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date: 25 April 2017

Political Intolerance in the Context of Democratic Theory

Abstract and Keywords

This article first provides an overview of democratic theory in order to provide a better understanding of the meaning of political intolerance. The concept of tolerance is clearly explained to avoid any confusion with other terms such as permissiveness. The article identifies the role of tolerance in democratic theory and attempts to determine why some citizens are more tolerant than others. It also pinpoints the consequences of mass political intolerance.

Keywords: democratic theory, political intolerance, role of tolerance, consequences, mass political intolerance

In 1954, in the midst of the infamous McCarthy-led Red Scare in the United States, Samuel Stouffer initiated the modern study of political intolerance with a major survey of both the American mass public and local community leaders. Stouffer, like many others, observed the widespread political repression being undertaken in the name of protecting America and its values from the godless communists, and wondered whether such repression was supported by ordinary people. The results were unequivocal when it comes to the mass public: Of 4,933 respondents interviewed, only 113 people—a paltry 2.3 percent—would not restrict the activities and rights of an admitted communist in some way.1 Local community leaders, on the other hand, expressed considerably less appetite for intolerance. Out of Stouffer’s research (p. 410) emerged highly influential “elitist” theories of democracy (e.g. Bachrach 1967), as well as an intellectual concern that has persisted for fifty years about the causes and consequences of the intolerance of ordinary citizens (e.g. for a study of British elites and masses see Barnum and Sullivan 1989; on Canadian elites and masses see Sniderman et al. 1996; on Nicaragua see Stein 1999; for contrary findings on elite–mass differences see Rohrschneider 1996).

Intolerance—the unwillingness to put up with disagreeable ideas and groups—has thus become a staple of research on the democratic orientations of citizens throughout the world. The topic is today no less important than it was in the days of Joseph McCarthy (the Republican Senator from Wisconsin who led the Red Scare of the 1950s), since intolerance in one form or another fuels the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Rwanda, and many other areas of the world. And even where intolerance does not directly produce political violence, the failure of democratizing regimes to embrace political freedom for all, even those in the opposition, has become one of the most important impediments to the consolidation of democratic reform throughout the world (as in the so-called illiberal democracies—see Zakaria 2003). Thus, it is important to assess what fifty years of social scientific research have taught us about the causes and consequences of political intolerance. That is the purpose of this chapter.2

This chapter begins with an overview of democratic theory, since the meaning of political tolerance (like all concepts) can best be understood within the context of theory. Because tolerance is often confused with other fellow travelers such as permissiveness, it is useful to carefully explicate the concept. The definition of concepts is of course arbitrary, but all concepts acquire their meaning from theory. In the case of political tolerance, the relevant body of thought is democratic theory, and perhaps even more precisely, theories of liberal democracy.3

1 The Role of Tolerance in Democratic Theory

Democracy is of course a system of procedures by which majorities tend to have their way: the majority rules. Liberal democracies require mechanisms of aggregating citizen preferences within majoritarian institutions and this is perhaps the essence of the concept of democracy (e.g. Dahl 1989). But democracy is also a system in (p. 411) which institutionalized respect for the rights of political minorities to try to become a majority must exist. In particular, political minorities in a liberal democracy must be given the means of contestation—the right to try to convince others of the rightness of their positions. Setting up institutions of majority rule turns out to be a comparatively simple task; ensuring the right of unpopular political minorities to compete for political power turns out to be far more difficult.

Without guarantees of the right of all to participate in politics, the “marketplace of ideas” cannot function effectively. The idea of a marketplace is that anyone can put forth a product—an idea—for political “consumers” to consider. The success of the idea is determined by the level of support freely given in the market. The market encourages deliberation, through which superior ideas are found to be superior, and through which the flaws of bad ideas are exposed for all to see (almost as if guided by an invisible hand).4 Liberal political philosophers (like J. S. Mill) have long been attracted to this marketplace notion, and many consider it an essential element of democratic governance.

Many instances exist in which lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the marketplace of ideas has stimulated governments to place restrictions on the potential entrants to the arena. Some political systems prohibit, for instance, political parties based on religion, others ban all political parties not based on a particular religion. “Extremist” ideas are banned in some systems (as in laws prohibiting Holocaust denials), just as “radical” political parties are prohibited from participating in other systems (e.g. fascist parties in Germany). American policy makers in 1954 (and policy makers throughout much of the world as well) apparently had so little confidence in the ability of ordinary people to consider and reject communism that they banned communists from putting their ideas forward for consideration.5 Perhaps most common throughout the world today, governments that have become accustomed to political power often seek to prohibit opposition groups from participating in the marketplace of ideas.6 Without a willingness to put up with all ideologies seeking to compete for the hearts and minds of the citizenry the market is likely to fail. Thus, a fairly simple theory is that democracies require the free and open debate of political differences, and such debate can only take place where political tolerance prevails.

Political tolerance in a democracy requires that all political ideas (and the groups holding them) get the same access to the marketplace of ideas as the access legally extended to the ideas dominating the system. This definition obviously precludes any form of violence and therefore I make no claim that political tolerance extends (p. 412) to the right of terrorists to engage in terror. It may, however, protect the speech rights of terrorists, or, more precisely, those who advocate terrorism (e.g. defenders or advocates of suicide bombing).7 The liberal democratic theory of political tolerance does not protect many forms of non-political expression, such as pornography (except as enlisted in the service of politics) and most types of commercial speech. It does however extend the right of contestation to deeply unpopular ideas, such as the need for a violent revolution or racism or Communism or radical Islam.

Whenever the definition of tolerance is considered, critics question whether certain types of “extreme” speech must be protected. These discussions are useful in principle, but not in practice. From the point-of-view of empirical research on tolerance, the controversies that emerge do not have to do with the most extreme and unusual forms of speech, but rather with the contestation rights of relatively innocuous ideas. In the case of the United States, for instance, even in the twenty-first century, 48 percent of the American people prefer that atheists (someone who is against all religion and churches) be denied the right to hold a public demonstration (see Gibson 2005c). Similar findings have been reported from a Polish survey in 1993 (Karpov 1999, 1536). Only after ordinary people come to tolerate a range of even slightly unorthodox ideas should research then focus on tolerance of the views of the most extreme members of society.

Liberal democratic theory also provides some guidance as to what sorts of activities must be guaranteed to political minorities: Actions and behaviors related to efforts to persuade people and to compete for political power must be put up with. This might include giving public speeches, running candidates for public office, or even publicizing a group by removing trash from the freeways (and claiming credit for doing with so with a publicly erected sign). Obviously, illegal activity need not be countenanced, even if I acknowledge that the line between legal and illegal is often thin, given the power and propensity of majorities to criminalize political activities by the minority.8

This theory of the marketplace of ideas anticipates two important (and interconnected) restraints on freedom. First, as I have already mentioned, many fear that the government, typically under the guise of regulation, will usurp power and deny the expression of ideas threatening to the status quo (i.e. the power of the government of the day). Examples of such abuses of minority rights to participation are too widespread to even begin to catalog.

A second constraint on freedom is more subtle: It originates in the political culture of a polity—the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors of ordinary citizens. (p. 413) Restraints on freedom can certainly emanate from public policy; but they can also be found in subtle demands for conformity within a society’s culture. To the extent that ordinary citizens are intolerant of views challenging mainstream thought, the expression of such viewpoints is likely to generate sanctions and costs. This can in turn create what Noelle-Neumann (1984) has referred to as a “spiral of silence:” A dynamic process in which those holding minority viewpoints increasingly learn about how rare their views are, thereby leading to silence, which in turn makes the ideas seem to be even less widely held, and therefore more dangerous or costly to express. Perhaps the most significant legacy of McCarthyism in the United States was not the limitations imposed on communists and their fellow travelers—legal limitations that were often severe and included imprisonment—but instead was the creation of a “Silent Generation,” a cohort unwilling to express views that might be considered controversial or unpopular. And, to complete the circle, mass political intolerance can be a useful form of political capital for those who would in turn enact repressive legislation. To the extent that a political culture emphasizes conformity and penalizes those with contrarian ideas, little tolerance exists, and the likelihood of political repression is high.

1.1 Measuring Political Intolerance

Tolerance thus requires that citizens and governments put up with ideas that are thought to be objectionable. Two components of this definition require further consideration: Which ideas must be put up with, and which activities must be allowed? The answers to both of these questions are intimately related not just to the conceptualization of tolerance, but to its operationalization as well. From the viewpoint of empirical studies of political tolerance, measurement issues of whom and what have become concerns of great importance.9

In Stouffer’s era, the nature of the perceived threat to the dominant ideology of the time was clear: It came from communists, and their “fellow travelers.”10 Consequently, tolerance questions were framed around the right of communists to compete for political power. To the extent that it is obvious which groups are objects of intolerance in a society, then at least part of the job of measuring mass political intolerance is easy.

For instance, the largest amount of data on political tolerance has been collected by the General Social Survey (GSS) in the United States. This survey, begun in the early 1970s and continuing through today, routinely asks about five groups: someone who is against all churches and religion (atheists), a man who admits he is a communist, a man who admits he is a homosexual, a person who advocates doing away with elections and letting the military run the country, and a person who believes that (p. 414) blacks are genetically inferior. These particular groups are derived from Stouffer’s research and are assumed to be representative today of the fringes of the American ideological continua.

The obvious limitation of these questions is that the replies of those who are themselves atheists, homosexuals, communists, racists, and militarists cannot be treated as valid measures of political tolerance.11 The flaw with the Stouffer approach to measuring political intolerance was discovered by John Sullivan and his colleagues. Tolerance is putting up with that with which one disagrees. Consequently, it makes no sense to ask one who is a communist whether communists should be allowed to make speeches, etc.12 Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1982) argued that a valid measure of intolerance requires an “objection precondition,” by which they meant that the stimulus presented to every respondent (the ideology or group representing the ideology) must be objectionable. To achieve this, the respondents must be allowed to name a highly disliked group; the researcher does not specify which groups are asked about; rather the respondent must be allowed to designate the group. So as to introduce some degree of comparability across respondents, each is asked to identify the group he or she dislikes the most; tolerance questions are then asked about this group. The technique has been named the “least-liked” measurement approach, even though this is a slight misnomer in that the group asked about is actually the most disliked, not, strictly speaking, the least liked.13

Some controversies continue to plague the measurement literature, however. Not everyone is convinced of the value of the least-liked approach, at least as it was initially developed by Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (see, for examples, McClosky and Brill 1983; Gibson 1986; Sniderman et al. 1989; Chong 1993; and Hurwitz and Mondak 2002). Perhaps the most potent critique of the approach is that it fails to tell us much about the “breadth” of intolerance, by which I mean the range of differences in ideas that is not tolerated. Perhaps many people can name a particular group/idea that they find uniquely offensive (in the twentieth century context, the Ku Klux Klan or Nazis, for instance), and owing to the extraordinary nature of the group/idea, they would not tolerate it. At the same time, however, the category of not-tolerated-ideas/groups is limited to this most extreme instance. Other citizens express intolerance for their most disliked group, but are also willing not to tolerate many other groups that are disliked less than the most disliked. This gives these citizens a broad range of groups, perhaps covering a considerable expanse of ideological territory, that they will not put up with. Most Americans in the 1950s would not tolerate political activity by communists; but most also would not tolerate political activity by socialists, atheists, (p. 415) and even “integrationists.”14 The “breadth” of intolerance signifies the minimum amount of antipathy that must exist before a respondent is willing not to tolerate. Unfortunately, we know little about the breadth of intolerance of individuals or countries throughout the world.15

Another measurement issue has recently been raised by Mondak and Sanders (2003), who have argued that it is useful under some circumstances to conceptualize tolerance as a dichotomy: people are either tolerant (perfectly so, allowing everything by everyone), or they are intolerant (although Mondak and Sanders recognize that the degree of intolerance may vary). Their argument is part of an effort to rescue the tolerance measures employed in the General Social Survey (GSS) and elsewhere (e.g. the Polish General Social Survey—see Karpov 1999). Gibson (2005a, 2005b) has shown that this argument is neither conceptually nor empirically useful, primarily because nearly all people can imagine a group or an activity that they would prefer not be allowed. The number of perfectly tolerant people (allow all groups all activities) is too small to be of any empirical consequence. Moreover, extant cross-national research has shown that most countries are in no danger whatsoever of approaching extreme levels of tolerance! For example, Peffley and Rohrschneider (2003) refer to levels of tolerance in the seventeen countries they study as “a scarce commodity” (248) and “abysmally low” (254), and generally conclude that “intolerance is the norm, tolerance the exception” (248). Most scholars seem to believe that tolerance is a continuum that varies from those who would place fewer restrictions of objectionable ideas and actions to those who would place greater restrictions.

The least-liked approach to measuring intolerance serves well those who are primarily interested in investigating individual differences among people. The technique is less well suited for studying the politics of civil liberties in a society. It one wants to know, for instance, whether there is widespread support for banning a particular idea from the marketplace of ideas, then establishing an objection precondition for each respondent may not be necessary (e.g. Barnum and Sullivan 1989). And, as I have noted, in some societies (e.g. Israel) there is little ambiguity about who the enemy of the status quo is; in such cases, the least-liked technology may not be necessary.16

(p. 416) 1.2 Pluralistic Intolerance

The least-liked measurement approach is closely connected to one of the most important ideas to emerge from the tolerance literature: the theory of pluralistic intolerance. Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1982) have argued that lack of consensus on who the enemy is—pluralistic intolerance—can neutralize even widespread intolerance. When everyone picks a different “least-liked” group, it may mean that there is insufficient agreement for intolerance to be mobilized into political repression. When intolerance is pluralistic, it is dispersed and may be benign. Indeed, their theory strongly emphasizes the need to identify the factors contributing to the focusing of intolerance, for it is focused intolerance that is dangerous and pernicious (see Sullivan et al. 1985).

Unfortunately, little rigorous research at the system level (either over time or cross-nationally) has investigated the theory of pluralistic intolerance. In their research on South Africa, Gibson and Gouws (2003) discovered that intolerance can be both focused and pluralistic, in the sense that many groups, of various ideological affinities, may not be tolerated by people. Gibson (1998a), on the other hand, asserts that intolerance is focused on the far right wing in Russia (see also Gibson and Duch 1993). More research needs to be conducted to determine the “breadth” of tolerance in different societies—the range of ideas that people believe can be legitimately expressed in a society.

1.3 What Tolerance is Not: Intolerance and Intergroup Prejudice

One might naturally expect that intolerance and prejudice are simply different sides of the same coin, and that the literatures on political tolerance and intergroup conflict and prejudice are closely integrated.17 In fact, that is not so. To an amazing degree, these two bodies of research rarely intersect. That this is so is one of the major enigmas in the tolerance literature (see Gibson 2006).

Stenner has strongly argued that intolerance and prejudice are cut from the same cloth. She asserts: “This work began with the conviction that racial, political and moral intolerance, normally studied in isolation, are really kindred spirits: primarily driven by the same fundamental predispositions, fueled by the same motives, exacerbated by the same fears” (2005, 325). Yet, to date, only partial and inconclusive data have been produced specifically documenting that political intolerance (especially as measured by the least-liked technology) and intergroup prejudice are intercorrelated to any significant degree. For instance, Gibson (2006a) has shown that the two concepts are entirely unrelated in both Russia and South Africa. Gibson’s argument is that expressing prejudice toward one’s political enemies is simply not (p. 417) a precondition for political intolerance. What groups stand for is a sociotropic factor, which differs greatly from the perceived characteristics of the individual members of the group. For many, it is not necessary to ascribe a series of negative stereotypes to those with whom political disagreements are severe.18 It is therefore important not to assume that intolerance and prejudice are necessarily cut from the same cloth, and to investigate the relationship carefully in future empirical research.

As I have noted, perhaps one reason why intolerance and prejudice are not always interconnected has to do with the highly influential role of threat perceptions in shaping political intolerance. The strongest predictor of intolerance is the feeling that a group is threatening. Perceptions of threat may be based upon prejudice, but they need not be, and one can well imagine that many perceptions of group threat are based on objective and realistic perceptions that have nothing to do with prejudice. One might find some strains of Islam threatening, for instance, not out of mistaken generalizations about Muslims but rather out of opposition to those who would not put a wall of separation between religion and politics (e.g. Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007). Secularists and atheists may view a variety of religious groups as threatening, without any degree of prejudice. And conversely, one can easily hold prejudiced views toward groups seen as impotent, and hence not threatening. For instance, it would not be surprising to find that many hold prejudiced views of members of the neo-Nazis today, while believing that the group poses little threat directly owing to the ascribed characteristics (e.g. “neo-Nazis are too stupid to be threatening”).

Finally, political tolerance has to do with what one expects of the state, not of oneself. It is easy to imagine the citizen who would fight strongly to protect the rights of a despised political minority, while at the same time being unwilling to share a meal with a member of the group or have her daughter marry a group member. In a democratic society, keeping a great deal of social distance from a group is not incompatible with tolerating its political activities.

Thus, extant theory provides many insights into how political tolerance can be conceptualized and operationalized. Tolerance requires putting up with political activity by groups whose ideas are repugnant. It does so under the liberal democratic theory that all ideas must be free to compete within the marketplace. The intolerance of ordinary people is important not just because it can fuel repressive legislation, but also because it can contribute to a climate of conformity that sanctions the expression of minority viewpoints. As a consequence, social scientists have devoted considerable resources to measuring mass political intolerance, and then to investigating its origins. It is to this last point of emphasis that I turn next.

(p. 418) 2 What Causes Some Citizens to be Tolerant but Others Not?

Perhaps one of the most widely investigated questions in the tolerance literature has to do with the etiology of intolerance at the individual level. Many have contributed to identifying predictors of intolerance, ranging from Sniderman’s work (1975) on self-esteem and social learning, to Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1982) on threat perceptions, democratic values, and psychological insecurity, to Stenner’s book (2005) on the personality trait authoritarianism. Nearly all agree that some sort of closed-mindedness or psychological rigidity contributes to intolerance, even if the precise label attached to the concept varies across researchers.

In virtually all studies, threat perceptions are one of the strongest predictors of intolerance. Not surprisingly, those who are more threatened by their political enemies are less likely to tolerate them. However, a number of surprises are associated with the threat–tolerance relationship. The strongest predictor of intolerance is the feeling that a group is threatening, but, ironically perhaps, it is not the direct threat to one’s own personal well-being (egocentric threat perceptions) that is crucial, but instead perceived threat to the group and/or society (sociotropic threat perceptions) that is so likely to generate intolerance (e.g. Gibson and Gouws 2003; Davis and Silver 2004). Moreover, several studies have now reported that the perceived efficacy of a group (its power or potential for power) has few implications for the other aspects of threat perceptions or for political intolerance (e.g. Marcus et al. 1995; Gibson and Gouws 2003). It seems natural to suggest that intolerance flourishes where the threat of groups and ideas is highest, yet the various processes involved have been found to be fairly complex and the simple relationship does not typically exist.19

It is also paradoxical that, even though one might expect perceptions of threat to be shaped by personality characteristics, in fact little convincing evidence has been adduced on this point. The most concentrated effort to identify the personality precursors to threat is the work of Marcus et al. (1995), although many scholars have worked on this problem. If in fact threat perceptions are based on realistic factors (e.g. realistic group conflict) then there is no necessary requirement for psychological variables to be implicated. On the other hand, to the extent that groups represent sociotropic threats, one might well hypothesize that individual personality characteristics (e.g. authoritarianism and chauvinistic nationalism) are activated. Unraveling these relationships—or lack of relationships—is a research problem of considerable importance for the field.

(p. 419) Some of the most interesting work on this score posits an interactive effect of psychological attributes and external environmental factors. No research better demonstrates this effect than that of Feldman (e.g. Feldman and Stenner 1997; Feldman 2003), who has shown that authoritarianism and perceptions of environmental stress interact in creating intolerance. Similarly, Gibson (2002) has shown that Russian intolerance reacts to their perceptions of political and economic stress, and crime in particular. Gibson and Gouws (2003) have also documented that perceptions of an out-of-control crime rate among South Africans can fuel the anxiety that gives rise to enhanced perceptions of threat (see also Huddy et al. 2005). On the other hand, this process is far from automatic—Gibson and Howard (2007) have demonstrated that despite all of the factors being in alignment for Jews to be scapegoated in Russia during the 1990s, in fact anti-Semitic attacks on Jews (formal or informal) failed to materialize. Learning who the enemy is requires a theory of blame, and under many social and political circumstances it is not at all clear who is to blame. The whole process of attributing blame and calculating threat from groups is at present poorly understood.

In the original model of the origins of intolerance, Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1982) demonstrate that tolerance is connected to a more general set of beliefs about democracy (even though the slippage between general commitments to democracy and specific applications to the rights of disliked groups is considerable). Gibson, Duch, and Tedin (1992, see also Gibson 1995) have expanded this research to consider more specifically the connection between tolerance and support for democratic institutions and processes (see also Finkel and Ernst 2005). At least in Russia, such interrelationships are not strong, largely owing to the difficulty of embracing tolerance of hated groups and ideas. In formerly dictatorial systems, people were denied majority rule; consequently, the majoritarian aspects of democracy are readily embraced since they lead to the empowerment of the people. Extending these rights to unpopular minorities requires more intellectual effort than many can muster. Tolerance may be the most difficult democratic value of all; only among those with a fully articulated democratic belief system—which is especially uncommon among people not repeatedly exposed to democratic institutions and processes—do we see close connections between tolerance and the other democratic values.

2.1 Can Intolerance Be Changed?

Little research has directly investigated change in political tolerance over time. A couple of studies have shown intolerance to be sensitive to exogenous environmental stress such as crime and social unrest (e.g. Gibson and Gouws 2003; Gibson 2002; Feldman and Stenner 1997), but micro-level analysis of change is as rare as it is important. One of the most interesting findings to emerge from this limited literature is that, while it is clear that threat perceptions cause intolerance, it may also be the case that intolerance causes threat perceptions (Gibson forthcoming). That is, because (p. 420) tolerant people are in some sense more secure, they are not predisposed to see their political competitors as particularly threatening. It may be that a “spiral of tolerance” can be created in the sense that tolerance breeds lower perceptions of group threat, which breeds more tolerance, etc.

A sizeable body of literature exists on “civic education” (e.g. Nie, Junn, and Stehlik-Barry 1996), and tolerance is one value that researchers seek to foster through education and training programs. Successes (based on rigorous data analysis) have been few and far beyond (e.g. Avery et al. 1993). Recently, efforts have been made to evaluate the programs of the United States government to enhance support for democratic institutions and processes, including political tolerance, but the early results have not been very promising, especially as concerns tolerance (e.g. Finkel 2002, 2003; Finkel and Ernest 2005). It may well be that basic orientations toward foreign and threatening ideas are shaped at an early age, and, although environmental conditions can ameliorate or exacerbate such propensities, core attitudes and values are fairly resistant to change.

One other way in which scholars have studied change in intolerance is through the so-called sober second thought experiment (e.g. Gibson 1998b). Stouffer (1955) long ago theorized that tolerance is a difficult and cognitively demanding position to adopt (see also McClosky and Brill 1983). Indeed, the conventional view among scholars is that tolerance requires deliberation and that in the absence of such deliberation, intolerance likely results, owing to the emotional basis of the response to threatening stimuli (but see Kuklinski et al. 1991). When people take the time and energy to deliberate, they often can discern the costs of intolerance, in addition to the benefits of intolerance that are usually so readily calculable. Thus, one knows immediately that “bad ideas must be repressed,” but determining that such repression may actually backfire (e.g. by making the bad ideas more attractive simply because they are forbidden) is a more arduous task. Thus, the conventional hypothesis is that deliberation enhances tolerance. Much of the contemporary literature on deliberative democracy makes this assumption, either implicitly or explicitly.

Empirical research has not been especially kind to this expectation. Perhaps most interesting is the finding that tolerance is considerably more pliable than intolerance. For instance, Gibson (1998b) and others (e.g. Peffley, Knigge, and Hurwitz 2001; Sniderman et al. 1996; Marcus et al. 1995; and Kuklinski et al. 1991) have shown that tolerance and intolerance differ in their pliability—the tolerant can be more readily persuaded to abandon their tolerance than can the intolerant be convinced to become tolerant. For instance, based on the Sober Second Thought Experiment, Gibson reports (1998b, 828) that, while 74.1 percent of intolerant Russians did not budge from their intolerance when presented with three reasons to tolerate, only 44.8 percent of the tolerant remained tolerant when exposed to three pro-intolerance counter-arguments. Other research reports similar asymmetries. This finding has been replicated in both South Africa (Gibson and Gouws 2003) and the United States (Gibson 1996). The susceptibility of tolerance to being trumped by other values is apparently high since democratic belief systems (within which tolerance is embedded) often contain values that conflict. For instance, the desire to protect innocent (p. 421) and weak groups from slander may override a commitment to free speech for all political ideas.20 Unfortunately, research to date has not been very successful in identifying ideas and arguments that might convert the intolerant into embracing political tolerance. In any event, this asymmetry in the potency of tolerance and intolerance is a finding so important that it warrants considerable additional investigation.21

As in so many areas of the social sciences, static research dominates. Scholars use cross-sectional analysis to make inferences about change, and macro-level analysis (e.g. cohort analysis and pooled cross-sections) provide additional inferential leverage. However, such analyses can also be highly misleading in that micro-level change is often obscured by macro-level appearance of stasis. The tolerance subfield is almost entirely dominated by cross-sectional research. Until more dynamic theories and data sets are produced, a full understanding of the origins of intolerance will remain elusive and incomplete.

3 What are the Consequences of Mass Political Intolerance?

Does intolerance matter? This question is difficult to address since it is bound up in complex theories about the role of public opinion in shaping public policy. Moreover, intolerance probably matters most within the context of specific disputes, as in the dispute in Skokie, Illinois, over the rights of American Nazis to hold a demonstration (e.g. Gibson and Bingham 1985). Indeed, one tradition in research on the consequences of intolerance is to pursue what Sniderman (1993) calls “firehouse studies:” studies that respond to specific civil liberties controversies (e.g. Gibson 1987, Gibson and Tedin 1988). Such research is difficult to mount, however, since disputes over civil liberties rarely develop with the periodicity or predictability of other political events, such as elections. As a consequence, some research relies upon hypothetical scenarios to investigate the behavioral implications of intolerance (e.g. Marcus et al. 1995) and to consider the role of contextual factors in shaping intolerance (e.g. Gibson and Gouws 2001).

Another line of research involves determining whether intolerant opinion has the sort of characteristics likely to make it pernicious. Gibson’s (1998a) study of (p. 422) Russian opinion adopts this perspective, focusing on whether intolerance is principled (bound up within an ideology), focused, “empowered” in the sense that the intolerant believe their views are in the majority, and common among the more politically relevant subsection of the mass public (“opinion leaders”). In the Russian case, Gibson concludes that mass political intolerance is in fact potentially consequential for the rights of unpopular political minorities.

Connecting mass political intolerance to specific public policies has proven difficult. Gibson, for instance, has shown (1988; see also Page and Shapiro 1983) that repressive state policies against Communists adopted in the 1950s were not a direct consequence of mass public opinion (even if policy was related to elite opinion). On the other hand, there was a connection between mass intolerance and repressive policies during the era of Vietnam War dissent, but the relationship is not as expected. States with opinion that was more tolerant were more likely to adopt repressive legislation (Gibson 1989). Gibson shows that tolerance was related to the prevalence of protest, and that protest generated a repressive response. Thus, these relationships are complicated.

As I suggested, a key process by which intolerance affects political freedom in a polity may have to do with cultural norms that encourage or discourage political disagreement. Gibson (1992a) has shown that intolerance within a family does indeed constrain political discussion and affect the extent to which people feel free to express their political views. And a growing body of literature suggests that political homogeneity in social networks reinforces political intolerance (Mutz 2002). Indeed, because networks tend so commonly to be homogeneous, many of the key assumptions of theories of deliberative democracy turn out to be challenged by the empirical evidence available (but see Huckfeldt, Johnson, and Sprague 2005).

3.1 Political Intolerance in Times of Crisis

The attack on the United States on 9/11/2001 by Muslim fanatics ushered in a new, but not entirely unfamiliar, era in American politics. Throughout American history, during times of crisis, civil liberties have been either suspended or limited in important ways (e.g. Epstein et al. 2005). No better chronicling of these episodes has been reported than the encyclopedic work of Goldstein (1978).

The policy response to the 9/11 attack is therefore not unprecedented. What is new, however, is the ability of scholars to launch systematic research efforts to understand how citizens come to balance expectations of personal and societal security with the demands of tolerance and individual liberty. Davis and Silver (2004), for instance, show that people make tradeoffs between liberty and order in arriving at positions on civil liberties policies, and that these tradeoffs are sensitive to several moderating influences (e.g. the degree of trust in government). Undoubtedly, the nature of the tradeoffs varies over time, as external threats wax and wane. Unfortunately, little is understood about the details of this dynamic process.

(p. 423) A familiar complaint against all subfields in public opinion is that attitudes are not important because they do not influence actual behavior (e.g. Weissberg 1998). In general, meta-analyses routinely show this charge to be false (Kraus 1995). The limited research addressing this issue in the tolerance literature also suggests that civil liberties attitudes do indeed influence citizens’ political behavior in actual civil liberties conflicts (e.g. Gibson and Bingham 1985). Nonetheless, the political tolerance subfield would undoubtedly profit from greater attention to the consequences of mass political intolerance. In doing so, we ought to cast our nets broadly, remembering that the failure of citizens to put up with views with which they do not agree can influence feelings of political freedom and willingness to discuss and debate (Gibson 1992a), as well as public policy at both the local and national levels.

4 Concluding Comments

The study of political intolerance is a vast enterprise at both the micro- and macro-levels, and research on political tolerance constitutes a subfield much too large to be able to be comprehensively surveyed in a short chapter such as this. I have barely mentioned philosophical or normative studies of intolerance (e.g. Bollinger 1986), detailed studies of how individuals select their targets have not been considered (e.g. stereotype threat, Golebiowska 1996), many case studies of outbreaks of intolerance have not been addressed here (e.g. Strum 1999); and studies of intolerance in nations outside the United States have been slighted (e.g. Sullivan et al. 1985). Nor have I reviewed important issues such as how and why members of the mass public and elites differ on issues of tolerance (see Sullivan et al. 1993), or issues such as whether religion and religiosity and intolerance are inextricably interconnected (e.g. see Karpov 1999). Furthermore, new issues are constantly emerging: It appears inevitable that the neurology of threat perceptions and intolerance will be a hot topic for future research (e.g. Marcus, Wood, and Theiss-Morse 1998). Those interested in pursuing research on the myriad dimensions of political tolerance will find a fresh and vibrant literature on nearly all specific research questions, even if many such questions are beyond the scope of this chapter.

Instead, in this chapter, I have attempted three things. First, I have tried to show that, as a concept, political tolerance derives its rigor and specificity from liberal democratic theory. Political tolerance does not require that everything be put up with under all circumstances; instead, it only requires free and unfettered entry for all views to the marketplace of ideas. Second, I have demonstrated that the origins of intolerance at the micro-level are reasonably well understood, even if some very important enigmas still exist. Intolerance flows most regularly from perceptions of group threat, even if we understand little about how some groups become threatening while others are not. Finally, intolerance has important political consequences. (p. 424) The simplistic view that intolerance directly fuels repressive public policy does not warrant much support, even if intolerance, when having characteristics rendering it pernicious, can on occasion be mobilized by political entrepreneurs. The intolerance of citizens can also affect the nature of deliberation and disagreement in society, and therefore constrain the market even without direct government intervention.

Even if we understand something of the etiology of intolerance and something of the consequence it has for democratic development, a host of important unanswered questions exist. My hope is that some might be stimulated by this chapter to pursue these questions further, and thereby contribute to creating a more tolerant world.


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(*) I acknowledge the helpful comments of Jessica Flanigan on an earlier version of this chapter.

(1) Stouffer asked his respondents nine questions about placing restrictions on the activities of an admitted communist. The responses ranged from the 89.6 percent who would fire the communist from a job working in a defense plant (and the 89.4% who would fire the communist from a job teaching in a university) to a “low” of 35.5 percent who would stop buying a brand of soap that was plugged by a communist on a radio show.

(2) For an earlier useful review of the tolerance literature see Sullivan and Transue (1999).

(3) This is not to imply that the only legitimate conceptualization of tolerance is that connected to liberal democratic theory (for various theories of tolerance, see Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus 1982). Indeed, Gibson (2004a) conceptualizes tolerance as an element of “reconciliation” (as in the South African truth and reconciliation process). That conceptualization is not incompatible with liberal democratic theory, even if it places emphasis on a slightly different theoretical approach.

(4) I do not discount the value of simply allowing all ideas—right and wrong—to have their say, to have what procedural justice scholars refer to as “voice” (e.g. Tyler and Mitchell 1994; Tyler et al. 1997). Procedural justice theories posit that allowing groups voice enhances the legitimacy of the democratic process, especially among those unable to win within majoritarian arenas.

(5) See Gibson (1988) for examples of the types of restrictions put on Communists in the US during the 1940s and 1950s. See also Goldstein (1978).

(6) In the early party of the twenty-first century, examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to catalog. The efforts of Robert Mugabe to maintain his power in Zimbabwe provide an excellent exemplar.

(7) As I write this, the British are considering new proposals to ban pure speech in support of such activities as suicide bombing. It remains to be seen whether such legislation will be acceptable to British judges and the British people.

(8) This issue is actually a bit more complicated given that political minorities typically need access to specific tactics (e.g. public demonstrations) that the majority does not require or find useful. Thus, regimes sometimes invoke political equality when they ban all demonstrations, even if the effect of such bans falls quite disproportionately on different segments of the political community.

(9) On the measurement of tolerance and other democratic values see Finkel, Sigelman, and Humphries (1999).

(10) Sullivan et al. (1985) make the same argument about Israel.

(11) Note that Kuklinski and Cobb (1997) argue on the basis of a “list experiment” that roughly one-half of white males in the American South are racist.

(12) Scholars have tried innovative methods for correcting for such bias (e.g. Wilson 1994; Mondak and Sanders 2003), but it seems likely that the utility of asking questions about these groups will continue to diminish over time.

(13) One important drawback of the least-liked technology is that it is quite costly in terms of questions and interview time and is difficult to administer via telephone interviews.

(14) See Stouffer (1955). For an engaging and insightful analysis of how race and anti-communism got conflated in Texas in the 1950s (and in Houston in particular) see Carleton (1985).

(15) To address this issue, one must ask questions about not just the most disliked group, but many different groups. So, for instance, the World Values Survey asked about only a single group, thus providing no information on breadth (Peffley and Rohrschneider 2003). Gibson and Gouws (2003), on the other hand, asked about several groups, giving the authors at least some purchase on the breadth question. Providing a spatial analysis of the breadth of ideological difference deemed legitimate in a society (the breadth of the “loyal opposition”) seems to be an important but difficult research question for the field.

(16) Perhaps the only systematic comparison of the least-liked measures of intolerance with the fixed-group approach is the analysis of Gibson 1992b. The general conclusion of that research is that, at least under the circumstances of the United States in 1987, the two approaches generate similarly valid and reliable measures.

(17) For a useful study of interethnic intolerance see Massey, Hodson, and Sekulić? 1999. See also Gibson 2004a.

(18) Conversely, Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus (1982, 4) argue that: “Tolerance.… is not merely the absence of prejudice … The prejudiced person may in fact be tolerant, if he understands his prejudices and proceeds to permit the expression of those things toward which he is prejudiced.” They conclude: “Thus, the prejudiced person may be either tolerant or intolerant, depending on what action he or she is prepared to take politically” (1982, 5).

(19) That sociotropic threat perceptions are the most influential type of threat implies that social identity concerns may play an important role in this process. That hypothesis has been investigated, but the results are too complicated to consider in this essay. For research on the role of group attachments in shaping identities see Gibson and Gouws (2000), and Gibson (2006b).

(20) An obvious example of free speech concerns being trumped is legislation and policy against so-called hate speech. For a very interesting study of the impact of hate speech legislation on the intolerance of college students, see Chong (2006).

(21) This asymmetry may also extend to the connection between attitudes and actual behavior, with intolerance more likely than tolerance to produce action. See Gibson and Bingham (1985); Barnum and Sullivan (1990); Marcus et al. (1995); and Gibson (2006a). Since studies of actual behavior are relatively rare, however, less confidence should be vested in this finding, as compared to the findings on persuadability.