Are Liberals more tolerant than Conservatives? Or is it the other way around? Are rural Trump-supporters more tolerant than Democratic urban elites? Or does tolerance positively correlate with metropolitanism? A recent article in the Atlantic purports to give a scientific breakdown of political partisanship across America. At least one mainstream conservative pundit has latched onto the results of the study in order to assert that "educated white Liberals" are the least tolerant people in America. But does the data really support that conclusion?
I'm afraid I must burst my fellow conservative’s bubble, here. It is not possible to determine which groups or political parties are more tolerant by using studies like this. The word “tolerance” is simply too fuzzy. According to different definitions and usages of the term, both sides of the aisle are tolerant and intolerant to varying degrees.
Democrats—especially progressives—pride themselves on tolerance, and their pride is not misplaced. For them, “tolerance” means having a worldview that is completely open and accepting of “the other.” Being tolerant in this way involves letting go of one’s own dogmatic beliefs—especially in the realm of religion—and demoting moral standards to the status of entirely relative cultural quirks. Someone on the political Left might say,
“I believe certain things and have learned to behave a certain way, but if you do things differently or have different beliefs, that’s great for you! Diversity makes the world beautiful!”
Tolerance of this kind requires relentless self-criticism. Everything one believes and does must constantly be subjected to questioning: “am assuming my beliefs are superior to anyone else’s?”; “are my actions treating someone with different beliefs unequally?”; etc. In this sense, the Left is so abundantly tolerant that a fundamentalist Muslim could probably attend a progressive Christian church and feel entirely comfortable there. He would feel little to no pressure to change his garb or religious practices, and the preacher would likely go out of his or her way to avoid challenging Islamic dogma. If a member of this church unwittingly made the Muslim person feel uncomfortable somehow, they would get a stern rebuke either from church elders or their own conscience.
“Aha!”, Republican readers are thinking, “those rebukes are not very tolerant, are they?” And fair enough. But, as I explained, the tolerance of progressives is directed toward “the other,” not themselves. Members of the “in group” face merciless intolerance—even ostracism—whenever they transgress against “the other.” In fact, one can best understand the progressive “intersectional hierarchy” as a measure of one’s “otherness,” which then determines how much tolerance one deserves.
Republicans are every bit as tolerant as Democrats, but in a different way. They swim upstream against an unfriendly culture most of their lives—being educated in Universities dominated by Leftist ideology, watching news media staffed mostly by Democrats, and being saturated in a celebrity culture which promotes progressive values. This experience teaches conservatives to entertain opposing ideas, laugh at caricatures of themselves, and tolerate large amounts of unfriendly dissent. Hearing opposing viewpoints is not troubling for them, so long as they are given a chance to respond. That is why the highest value on the political Right, these days, is “free speech.” And, under that banner, the Right will tolerate almost anything—from radical Marxism to white nationalism—regardless of how uncomfortable those discussions make some people feel.
From the perspective of the Left, the Right's tolerance is horribly offensive and intolerant. From the Right’s perspective, Leftist tolerance feels like soft tyranny. Both perspectives are correct, actually. And, each side could learn an important lesson from the other.
Will the Left ever temper its righteous indignation over micro-aggressions and other minor or unwitting intolerances?
Will the Right ever realize that there are some topics that are too thorny to be tolerated in public discourse?
Probably not, because both sides see their "tolerance" as a virtue. Ironically, this means that American political discourse will most likely continue to become more and more intolerable precisely because Americans refuse to tolerate the idea of letting themselves be the tiniest bit intolerant.