How intolerant is the American public?  Is the average citizen likely to “put up” with the expression of viewpoints and beliefs they find offensive, odious, and hateful?  Unfortunately, according to a long tradition of research in political science, the answer is that political intolerance is fairly common in the United States.

The rise of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism in the 1950’s spurred research on political intolerance among elites and the general public.  One of the more prominent studies was conducted by Samuel Stouffer, who reported that only 2.3% of a sample of 4,933 respondents from the general public would not restrict the rights of an admitted Communist in some way.  In the 1970’s the General Social Survey adopted Stouffer’s methodology, and then expanded the number of target groups asked about.

Some subsequent studies have suggested that intolerance among the American public has steadily declined since the 1950’s (e.g., Cutler & Kaufman 1975Davis 1975Erskine & Seigel 1975Nunn, Crockett & Williams 1978; see also Nie, Junn & Stehlik-Barry 1996Schafer & Shaw 2009Schwadel & Garneau 2014).  Yet, other studies contend that such decreases in intolerance are illusory and that political intolerance remains fairly common (Gibson 19922008Marcus, Sullivan, Theiss-Morse & Wood 1995Sullivan, Piereson & Marcus 19791982).

These latter studies tend to rely on the least-liked groups method (see here) — intended to ensure that each respondent is asked about their levels of tolerance for a group or groups they actually dislike and find objectionable.

The theory of pluralistic intolerance (Sullivan et al. 1982) emerged from research employing the least-liked group method and contends that a lack of consensus among the general public on who the rival or enemy group is neutralizes widespread intolerance by diffusing it across a plethora of targets.  During the 1950’s, when Stouffer conducted his research, there was widespread agreement among the American public that Communists were the enemy, thus intolerance was primarily focused on them and their “fellow travelers.”  Sullivan et al. (1979) argue that the decreases observed in intolerance noted in the political science literature are illusory because Communists are simply no longer seen as a threatening enemy by many people. Intolerance has not declined per se, it has been redirected.

Research by James Gibson on changes in political intolerance and perceived political freedom since the McCarthy era suggests that intolerance may have somewhat declined, yet perceived constraints on political freedom have increased.  Furthermore, those who perceive constraints on their own political freedom tend to be more intolerant of others.  These findings present challenges for the theory of pluralistic intolerance, which Gibson suggests may not be benign but instead malevolent because it can create an environment where people perceive their fellow citizens as repressing their ability to express their political beliefs.


Gibson compares results from surveys conducted in 2005 and 1987, to Stouffer’s original results obtained in 1954.  Each survey asked the same items with regards to perceived political freedom.  The 2005 and 1987 surveys also asked respondents whether the government would allow them to make a critical speech, organize a public meeting, or organize a protest march.  Finally, the 2005 survey assessed political intolerance using the least-liked groups method and a modified version of the Stouffer method.

Results & Discussion

As can be seen below in Table 1, perceived political freedom declined from 1954 to 2005.  Respondents report that other people do not feel as free to say what they think as they used to, and that they themselves also feel less free to express themselves.

A substantial minority of respondents in 1987 and 2005 reported that they believed the government would restrict their political expression.  For instance, in 2005 roughly 40% of respondents reported that they thought the government would not allow them to “organize public meetings to oppose the government.”  Only 52% of respondents believe they are free to engage in all three of the activities assessed: Making a speech critical of the government, organizing a public meeting to criticize the government, and organize a protest march criticizing the government.

A somewhat encouraging finding can be seen in Table 2 below.  In 1987 majorities of African Americans reported the government would not allow them to make a critical speech, organize a public meeting, or organize a protest march.  This was no longer the case in 2005 as Black Americans perceived greater political freedom in all three domains. Whites, however, still reported perceiving more political freedom overall.

Communists were clearly a disliked group in the 1950s, yet over time intolerance of communists has waned (indeed, contemporary young people seem to be growing more sympathetic to communism than previous cohorts).

In Gibson’s research he asked respondents to identify up to three of their most disliked groups from a list.  Respondents could also volunteer a disliked group or groups, if they were not on the list.  Results indicated that the most disliked group was the Klu Klux Klan, with roughly 75% of respondents identifying them as one of their three most disliked groups.  Nazis were also strongly disliked with over 60% of respondents selecting them as one of their three most disliked groups.  Other groups that were disliked by a significant minority of respondents included: Radical Muslims, atheists, and militarists.  Yet, as can be seen in Table 3, regardless of the least-liked group selected or what other groups were selected as disliked, intolerance was fairly pronounced among those surveyed in 2005:

In the 2005 survey, Gibson also asked respondents about whether they would support or oppose a government ban on a specific group’s request to hold public rallies and demonstrations to advance their cause.  Reactions to four specific groups were assessed: Radical Muslims, atheists, U.S. Communists, and religious fundamentalists.  A majority of respondents supported the ban on Radical Muslims and U.S. Communists.  Almost 1 in 2 (46.9%) reported they would support the ban on Atheists.  A significant minority, at 39.1%, also reported they would support the ban on religious fundamentalists.

Finally, Gibson investigated how sympathizers with a group (e.g., liberals or conservatives) perceived constraints on that group’s freedom, and if perceived political freedom was associated with intolerance.  At both the micro- and the macrolevel of analysis, perceived restrictions on political freedom were associated with political intolerance.  Thus, those who feel more unfree and unable to politically express themselves tend to also be more intolerant of disliked groups.

Why These Findings Are Important

A comparison of perceived political freedom and political intolerance among cross-sections of the American general public revealed that political intolerance may be less widespread today than it was during the McCarthy era.  Yet, Americans also perceive themselves as having less political freedom when compared to the McCarthy era.  Gibson contends that these findings have implications for the theory of pluralistic intolerance which argues that intolerance can be fairly benign if it is spread across a plethora of targets.

The diffusion of political intolerance across different targets is thought to prevent a “critical mass” among the general public from forming and demanding restrictions of civil liberties.  During the McCarthy era, political intolerance was almost exclusively focused on Communists.  Stouffer’s results from his 1954 survey indicated that roughly 85% of respondents reported they enjoyed freedom of speech.

Today, intolerance is less focused and more diffuse, targeting a variety of groups across the ideological spectrum.  As Gibson notes, this may actually help create the perception that political freedom is restrained:

Not all of members of these disliked groups, of course, perceive the intolerance and the associated limits on their freedom.  But because some Communists are not tolerated and do not feel free, and some Religious Fundamentalists are not tolerated and do not feel free, and because some of those sympathetic to other groups are not tolerated and do not feel free, the cumulative effect is more widespread feelings of lack of freedom today than in the McCarthy era.

Gibson 2008, p. 107

Gibson therefore suggests that rather than acting as a benign force, the consequences of pluralistic intolerance may be quite different from what the theory predicts, and it may act as malevolent force limiting political expression.

This conjecture is important because it suggests that perceived restraints on political freedom and expression are not enacted by the government, but rather by social norms and expectations.  The way people respond to each other in their day-to-day interpersonal interactions may do far more to establish a culture or community that is characterized by a tyranny of opinion (Blackford 2018) and a spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann 1974), than anything the government or another administrative power can do.  In an increasingly diversifying society, where a proliferation of identity groups people view as important is occurring, it may be prudent for us to consider how Gibson’s observations regarding pluralistic intolerance and political freedom may be playing out on campus and among the general public today.

Reference: Gibson, James (2008). “Intolerance and repression in the United States: A half century after McCarthyism.” American Journal of Political Science 52(1): 96-108