America Has a Freedom from Want and Fear Problem
Free speech gets all the coverage but Americans across the spectrum really want more economic security and better public safety.
A hotly debated New York Times editorial board piece entitled, “America Has a Free Speech Problem” based on comprehensive polling by Siena College, argues that the country is losing its historical commitment to pluralism as it descends into “a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture” and who is allowed to say what in American life. As the editorial board argues:
Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.
Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.
This position has predictably generated numerous screeds criticizing the Times for its assumptions about free speech and poor survey design leading to results that confirm its concerns about cancel culture.
TLP’s position on this issue is straightforward: people should be free to speak their mind on all matters facing the country—at all times and in all places. A commitment to free speech also means that people have a right to criticize other people’s ideas. This will sometimes make people uncomfortable, as it should. But criticism works best when Americans debate their differences in a civil and tolerant manner rather than yelling at each other or trying to get people fired or socially shunned for their views, a situation that correctly worries the Times editorial board.
The Golden Rule applies to free speech as it does on other matters: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
On the survey design issue, methodological critics of the NYT/Sienna poll are correct. In general, if you ask people if they feel more or less free to speak their mind about politics after pumping them with questions about America’s basic freedoms and existing threats to free speech, it’s not surprising that nearly half—46 percent—say they feel less free to express their viewpoints in daily life than they did 10 years ago. Although free speech concerns arise in numerous other polls, if this question and others like it had been asked right up front in the survey results potentially would have been different. This doesn’t negate the findings but rather exemplifies a typical challenge in many issue polls. Many Americans are clearly worried about their ability to speak freely on politics even if the exact percentage is likely to fluctuate depending on question wording and positioning.
The flip side of this survey design challenge is that the fascinating questions about patriotism and FDR’s “Four Freedoms” that the NYT/Sienna did ask upfront in the poll are solid and quite interesting.
On the question of national pride, around 6 in 10 adults overall say that they are very proud to be an American and another 3 in 10 say they are at least somewhat proud. But the partisan differences on this are pronounced. As seen in the chart below, only 44 percent of Democrats say they are very proud to be an American compared to nearly 6 in 10 Independents and more than 8 in 10 Republicans. Likewise, only 36 percent of self-identified liberals say they are very proud to be an American versus roughly 60 percent of moderates and more than three quarters of conservatives.
Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly would have sighed at the thought of his future Democratic party members and fellow liberals holding such a lackluster view of the great country his four terms in office helped to create in the 20th century.
The NYT/Sienna poll then asked people to what extent they believe all Americans today enjoy each of FDR’s four freedoms. The results are a bit depressing. Roughly one third of Americans believe that “freedom of speech” is completely enjoyed by all Americans today while half of adults believe that “freedom of worship” is completely enjoyed by all citizens today.
More concerning, only 17 percent of Americans believe that “freedom from want” is completely enjoyed by all today and a scant 11 percent feel the same way about “freedom from fear” as seen below. Notably, there are almost no partisan or ideological differences on these two measures: Democrats and Republicans and liberals and conservatives agree that few Americans today completely enjoy freedom from want and fear.
Although culture war issues over free speech and religion dominate punditry and political divisions between the two parties, Americans themselves are more concerned with national economic growth and making sure people have enough money to live on while ensuring that all people are protected from violence domestically and from outside enemies.
Given these numbers, liberal patriots who believe in FDR’s vision of freedom should defend free speech for all but really concentrate their efforts on creating a country with more economic opportunities for people in all places and fewer physical threats to people’s lives.
A person can’t be truly free and equal in life if they face undue economic hardship or violence from others.