“Roseanne,” the ABC sitcom, brought in 25 million viewers and counting to the shock of elites who believed that the biggest new draw on TV was Jimmy Kimmel and comedy tilting politically left. But there are an estimated 15 million closet conservatives in America today — people who have views that are more conservative than they let on to friends and family — and series star Roseanne Barr tapped into that enormous constituency.
Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE recently suggested that women were being in some sense forced or brainwashed into following their spouses. And yet, the real phenomenon seems to be the opposite: women who say to their friends and family that they are liberal when, in fact, they harbor more conservative views, especially on hot-button issues like immigration, crime and even taxes.
Maybe that will change in the November midterms, as it did in some of the recent special elections, but maybe “closet conservatives” are also laying low, ready to surprise us again. There is no question that the social pressure on people today — and conservative women in particular — is intense to conform to liberal stereotypes. In a recent Harvard Caps-Harris Poll, 40 percent of Americans said they were afraid to express their real political views in their own homes with their own families, while 60 percent said they were unable to express their political views at work. These are astounding numbers for a society founded on the First Amendment and the belief in the free marketplace of ideas.
We see this trend in the mechanics of polling. When asked online what their views are, Americans are about 5 percent more likely to express conservative and even pro-Trump views than when asked on the telephone by a live interviewer. Based on the 5 percent differential that I observed on key hot-button issues, I estimated that there are about 15 million closet conservatives in America, making them a microtrend to watch, as highlighted in my book, “Microtrends Squared: The New Small Forces Driving Today’s Big Disruptions.”
Why are conservatives hiding? Well, for one reason, it could torpedo their relationships. Recent research indicates that one in 10 couples, married or not, have ended their relationships due to a battle over political differences. For younger millennials, this tension over politics is greater: 22 percent of couples have ended a relationship over political differences. In March, there was a news story about the dating prospects of conservative young men in Washington being ruined by working for the Trump administration or for supporting Trump. Dating sites are now adding politics as a category so people can date their own ideology.
Another reason people are hiding is that the First Amendment applies to Congress but it does not apply to your employer: In most workplaces, you can be fired for your political views, and that means your First Amendment rights are only as big as your ability to live without your paycheck. People are fired or forced to resign today for social posts, internal memos, campaign contributions to the wrong causes, attendance at political events or religious views labeled as discriminatory. I believe that merely working in a constitutionally protected cause on your own time should never be the reason for a firing, regardless of the pressure from social media, liberal or conservative.
The fact that so many hide their views in public underscores the importance of letting them vote in private by preserving the secret ballot, and avoiding any kind of internet or mail voting that allows others to stand and watch people select their choices. Polls are no substitute for actual secret balloting.
“Roseanne” is ringing cultural bells that put back some balance in the world of entertainment. It shows that for every trend in America, there is a countertrend. Perhaps it will help other Roseannes to come out of the closet, and just maybe we will all get back to respecting one another’s political views instead of seeking to demean those we oppose — and that will make for a healthier democracy.
Mark Penn is the author, with Meredith Fineman as collaborator, of “Microtrends Squared,” published by Simon & Schuster. He is chairman of the Harris Poll and served as adviser and pollster to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHas China already won? Budget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE and Hillary Clinton from 1995 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.