Apr 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Focus group: Real versus manufactured cancel culture

Illustration of a pencil eraser erasing a person.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Our latest Engagious/Schlesinger focus groups find swing voters "very troubled" over pulling George Washington's name from a public school or Dr. Seuss titles from the shelves — but fine with "canceling" My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell or "Mandalorian" actress Gina Carano.

Why it matters: Conservatives accuse progressives — and vice versa — of trying to cancel anyone who doesn't meet their purity tests. But these voters whose political loyalty is up for grabs see two distinct claims: legitimate versus frivolous.

  • "They're able to separate true outrage from manufactured outrage," said Engagious President Rich Thau, who moderated the discussion.
  • "They're able to separate attempts to redefine what's culturally acceptable, from people who are in the business of getting attention for themselves and then believing people are critical of them."
  • While focus groups are not statistically significant samples like polls, their responses show how some voters in crucial states are thinking and talking about national priorities.

The big picture: The two April 13 sessions included 13 women and men — from a mix of the most competitive swing states — who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but Joe Biden in 2020.

  • Five of the 13 said America is "under assault" by progressive activists who want to "cancel things they deem offensive."
  • All 13 said cancel culture goes both ways — with liberals trying to cancel conservatives and conservatives trying to cancel liberals.

Between the lines: None of the 13 felt that they personally had been canceled by anybody — and several were vague about how to define terms like "woke" or "cancel culture."

  • "This is a conversation that's alien to their daily lives," Thau said. "This is a media conversation. This is something that happens to others."
  • But when posed with seven different cancel-culture scenarios and asked whether they were "very troubled" about the treatment of the supposed victims, these voters had quite different takeaways about whether each was a legitimate concern or not.

By the numbers: Zero of 13 felt "very troubled" by Carano's being fired by Disney after comparing being a Republican in 2020 to being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Ten of 13 were "very troubled" by a since-suspended plan in San Francisco to rename schools named for Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Other scenarios fell somewhere in between.

  • Only one sympathized deeply with Lindell, who lost major retailers after questioning the legitimacy of the election results and making a movie about election fraud. Two sided with Fox hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
  • Three worried about liberals' boycott of Goya Foods after its CEO had praised then-President Trump at an event. Five said the same about boycotting "Harry Potter" J.K. Rowling for voicing fears that transgender rights could impinge on women's rights.
  • Eight of 13 strongly opposed the decision to end publication of six old books by children's author Dr. Seuss because of concerns about offensive imagery.

What we're watching: Eleven of the 13 voters disagreed with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's recent declaration that corporations should "stay out of politics" — an idea he quickly walked back.

  • Some participants actually laughed out loud, while others said corporations should have the same rights to expression as individuals.
  • "You can't tell a corporation to stay out of politics and then say, 'But I still will accept your money,'" said Daniel V. from Nevada.
  • "Everyone has a right to voice their opinions," said Jamie G. from North Carolina. "It's wrong of him to try and silence that from any American."
  • The group was split on Major League Baseball moving its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of Georgia's new voting restrictions.
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