Eighty percent of Americans say “political correctness is a problem in our country,” according to newly released data from a nationally representative poll drawing upon 8,000 survey respondents, 30 one-hour interviews, and six focus group. Some of this data, compiled with help from YouGov, has been newly released in a report called “Hidden Tribes.”
Objections to political correctness are even stronger among racial minorities and those who have never attended college. High-income college graduates, especially those with advanced degrees, are the Americans most likely to think political correctness is not a problem. These are also the group most likely to label themselves atheists or agnostics, and identify as politically liberal.
Contrary to a common cultural narrative, the poll finds large majorities of Americans of all ages, income levels, and racial backgrounds oppose political correctness, even while 82 percent also think “hate speech” is a problem. This may suggest Americans believe thought and speech censorship is not the best way to address rude and discriminatory behavior.
Opposition to political correctness was higher among Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) than among white Americans (79 percent). In fact, just about every single demographic studied showed overwhelming objection to political correctness except the Americans the study reporting the poll results identified as “progressive activists.” Progressive activists, the study says, “have an outsized role in political discourse, even though they comprise a small portion of the total population (about 1 in 12 Americans).”
About the 8 Percent of People Who Love PC
“Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30 percent see it as a problem,” wrote Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk in an overview of the poll results at The Atlantic.
Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.
It has been well-established that a U.S. college degree doesn’t add any economic value to graduates, on average. Instead, it “signals” that the credential-bearer is the kind of person who will meet basic work standards: Shows up on time, works steadily enough, is compliant enough. In other words, it is an expensive ticket to workforce entry. This study reinforces that U.S. higher education also signals — and likely increases — ideological alignment with the political left. It is a gatekeeper to a certain cultural club.
That cultural club’s exclusivity is extremely apparent to the people who don’t consider themselves part of it. That would be a supermajority of Americans. If the 2016 election didn’t do this — and it obviously didn’t — realizing this is important to the long-term political success of the Democratic Party, which increasingly behaves as if the cultural norms of the 8 percent of “progressive activist” Americans should be shoved down the rest of the country’s throat.
Political Correctness and the ‘Exhausted Majority’
While the “Hidden Tribes” study merely used the term “political correctness” when querying respondents rather than defining it for them, during longer interviews “participants made clear that they were concerned about their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them,” Mounk said.
“I have liberal views but I think political correctness has gone too far, absolutely,” a 28-year-old North Carolinian woman told the study authors. “We have gotten to a point where everybody is offended by the smallest thing.
“Hidden Tribes” found that Americans break down not among racial, income, or class lines, but among political leanings into seven tribes the study grouped along the political spectrum from “progressive activists” to “devout conservatives.” It says “The research repeatedly finds that a person’s [political] tribe predicts their views better than their membership to any demographic group based on visible traits.” The study also placed two-thirds of Americans in an “exhausted majority” between these two wings.
“America’s political landscape is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation,” the study says. “…The Exhausted Majority contains distinct groups of people with varying degrees of political understanding and activism. But they share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”
The study found two-thirds of this “exhausted majority” wants “The people I agree with politically…to be willing to listen to others and compromise.” Later on the study adds more information about this left-out center of American politics, which seems to describe the kind of people who could vote for Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.
Yet it would be a mistake to think of the Exhausted Majority merely as a group of political centrists, at least in the way that term is traditionally understood. They do not simply represent a midpoint between the warring tribes of the left and right. They are frustrated with the status quo and the conduct of American politics and public debate. They overwhelmingly believe that the American government is rigged to serve the rich and influential, and they want things to change.
Besides uniting against political correctness, across the political spectrum poll respondents said they were concerned about the country’s divisions and about health care. The people involved in the study told researchers the country’s divisions deeply affect their daily lives.
“We don’t want to listen to each other. We just want to read something, form an opinion, and shove our opinion on each other,” said a politically disengaged Arizona woman. “We don’t want to acknowledge anybody else’s point of view.”
The Pros and Cons of Compromise
“Hidden Tribes” was published by an international group of largely left academics and political organizers called More In Common. One of their goals is to “Develop and deploy positive narratives that tell a new story of ‘us’, celebrating what we all have in common rather than what divides us,” with the goal of reducing political divisions, such as those leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. This likely reflects sociological research outlined by folks like Jonathan Haidt that emphasizing differences, such as promoting multiculuralism instead of patriotism, is bad for national cohesion.
This has obvious temporary benefits but also shunts aside questions about whether compromise is the just thing to do about political questions that have strong moral bases. Sometimes compromise is just another word for “I don’t want to think about this deeply.” It may make some people feel better to compromise about abortion, to take a very clear example, but when the ultimate positions are “this is killing a human” versus “it’s not a person” a compromise is unintelligible. It amounts to saying, essentially, “We’ll only kill a smaller number of humans” or “We’ll only kill especially young humans.”
So compromise may be the only pragmatic option, but it’s not necessarily an ultimate good. In fact, division can be useful by providing clarity about the serious moral disagreements underlying many political debates. What’s not good is division for the sake of division, which is often currently labeled tribalism. People with greater philosophical clarity should work to persuade the majority that has not deeply thought about their assumptions and positions, however, rather than treat them with contempt.
Those of us who have strong moral clarity about our political stances need to remember that the vast majority of Americans do not. As the report points out, majorities currently support not applying immigration law to youthful border trespassers, don’t think it’s stealing to forcibly redistribute Americans’ earnings, and think sexism is a serious persistent problem. We might think they are wrong, but they don’t deserve to be shouted at over things like this, nor arrogantly dismissed, nor their ideas belittled.
Undecided Americans deserve the dignity of being listened to, responded to, negotiated with, and persuaded rather than coerced into the right’s agenda, no matter how certain we are that we have the 100 percent correct answer to every political question (“Free trade!” “School choice!” “Repeal Obamacare!”). In fact, the report indicates that many Americans are ripe for persuasion because they’re not at all sure what is the right course or why. We are clearly in a period of upheaval. Those of us who have important things to persuade people of need to rediscover effective, non-manipulative ways of doing so, and we may right now have a good opening to do just that.
This is what it means to govern ourselves in a constitutional republic: to earn consent. In fact, that’s precisely the underlying reason for guaranteeing the antidote to political correctness: free speech. It says something about the left that they are not confident enough in their ideas to subject them to a free and open hearing aimed at honest persuasion, but instead seek to coerce people into compliance through political correctness and other social manipulations. The right should define itself in clear contrast by responding to the American people’s stated desire to be heard, seen, and respectfully engaged.