Poll: Just Half Of Americans Have Heard of 'Cancel Culture'

The Republican National Convention's focus on the issue spoke largely to Trump's base, a new survey suggests.
Donald Trump Jr. pressed the case against "cancel culture" in his speech last month at the Republican National Convention. A HuffPost/YouGov poll finds he has work to do to get his message across.
Donald Trump Jr. pressed the case against "cancel culture" in his speech last month at the Republican National Convention. A HuffPost/YouGov poll finds he has work to do to get his message across.

Republicans want Americans to be very afraid of Democrats “canceling” them, but only half of Americans are actually clued-in to what “cancel culture” means, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds.

Just half of Americans say they’ve ever heard the term “cancel culture,” according to an early September poll conducted after the Republican National Convention, where speakers repeatedly warned viewers about being “canceled.”

The term, which originated online, denotes withdrawing support for individuals or groups for morally objectionable behavior. Most recently it’s been used in response to systemic racism within U.S. law enforcement agencies and against public figures accused of sexual assault, but has also become central to the battle on college campuses over free speech.

Republicans argue “cancel culture” is how “elite” Democrats silence everyday Americans; “To the voiceless ― shamed, censored and canceled ― my father will fight for you,” Eric Trump, President Donald Trump’s middle son, said at the GOP convention.

Others hammered the same theme at the gathering. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) promised that Trump would never allow for law enforcement and military “heroes” to be canceled, in light of recent protests against police brutality of Black Americans. Nikki Haley, former Ambassador to the United Nations said Trump was right to fight against political correctness and “cancel culture.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, said Democrats were trying to cancel the nation’s founders by taking down confederate monuments.

Kentucky’s Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was “captive to the radical left, a movement he characterized as committed to cancel culture and the destruction of public discourse.

“They believe your skin color must dictate your politics,” Cameron said. “If you fail to conform while exercising your God-given right to speak and think freely, they will cut you down.”

It should be noted that conservatives and Trump also engage in “cancel culture”. And focused anger about “cancel culture” in the current political discourse may not be as widespread as the RNC’s obsession with it seemed to imply.

It’s best known among Trump’s base; 62% of voters who supported him in 2016 said they’d heard the term, compared with 54% of Hillary Clinton voters. But the most prominent divide has to do with attention to politics. Roughly three-quarters of people who say they follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time say they’ve heard of “cancel culture,” compared with just 42% of those who pay less consistent attention.

Only 21% of those who’ve heard the term ― about a tenth of the full public ― say they’ve ever used it themselves. Younger Americans were more likely to have done so: about a third of 18-to-29-year-olds who’d heard of cancel culture say they’ve used it, compared with just 9% of those 65 and older who are familiar with the phrase.

The degree to which people are concerned by the phenomenon is overwhelmingly driven by partisanship. Among Trump voters who’ve heard of “cancel culture,” 58% call it a very serious problem in the U.S., while just 19% of Clinton voters do so. Among those Trump voters aware of the term, 86% say it’s at least somewhat of a problem, with 42% of those Clinton voters doing likewise. Among self-described political independents who’ve heard the term, 39% declared it to be very serious, and two-thirds see it as at least somewhat serious.

Overall, 36% of Americans who’ve heard of cancel culture say it’s a very serious problem, with 64% saying it’s at least somewhat serious.

Because the precise meaning of “cancel culture” remains both fraught and nebulous ― people who are concerned by it would likely define the term quite differently than those who see it as overblown ― polling on the issue can be highly dependent on the framing used.

A July Politico/Morning Consult survey, for instance, described it as “the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive,” noting that ”[c]ancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

Voters in that poll, by 49% to 27%, said that “cancel culture” had a negative impact on society, with 46% saying it had gone “too far.” By contrast, when the same survey asked voters whether social consequences should result for expressing unpopular opinions that may be “deeply offensive to other people,” 53% said there should be and just 31% said people should not expect such repercussions.

Ask people if it’s troubling to have a culture where “an individual (usually a celebrity) who has said something that offends some people is called out and shunned,” as a Yahoo News/YouGov survey did, and 56% will say such an environment is at least a somewhat big problem. Define “canceling” as “withdraw[ing] support for celebrities/public figures after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive,” as a separate YouGov poll did, and 60% will say they find the response appropriate.

The GOP focus on “cancel culture” goes hand in hand with the Trump campaign’s emphasis on political correctness in 2016 — a message that some academics say helped fuel his rise four years ago, especially paired against Clinton.

Now it appears Republicans hope that the same playbook, with different terminology, can work against Biden.

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Sept. 2-5 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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