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Are Swing Voters Worried About Cancel Culture?

A conversation with Trump-to-Biden voters about cancel culture.
by Rich Thau
April 19, 2021
Are Swing Voters Worried About Cancel Culture?
(Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The Republican party has doubled down on the culture war—and “cancel culture” in particular. So this month with the Swing Voter Project, I asked 13 Trump-to-Biden voters what they thought about cancel culture.

They told me some interesting things.

First, none of them had any personal experience with it: None had been victims of, or targeted by, cancel culture.

Second, it wasn’t even clear that they agreed on what cancel culture was. When pressed, only 6 of the 13 were able to offer a definition for it, and those definitions varied:

“Cancel culture is where people go through whatever methods they need to, to get rid of something that other people enjoy: TV shows, talk shows, radio shows,” said Jamie, a 43-year-old woman from Hoffman, North Carolina. “People are like, ‘Oh, I’m offended by that. So I’m going to cancel it for everybody.’”

Luis, a 41-year-old from Orlando, defined cancel culture as “something that was accepted before, and now it’s not politically correct.”

Brendan, 32, from Aldan, Pennsylvania, said it was “more like a mindset: ‘Oh, hey, we were doing certain things wrong—Pepe Le Pew, certain characterizations like Dr. Seuss and stuff, depicting people in such a horrible way. That is an old mindset, and we need to be more progressive as a people.’”

Daniel, 34, from Las Vegas, lamented the lost educational value of removing things that should be remembered as warnings to the future: “I see cancel culture as [this]: If something is offensive, if it’s something that someone doesn’t agree with, they want to take it away instead of keeping it there as a reminder that it’s not something that we should do.”

Tony, a 38-year-old from Charlotte, saw cancel culture as political: “One party, they want to change how people vote. Like they want to cancel, they want to take that . . . away and want to do it a new, different way, to where some people may disagree.”

And while six of the 13 were able to offer some form of definition, only five respondents said they believe American culture is under assault by progressive activists who want to cancel things they deem offensive.

Wanting to know how deep their concerns about cancel culture run, I showed respondents a list of seven individuals or groups that have been “canceled,” and described the circumstances:

(1) Presidents Washington/Lincoln/Jefferson: The former U.S. presidents’ names have been removed from San Francisco public schools after the school board decided to rename 44 schools that had “ties to racism” and “dishonorable legacies.” [Note: On April 6, the San Francisco School Board revoked its January decision to re-name schools named for these presidents.]

(2) Dr. Seuss: Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because of their use of offensive imagery, according to the business that oversees the estate of the children’s author and illustrator. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement.

(3) Gina Carano: TheMandalorian actress was fired by Disney after posting on social media that being a Republican in 2021 was similar to being Jewish during Nazi Germany. Her Hollywood agent dropped her, and Hasbro scrapped her Star Wars action figures.

(4) J.K. Rowling: The author of the Harry Potter series has faced backlash for voicing her fears that the push for transgender rights will ultimately endanger women’s rights. She’s since defended her comments on her website and joined 150 authors and academics denouncing “cancel culture.” These actions infuriated her critics, who called for a boycott of her books and for her publisher to stop paying royalties.

(5) Tucker Carlson/Sean Hannity/Laura Ingraham: The prime-time Fox News opinion hosts have opposed cancel culture as well as TV ad boycotts for airing their conservative views. Media Matters, a liberal group that opposes Fox, keeps a list of the network’s prime-time sponsors and routinely singles them out, advocating for these sponsors to drop their ads if a host says something egregious.

(6) Mike Lindell: The CEO of My Pillow said his company was dropped by nearly 20 retailers after he publicly questioned the electoral results of the 2020 presidential election and made his election fraud claims into a movie.

(7) Goya Foods: Liberals called for a Goya Foods’ boycott after the company’s CEO praised then-President Trump at an event at the White House. The CEO said Mr. Trump’s leadership was a “blessing” for Hispanic Americans.

I asked how many of these examples really troubled them. There were only two that stood out: Having Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln “canceled” by the San Francisco public schools, and having six of Dr. Seuss’s books no longer published.

Ten members of the group said they were very troubled about the presidential school renaming. Two comments:

“I think with presidents that owned slaves, I think you can’t change history and it worries me erasing history,” said Susan, 47, from Roswell, Georgia. “I think that’s important to know, that that’s part of our American history. And it worries me taking statues down, and re-naming things, and erasing what’s made our country what it is. It doesn’t mean that you condone those things.”

Melissa, 40, from Irving, Texas, wondered aloud about those doing the canceling: “Is it really necessary for them to do that? I guess that’s my thing that bothers me. Like if it’s been in history for all these years, and it’s never been a problem, now all of a sudden it’s like all these things are pushed to the forefront that were never really even brought up as a problem are just now like this major problem.”

Eight members said they were very troubled by the Dr. Seuss books. Ellen, 60, from Scottsdale, Arizona, said, “Dr. Seuss is dead, but I feel fairly certain that Dr. Seuss was not trying to alienate any groups, or had any political motivation in writing those books. And I don’t think they harm anyone.”

After that, the examples I provided seemed to have significantly less salience with the respondents.

Only five were very troubled by how J.K. Rowling was being canceled. One who wasn’t, Daniel from Las Vegas, explained his lack of outrage this way: “I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal because . . . she believes in what she believes, and she’s found a way to still make money. Universal [Studios] I’m pretty sure is still paying her for royalties. . . . She’s still making things. It’s not like it’s completely just wiping everything away.”

For many of the other examples on the list, these swing voters casually dismissed complaints about cancel culture. And they were particularly unconcerned about the fate of the media personalities. When I said to one group that Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham are “the ones complaining because they’re being targeted all the time,” James from Roswell, Georgia, responded, “Well they deserve that because they’re obnoxious.” Only two of the 13 said they were very troubled about the Fox hosts being victims of cancel culture.

And only one member of the group thought Mike Lindell was being unfairly canceled when 20 retailers dropped his brand. Cherylyn, 45, from Decatur, Michigan, summed up the mood of the group, saying, “He opened himself up for that with the outrageous statements that he made. So I do feel like he welcomed these people to do these things.”

No one was troubled by how Gina Carano was cancelled. “I just think it was uncalled for [what she said],” commented Rildon, 45, from Houston. “It just didn’t sit right with me. . . . I mean we’re talking about millions of people. . . . [Jews] pretty much almost got wiped off the face of the Earth, and you’re coming in joking about it, or making the analogy like that.”

And perhaps most interestingly, all 13 thought that cancel culture is a two-way street, with not only liberals canceling conservatives, but conservatives canceling liberals. They offered a few examples, including Nicki Minaj and AOC.

The attitudes of this group suggests that Republicans may be overplaying their hand on cancel culture and that, if Democrats are willing to stand up to the most egregious examples, they might be able to neutralize this weapon in the culture war.

Rich Thau

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.