In the social sciences, scholars have devoted a significant amount of attention to the conceptualization, measurement, and analysis of one of the primary domains of tolerance, political tolerance. Although disagreements about the nature of political tolerance remain, most political theorists contend that it is one of the central tenets of democratic theory because democracies are predicated on the assumption that people with widely differing viewpoints should be able to express their opinions and participate in political processes.
The first major empirical work on political tolerance was published in 1955 by sociologist Samuel Stouffer (1900–1960). In Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties, Stouffer reported the results of two national surveys in which he found that most U.S. adults were unwilling to extend civil liberties to unpopular left-wing groups; community leaders, however, demonstrated greater tolerance than the general public. This presented a conundrum to many political theorists who had thought that widespread tolerance was necessary for sustaining a democratic society. Later studies provided a partial explanation: U.S. adults were very supportive of civil liberties in the abstract, but they were much less likely to apply them to specific groups and situations.
In a groundbreaking study published in 1982, John Sullivan, James Piereson, and George Marcus offered a significant reconceptualization of political tolerance. Sullivan and colleagues defined political tolerance as “a willingness to permit the expression of ideas or interests one opposes” (Sullivan et al. 1982, p. 2). Thus, tolerance presupposes disagreement with a particular group’s views. Tolerance is demonstrated when one finds a group’s views objectionable, yet still supports the rights of the group. Sullivan and his colleagues developed the least-liked group approach to measuring political tolerance, in which they first asked respondents to identify their least-liked group, and then asked whether they would be willing to extend certain civil liberties to the group (recall that Stouffer had focused on unpopular left-wing groups). Their research found that while the objects of intolerance had changed since Stouffer’s original study, the majority of U.S. citizens were still intolerant.
Extensive studies of political tolerance both in the United States and in countries such as Australia, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, and South Africa indicate that although the target (least-liked) groups may differ, the variables that influence tolerance tend to be the same. Individuals who support the abstract norms of democracy (e.g., free speech, majority vote) are more likely to be tolerant. Those who perceive a high level of threat from the target group, however, are less likely to be tolerant.
Tolerant stances tend to be associated with education (high), social status (elite), age (younger), religiosity (more secular), and, to a lesser extent, gender (males). Individuals who demonstrate low levels of dogmatism and authoritarianism and high levels of interpersonal trust also tend to be more tolerant.
Scholars have also identified contextual factors that promote or inhibit tolerance. Stable, longer-enduring democracies tend to provide an environment that supports tolerance; however, conflict, and particularly conflict that threatens one’s group identity, tends to decrease individual levels of tolerance.
SEE ALSO Civil Society; Conformity; Democracy; Education, USA; Groups; Ideology; Intergroup Relations; Political Correctness; Politics
Stouffer, Samuel. 1955. Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties: A Cross-section of the Nation Speaks Its Mind. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Sullivan, John L., James Piereson, and George E. Marcus. 1982. Political Tolerance and American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Patricia G. Avery