Our Illiberal Society

These numbers are unsurprising. They go hand in hand with the general polarization. The vanishing middle. Free speech requires a middle. It requires the belief that we can ultimately talk things out and get along. That belief is vanishing. And nowhere is its decline more obvious than on the college campus.

The General Social Survey has asked people since the 1970s, “Consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?” About 84 percent of people aged 18-25 and in college said yes in 1976. Today, that number is under 50 percent.

This perspective extends to other ideas, as well, though not nearly in such numbers. In 1976, more than 80 percent of 18-25 year old college students thought a communist should be allowed to speak on campus, compared with about 70 percent today; with regard to atheists, that number has declined from about 90 percent to about 80 percent.

So there is a decline on both sides of the spectrum. But it's markedly more obvious on the left.

What we're seeing now, the violent riots and physical attacks, are a symptom of an illiberal society. Having a First Amendment is nice. It's a great statement of principles. But laws depend on culture. A society that culturally rejects Freedom of Speech won't have it. It will find various ways to deny it. But when there's a will, there's a way. 

We are becoming a tribal society. That doesn't just eliminate speech. It eliminates any and every consensus, including democratic elections (note that Trump is the second of the last two Republican presidents, both of whose elections were deemed illegitimate) and moral codes. Throw away the consensus and all that's left is force. If you don't like a speaker, shut him down by any means.

This is a symptom. And it ought to be worrying us a lot more than it is.