Rescuing the public from political intolerance requires more than addressing extremism

Concept of tolerance.

Release Date: October 25, 2021

Jacob Neiheisel.

Jacob Neiheisel

“We’re in a very polarized time with outsized perceptions of each other, often rooted in a less-than-complete understanding of various groups ”
Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Recent turns in popular rhetoric have inspired discussions about what it means to be politically tolerant and the degree to which Americans believe in the principle of rights reciprocity. Do people imagine their fundamental rights of expression, worship and assembly as being secure in a government controlled by their political opponents who do not share their broader sensibilities?

To a point, according to the findings of a new paper by a University at Buffalo political scientist. But it’s not as much as you might think.

Tolerance generally reaches as far as the sweep of democratic norms and tends not to extend to outlying groups beyond that orbit who reject the fundamental principles of democracy. Tolerating intolerance is to risk the intolerant eventually destroying the tolerant, argued the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. That’s the “paradox of tolerance.” Remove these intolerant groups from the question and the public looks more tolerant.


“That’s not entirely accurate, and we might want to tap the brakes on that rosy view,” says Jacob Neiheisel, PhD, a UB associate professor of political science, and co-author of the paper which introduces an original statistical measure of reciprocity tied directly to political tolerance.

The findings will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Behavior.

Neiheisel’s work linking reciprocity and tolerance considers how tolerance judgments are formed and establishes a method for sorting out competing explanations related to this matter of growing cultural and political significance.

The results suggest that tolerance is not reasoned at the level of democratic norms; it’s reasoned at the level of affinity. Rather than democratically relying on unwritten norms that have historically informed tolerance, such as accepting dissent and civility across party lines, we instead tolerate what we like and don’t tolerate what we dislike.

“When we take intolerant groups out of the conversation, for instance those with regime-ending intentions, we look a little more tolerant, but there’s still a group basis for our judgements about what kinds of groups we’re going to allow to exercise democratic rights and which we’re going to disallow,” Neiheisel says.

The public doesn’t necessarily have a principled intolerance, according to Neiheisel.

“I think the conversation surrounding whether or not groups are worthy of being tolerated is happening in the real world, and that conversation keeps getting louder,” says Neiheisel. “Generalists might be tempted to say we’re more tolerant, but that’s a normative understanding. This paper cautions against that conclusion by saying that groups still matter, what we like and dislike matters.”

At issue is not affinity, in and of itself, but distinguishing an actual worldview from what might be a flawed conclusion based on inadequate observation.

“We’re in a very polarized time with outsized perceptions of each other, often rooted in a less-than-complete understanding of various groups,” says Neiheisel. “It’s easy to demonize political enemies, but there is a more principled way of thinking about things that’s more constructive than saying, ‘They’re wrong.’”

For the research, Neiheisel and his co-author Paul A. Djupe, PhD, a Denison University associate professor of political science, in 2016 interviewed a representative sample, based on U.S. census data, of nearly 2,600 American adults, with about half of those respondents re-interviewed through June 2017. The researchers used a battery of survey questions regarding their political tolerance of a least-liked group, along with content control measures, to get as close a view as possible to pure tolerance.

“We need to teach ourselves how to examine, analyze and determine political threat,” says Neiheisel. “And if this isn’t the salvation for an intolerant public, what is?”

Neiheisel’s question leads directly into his extension of the current study.

“We’re currently working on a paper that situates participants as if they were in a position to curtail the rights of others, and then turn it around. ‘What if that was on me?’  Would that make them more tolerant?

“That’s where we’re going with this line of research,” he says.

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