Tolerance Research Paper

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By ‘tolerance,’ most contemporary social scientists mean citizens’ willingness to put up with others’ efforts to participate in public life even if they personally dislike those others’ views. In other words, ‘One is tolerant to the extent one is prepared to extend freedoms to those whose ideas one rejects, whatever these might be’ (Sullivan et al. 1979, p. 784). Tolerance among the mass public has been assumed to be a crucial psychological underpinning of democracy, a form of restraint that makes it possible for a wide range of groups and people to express their ideas and participate in public life (Almond and Verba 1963). It is an orientation toward political and social life that presumes agreement on certain basic procedural norms by which differences of opinion are negotiated. In the USA, this is usually interpreted as support for the basic civil rights of those with whom one disagrees, for example, their right to free speech, free assembly, due process, privacy, freedom to seek political office, and other similar liberties.

Tolerance suggests that despite (or perhaps because of ) the diversity of opinion on matters of public interest, there needs to be general agreement on the ‘rules of the game’ (Neubauer 1967), the procedural norms by which substantive matters are negotiated, and these rules must then be applied equitably to all groups, regardless of how counternormative their views might be. The notion of political tolerance evolved from the idea of religious toleration (Sullivan et al. 1982); the former was a way to live with one’s ideological enemies just as the latter was a way to live among those of different religions.

The body of social science research pertaining to political tolerance is closely related to research on support for civil liberties and studies of intergroup conflict, but the concept has evolved in such a way that it now carries a more specific meaning: In order to ‘tolerate’ another person or group, one must disagree with the views that the person or group represents or espouses (Sullivan et al. 1982). Thus a communist who supports the civil rights of other communists is not demonstrating tolerance because the element of disapproval and disagreement is missing. Only when the same level of support is extended to those with whom one disagrees can the label ‘tolerance’ be properly applied.

The many definitions of tolerance that have been offered and the corresponding measurement strategies they have spawned are part of a lengthy progression in social scientific interest on this topic dating back to the McCarthy era in the USA. As Finkel et al. note (1999, p. 204), the key questions and controversies motivating research on tolerance to date have included:

To what extent are citizens willing to extend procedural democratic liberties (such as freedom of speech and association) to unpopular political groups? How widespread is political intolerance?

What are the cultural, demographic, social, psychological, economic, and political sources of political tolerance and intolerance? Are certain types of citizens (e.g., the less educated) more intolerant?

Is the mass public becoming more tolerant than it once was? If so, why?

Does intolerance tend to be concentrated on a few unpopular groups, or is it more widely dispersed? In other words, to what extent is intolerance ‘pluralistic?’

Are elites more tolerant than the rank and file? If so, why? And is the elite-mass tolerance gap widening or narrowing?

Are there significant cross-national differences in tolerance, whether in the general public or among elites? How can such differences be explained?

What individual-level behaviors and system-level outcomes does tolerance or intolerance foreshadow?

In this research paper, I begin by providing a brief description of the seminal, early studies of political tolerance in the USA. Although an overview of all of the areas of subsequent research described above is beyond the scope of this research paper (see Sullivan and Transue 1999, and Finkel et al. 1999 for two recent and far more extensive literature reviews), this discussion highlights four of these important themes including (a) differences in levels of tolerance held by the mass public as opposed to more politically active segments of the population; (b) debates over the conceptualization and measurement of tolerance; (c) evidence pertaining to whether tolerance has increased in the USA; and (d) cross-national examinations of political tolerance. These four topics serve as a loose organizational scheme for the paper, but because these debates are closely interconnected, these topics cannot be neatly divided into four separate discussions.

1. Early Research On Tolerance

In what is widely recognized as the first systematic national study of tolerance in the USA, Samuel Stouffer gathered information on the opinions of a large probability sample of Americans in 1954. They were asked a series of questions about support for the civil liberties of a variety of unpopular left-wing groups including socialists, atheists and Communists. His findings, published as Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (1955) suggested that the majority of Americans did not think an admitted communist should be allowed to make speeches in public, to retain American citizenship, to teach in high schools or colleges, or even to work as a clerk in a store. Moreover, the majority felt that books by communists should be taken out of public libraries, that the government should have the authority to tap their personal phone conversations to acquire evidence against them, and that they should be thrown in jail. Although these same responses suggested somewhat greater tolerance when asked with reference to socialists, atheists, or ‘suspected communists,’ the reaction this study generated was still one of great surprise. Either the USA was not truly a democracy, or the assumption that widespread public commitment to these procedural norms was necessary to democracy was incorrect. The latter interpretation predominated, and subsequent studies seized upon two findings that seemed to explain how democracy could thrive without widespread political tolerance among members of the mass public.

1.1 ‘Carriers Of The Creed’

Stouffer’s work, along with two important studies published in the early 1960s (Prothro and Grigg 1960, McClosky 1964) illuminated patterns of findings that continue to be central in debates over tolerance today. One explanation that was offered for how democracy persisted without mass tolerance centered on mass elite differences. Stouffer’s original study included a sample of local community leaders, and this group proved to be much more supportive of the rights of left-wing groups than the mass sample. Likewise, in his study of political party activists in the late 1950s, McClosky (1964) found greater support for civil liberties among political activists. Consistent with this pattern, Prothro and Grigg (1960) found greater tolerance among the well-educated and well-to-do. Thus the dominant conclusion that was drawn was that the well-educated and politically active segments of the population were the ‘carriers of the creed’ who protected the democratic system from an intolerant majority (Prothro and Grigg 1960, p. 281). If the intolerant were inactive, they could do little damage; moreover, their apathy supposedly prevented them from acting on their political views.

1.2 Principles Versus Application

A second prominent explanation for democratic stability in the face of apparently low levels of support for procedural norms emerged from Prothro and Grigg’s (1960) study which asked respondents both about general principles of democracy and about some specific applications of those principles. They found widespread support for the principles but greatly diminished support when questions were posed so as to apply those principles to specific controversial cases. So, they argued, to say that Americans did not support democratic principles was technically incorrect; they did so in theory but often did not apply those principles when faced with specific applications. Consistent with the elite model of democratic stability, McClosky’s study (1964) further confirmed that political activists were more supportive of the rules of democracy both in principle and when they were applied to specific cases.

The general conclusion drawn from these early studies was that democracy could be sustained even with mass intolerance. This was possible because the intolerant were concentrated among the politically inactive segments of the population. The relatively tolerant attitudes of political elites were assumed to be due to their educational and socioeconomic backgrounds and a result of their exposure to democratic norms through actual involvement in the political process (Finkel et al. 1999, p. 208).

That the well-educated and politically-engaged tend to be more tolerant than ordinary citizens has now been widely documented over the years. Nonetheless, the underlying cause of mass-elite differences has not been fully resolved. Moreover, if one argues that tolerance demands support for freedom of expression and assembly, due process and privacy e en for those groups that promote intolerance, then the thesis of democratic elitism itself can be questioned. As Sniderman et al. (1996) point out, although there is a consensus among elites in support of free expression and assembly for most unpopular groups, when racists are the target group, there is no elite consensus in defense of their rights.

2. Changing Conceptualizations And Trends In Tolerance Over Time

In the 1970s, Nunn et al. (1978) updated Stouffer’s original work and found Americans far more supportive of the civil liberties of those same groups that had been the target of Stouffer’s assessments 20 years earlier. Nunn et al. argued that although mass democracy in America may have been on shaky ground in the 1950s, improvements in education as well as other demographic changes had made it far more tenable by the 1970s. Perhaps political leaders were no longer so essential to sustaining democratic norms.

This optimistic conclusion was soon called into question. Sullivan et al. (1979) countered this assessment by pointing out that the target groups used by Stouffer as well as Nunn and his colleagues to assess levels of tolerance had been almost exclusively groups on the left. If tolerance is defined as putting up with those with whom one disagrees, then support for the rights of groups on the left alone should not be considered an adequate measure. For those who are on the left themselves, such questions do not require tolerance. Sullivan et al. proposed an alternative measurement technique that involved first asking individual respondents which groups they liked the least, and then asking them the standard items addressing support for civil liberties with respect to those specific groups. This two-step technique insured that respondents did, in fact, have negative feelings toward the groups they were asked about.

Based on results using this technique, Sullivan et al. argued that the American public was far less tolerant than Nunn et al. had indicated. Instead, they suggested that Americans were more tolerant only of groups on the left; other unpopular groups, primarily right-wing or racist groups, still elicited high levels of intolerance when people were asked about their rights to demonstrate, run for office, give public speeches, and so forth. Although there were no comparable data from earlier points in time using this same two-step technique, Sullivan et al. suggested that the improvements in levels of tolerance noted by Nunn et al. were ‘illusory’ at best. On the more optimistic side, however, they argued that intolerance that was focused on a multitude of targets—so called ‘pluralistic into lerance’—was safer for democracy because large groups of people did not gang up on particular groups as targets. A multitude of targets was deemed preferable to intolerance focused on one or a very small number of groups.

2.1 Critiques Of The Least Liked Group Technique

Following Sullivan et al.’s efforts at reconceptualizing tolerance, this two-step, ‘content-free’ technique has become increasingly popular. However, both the technique and the conclusions that have been based on it have not been accepted without question. In response to Sullivan et al.’s claim about the lack of an trend toward greater tolerance over time, both Abramson (1980) and Immerwahr (1980) pointed out that it is impossible to tell without comparable data from the 1950s whether the increases noted by Nunn et al. were truly ‘illusory.’ Mueller (1988) analyzed trends using a comparable content-controlled approach, and concluded that there had been a marked increase in tolerance since the early studies, but that this had occurred mainly because Americans had grown less concerned about threats from leftist groups as the communist threat dissipated, and their concern was not redirected toward similarly threatening rightist groups. Although incontrovertible evidence on the shape of the trend over time does not exist, it appears that tolerance in some forms has increased.

A second controversial aspect of the Sullivan approach is its effect-driven view of tolerance (see Finkel et al. 1999). Respondents are asked to name their most disliked group, and this becomes the basis for tolerance judgments, with the assumption that this should serve as a critical test because it will be most difficult to extend these liberties to one’s most disliked group. But surprisingly, intolerance of people’s second most disliked group actually turns out to be higher than for the most disliked group (Sullivan et al. 1982), thus raising questions about whether negative effect is the best criterion for group selection.

In addition, as Sniderman et al. (1989) and Gibson (1989) point out, if Sullivan’s conclusions about safety in the proliferation of groups that could serve as possible targets for intolerance were correct, then the levels of tolerance that individuals express should vary a lot based on which groups they are asked about, and conservatives and liberals should pick different groups, with liberals more intolerant of conservatives and conservatives more intolerant of liberals. But in their empirical analyses, Sniderman et al. found that neither the group nor the act made much difference to people’s responses. And while conservatives are less tolerant than liberals, this did not much affect their choice of target groups; both liberals and conservatives were most likely to choose militarists and racists. Gibson (1989) concurred with findings showing that tolerance of communists and Ku Klux Klan members were highly correlated. Findings in this vein have led to the conclusion that tolerance is adhered to as a general principle rather than as a group-specific construct (see also Duckitt and Farre 1994):

The person who does not honor and protect the rights of those whose point of view clashes with his own is … a bad bet to protect the rights even of those whose point of view supports his own … It is the racial bigot, not the person committed to racial tolerance, who is more likely to oppose free speech for racists (Sniderman et al. 1991, p. 135).

Although the shortcomings of the Stouffer-type approach to measuring tolerance are widely acknowledged, currently there is no consensus on an ideal measurement technique, and thus researchers continue to use variants of the Sullivan technique (for example, Barnum and Sullivan 1989) as well as Stouffer-like measures that are balanced across the ideological spectrum. Although these techniques result in different distributions of the proportion of the population that is tolerant and intolerant, Gibson’s (1992) study suggests that the same set of independent variables predicts both kinds of tolerance measures equally well, thus the structure of relationships remains similar regardless of measurement technique.

2.2 Further Conceptual Dilemmas

The concept of tolerance may be religious in origin, but over the past century it has been explored primarily in terms of the tolerance of groups holding particular political viewpoints. Although the term racial tolerance was in general use in the latter half of the twentieth century, the term is now seldom used, at least in part due to the reconceptualization of the term by Sullivan et al.: If tolerance presumes dislike of the target group, then racial tolerance is not what most advocates of racial equality have in mind. Rather, the goal is a lack of discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity so that these groups would not be disliked any more than any other and thus not need to be ‘tolerated.’ Instead of racial tolerance, terms such as prejudice, discrimination, or, more generally, racial attitudes are used in discussions of attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, the distinction between attitudes toward racial as opposed to political groups have become increasingly important to understandings of tolerance in contemporary politics.

For example, in the many studies using the least liked group method, much of the intolerance observed in contemporary samples is what might be described as intolerance of intolerance. In other words, it involves people’s objections to the exercising of these basic procedural rights by groups who themselves promote intolerance. The most commonly mentioned target groups of this kind are racists or Ku Klux Klan members.

Does tolerance require that one tolerate the intolerant? While there has been general agreement that citizens should be free to organize their lives around their own beliefs and values even if they are at odds with the majority, there has been no consensus as to whether people whose beliefs and values are at odds with the majority by virtue of being intolerant should be allowed the same rights of speech, assembly, and so forth (Sniderman et al. 1996). The current popularity of anti-hate legislation in the USA testifies to this important tension in current definitions of what tolerance means. Does tolerance demand that citizens support measures to restrict the rights of intolerant groups, or does it require that they support their rights despite their promotion of intolerant views?

Although this is an old quandary, it brings to the fore the often oversimplified perspective of research on tolerance where the ‘correct,’ politically enlightened answer was typically assumed to be straightforward and obvious (Sniderman et al. 1996). Discrepancies between belief in the principle of tolerance and willingness to support its application to certain cases typically have been ascribed to citizens’ lack of ability to understand the connection between principle and practice. Instead, this discrepancy appears to be due to citizens’ efforts to balance support for tolerance with other values, such as the desire to discourage negative racial attitudes.

3. Cross-National Research

These same kinds of core democratic values also have been studied in contexts outside of the USA, including established democracies such as Canada, Israel, and New Zealand, and newly-emerging democracies such as post-World War Two Europe, the former USSR countries, and Latin America in the 1980s. Some of the measures used in these efforts are identical to or adapted from those already described, while others use entirely new measurement strategies tapping a far broader range of attitudes toward democratic norms and values than tolerance per se.

Of particular interest to understanding the origins of mass tolerance in democratic systems are studies of the attitudes of citizens in countries without established democracies. Kaase’s (1971) study of postwar West Germans found that by 1968 their beliefs were similar to those of people in the USA in their high levels of support for principles involving free speech and assembly and the necessity of political opposition. Also like US citizens, levels of support were much lower when these principles conflicted with public order or other values. Kaase’s study, along with others in Spain, Italy, and Japan, suggested that changes in attitudes toward democratic values can occur after a regime change (see, for example, Gunther et al. 1986).

To explain processes of ‘democratic legitimation’ after a regime change, Weil (1989) developed an influential model suggesting that the longer people live within a responsive, competitive, and democratic system, the more they will develop support for democratic values. Thus, in studies of democratization during the post-Cold War era, what was particularly surprising was the high levels of support for democratic principles found immediately after the demise of communism (see, for example, Klingemann and Hofferbert 1994 on the former DDR (East Germany); Seligson and Booth 1993 on Nicaragua and Costa Rica; Finifter and Mickiewicz 1992, Gibson et al. 1992, Reisinger et al. 1994, Rose and Mishler 1994, and Tedin 1994 on the former USSR and Eastern Europe). Since little time had elapsed for the gradual emergence of democratic values, and citizens had had little experience with a responsive political system, this rush to embrace democratic norms was unexpected.

Post-hoc explanations for high initial support for democratic values have led to caution in interpreting these prodemocracy, protolerance attitudes as indicative of a wholehearted embrace of democratic values. One interpretation suggests that what researchers are observing are sheer novelty effects based on citizens’ initial attraction to and excitement about democracy. A second explanation for high initial levels of support suggests that through ‘demonstration effects’ from observing the West, democratic political values have actually already been exported to these countries (Dalton 1994, Gibson et al. 1992, Weil 1996).

However, it is worth noting that responses to questions asking about commitment to, or overall evaluations of, democracy are less supportive than those asking about specific values associated with democratic government (e.g., Whitefield and Evans 1996) and there is considerable variation from question to question, thus suggesting ambivalence at best in countries formerly within the USSR (see Dalton 1994, Miller et al. 1994).

One of the ongoing measurement problems in studies utilizing broader attitudes toward democratic government is the extent to which these measures are tapping attitudes toward current system performance as opposed to support for democratic values (see Finkel et al. 1999). Moreover, it has been difficult for researchers to discern the stability of these beliefs over time, especially in rapidly changing political circumstances. Still, these cross-national studies have tremendously improved the study of political tolerance and support for democratic norms, not only by providing contexts in which there is greater variance in levels of tolerance than in the USA, but also by providing insight into the process by which tolerant attitudes develop in the mass public.

Until relatively recently, claims about the causes and correlates of tolerant attitudes have been heavily dependent on American data, thus making generalizations about tolerance quite difficult. Levels of tolerance clearly vary by country. For example, Gibson et al.’s studies in the (now former) USSR suggested that even countries without strong democratic traditions may have high levels of support for democratic norms in the abstract, yet their levels of tolerance when applied to specific cases were extremely low, much more so than in the USA and other countries where democracy has had a longer time to take root. Sullivan et al.’s (1985) studies in Israel and New Zealand using the same least-liked group method also found substantial aggregate differences in levels of tolerance with New Zealanders much more tolerant than Americans and Israelis.

But aggregate differences aside, cross-national re- search suggests some degree of generalizability of findings from the USA. For example, Sullivan et al. found that although the level of threat perceived varied by country, its impact on tolerance judgments was roughly the same, and the same was true for the influence of personality characteristics. In their studies of tolerance among the Soviets, Gibson et al. (1992) likewise found that perceived threat was the strongest predictor of tolerance, and personality characteristics such as dogmatism were also influential in promoting intolerance. Commitment to abstract democratic norms decreased intolerance as it did in the USA and New Zealand. However, Sullivan et al. found that the impact of belief in democratic norms was quite different in Israel, and reflected cross-national differences in understandings of what constitutes democracy. Thus although the goal of tolerance may be the same in all places—finding a peaceful and noncoercive way to deal with inevitable political conflict—cross- national research on tolerance must take into account the fact that not all countries will define democracy to include the same norms for adjudicating its differences of political opinion.


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