Why Liberals Aren’t as Tolerant as They Think

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The political left might consider itself more open-minded than the right. But research shows that liberals are just as prejudiced against conservatives as conservatives are against liberals.

In March, students at Middlebury College disrupted a lecture by the conservative political scientist Charles Murray because they disagreed with some of his writings. Last month, the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a lecture by the conservative commentator Ann Coulter due to concerns for her safety—just two months after uninviting the conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos due to violent protests. Media outlets on the right have played up the incidents as evidence of rising close-mindedness on the left.

For years, it’s conservatives who have been branded as intolerant, often for good reason. But conservatives will tell you that liberals demonstrate their own intolerance, using the strictures of political correctness as a weapon of oppression. That became a familiar theme during the 2016 campaign. After the election, Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at the progressive group Demos Action, reported that Donald Trump had received his strongest support among Americans who felt that whites and Christians faced “a great deal” of discrimination. Spencer Greenberg, a mathematician who runs a website for improving decision-making, found that the biggest predictor of voting for Trump after party affiliation was the rejection of political correctness—Trump’s voters felt silenced.

So who’s right? Are conservatives more prejudiced than liberals, or vice versa? Research over the years has shown that in industrialized nations, social conservatives and religious fundamentalists possess psychological traits, such as the valuing of conformity and the desire for certainty, that tend to predispose people toward prejudice. Meanwhile, liberals and the nonreligious tend to be more open to new experiences, a trait associated with lower prejudice. So one might expect that, whatever each group’s own ideology, conservatives and Christians should be inherently more discriminatory on the whole.

But more recent psychological research, some of it presented in January at the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), shows that it’s not so simple. These findings confirm that conservatives, liberals, the religious and the nonreligious are each prejudiced against those with opposing views. But surprisingly, each group is about equally prejudiced. While liberals might like to think of themselves as more open-minded, they are no more tolerant of people unlike them than their conservative counterparts are.

Political understanding might finally stand a chance if we could first put aside the argument over who has that bigger problem. The truth is that we all do.

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