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Is Joe McCarthy Still With Us? Political Intolerance and the Sense of Repression in the U.S.

- February 12, 2008

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In a provocative new study (abstract here), James Gibson finds that the American public is somewhat more politically tolerant now than it was during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, but also that “the level of intolerance of the American people today is still remarkably high.” More specifically, 68% of those polled in 1954 for Samuel Stouffer‘s classic study of Communism, Conformism, and Civil Liberties expressed an unwillingness to permit a Communist to give a speech. In 2005, 51 years later, 54% of those polled in Gibson’s 2005 survey took the same position. This was not a reflection of lessened public concern about communists in particular, for more or less the same result held when the reference was the individual survey respondent’s “least liked” group rather than communists.

Over the same period, Americans have come to perceive government as placing greater restrictions on their personal freedom, as indicated by the following survey responses:

bq. Agreement with the statement that “All people feel as free to say what they think as they used to.” 1954, 55.6%; 2005, 42.6%.

bq. Affirmative responses to the question, “What about you personally? Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?” 1954: 84.7%; 2005, 75.6%.

Gibson goes on to classify his survey respondents according to how sympathetic they were to an array of social or political groups. He finds that the likelihood of perceiving constraints on one’s freedom to speak out varies widely form one group of sympathizers to another. For example, roughly 40% of those sympathetic to gay rights activists, atheists, and pro-abortion rights activists perceived such constraints, but upwards of 60% of those expressing sympathy with U.S. communists, militarists, or radical Muslims did so. He also reports a strong correlation between one’s perceptions of restraints on one’s freedom and one’s own level of intolerance, such that “those who feel more unfree are likely to be more intolerant.” Perhaps, he speculates, this imeans that “because they perceive themselves as not having freedom, it is easier to justify denying freedom to others” — but the jury is still out on that interpretation.

These issues have, of course, taken on even greater resonance in the post-9-11 U.S., and it seems safe to anticipate further contributions along these lines from Gibson and others. One important question that will warrant attention is whether citizens of other nations, not just the U.S., are perceiving tighter restrictions on political self-expression.

[For an overview of past research on these issues that prominently featues Gibson’s work, see the Finkel-Sigelman-Humphries chapter, “Democratic Values and Political Tolerance,” in the extraordinarily expensive but extremely useful reference work, Measures of Political Attitudes.]