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An Alternative Conceptualization of Political Tolerance: Illusory Increases 1950s–1970s*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

John L. Sullivan
University of Minnesota
James Piereson
University of Pennsylvania
George E. Marcus
Williams College


This article proposes an alternative conceptualization of political tolerance, a new measurement strategy consistent with that conceptualization, and some new findings based upon this measurement strategy. Briefly put, we argue that tolerance presumes a political objection to a group or to an idea, and if such an objection does not arise, neither does the problem of tolerance. Working from this understanding, we argue that previous efforts to measure tolerance have failed because they have asked respondents about groups preselected by the investigators. Those groups selected as points of reference in measuring tolerance have generally been of a leftist persuasion. Our measurement strategy allowed respondents themselves to select a political group to which they were strongly opposed. They were then asked a series of questions testing the extent to which they were prepared to extend procedural claims to these self-selected targets. Using this approach, we found little change between the 1950s and the 1970s in levels of tolerance in the United States, a result that contradicts much recent research on the problem.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1979

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We wish to express our thanks to the University of Minnesota Graduate School and to the National Science Foundation, grant SOC 77–17623, for supporting this study. Considerable appreciation is extended to the following for their most helpful comments on an earlier version of this article: David Booth, David Colby, William Flanigan, Daniel Minns, Leroy Rieselbach, W. Phillips Shively, James Stimson, Robert Weissberg, and James Davis. We could not take all of their advice because often it was contradictory, but the final product would have been considerably weakened were it not for their help.


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