climate in the early summer of 2020 were the pandemic, protests against the killing of George Floyd, and the ongoing concerns about climate change

On all three issues, Republicans were widely split – many Republicans critical of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, many Republican leaders joining Democrats in criticizing Trump’s incendiary language against the protesters, and a significant number of GOP leaders who called themselves never Trumpers out campaigning strongly against their own party’s president.

For a president who demanded absolute loyalty, the ongoing GOP internecine warfare could be one reason why rank-and-file conservatives and Republicans indicated they were especially cautious in speaking out freely. Perhaps they weren’t afraid of liberals as much as they were afraid of saying things that would contradict their own party’s president and his vehement supporters. We do not know, however, what the actual reason is because the Cato Institute poll did not ask.

As for the second question, people worrying about losing their jobs, Douthat notes that the “highly educated Americans were the most anxious,” including 60% of Republicans with a post-grad degree. But what does that indicate? It says nothing about these Republicans being concerned about progressive orthodoxy. In fact, it’s possible the most educated Republicans were also the most likely to be afraid to express their opinions at work because they realized how polarized their own party had become over Trump’s positions on Covid, protesters, and climate change.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the above explanations are the correct ones. I’m just pointing out that with ambiguous poll data, one can spin almost any scenario to support one partisan position or another. What I’ve outlined is sheer partisan speculation, not supported by the poll any more than is the partisan speculation proffered by Douthat.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there may be other explanations for why various groups are cautious in stating their opinions, having nothing to do with politics.

It could be that typically conservatives are more restrained in this area than are liberals. The difference could have to do with the personality differences between the two groups, not related specifically to culture or politics.

Also, perhaps Republicans – especially the most highly educated workers – are more likely to be guarded in talking freely while on the job because they are disproportionately more likely to work in businesses/corporations, where people can be fired at will, while Democrats and liberals are more likely to work in academe, the government, or non-profit organizations, where some form of tenure protects free speech.

There are many other hypotheses that could be researched. The Cato poll did not explore any of them.  

What we can conclude from the Cato poll is that it provides no evidence for the assertion that the public is especially afraid of sharing strong opinions “that conflict with progressive orthodoxy,” despite what Ross Douthat’s column argues.


*The quotation I cite has been condensed, but I believe it accurately conveys Douthat’s view. Here is the full paragraph from which I condensed his quotation: “This is a useful tweet for thinking about the fears motivating Hungary-watching Americans, left and right. On the one hand, there’s the fear that Trumpian populism will someday gain enough power to make its critics fear for their livelihoods. On the other, there’s the fear that progressivism already exerts this power in the United States, and that what Frum describes in dire terms, the cautious sotto voce conversation, is an important part of American life right now.”

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How NYT Columnist Ross Douthat used ambiguous poll results to create a “public opinion” that conforms to his world view.

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