In April of 2006, I wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal profiling Richard DeVos, the wealthy philanthropist and co-founder of the Amway Corporation.
DeVos donates generously to conservative Christian charities and causes, and believes that God is personally involved in his good fortune. I wrote the story with no criticism or disapproval of DeVos' beliefs, because it was not an op-ed — my task was simply to introduce an interesting person to the paper's readers.
So I was fairly surprised to receive outraged e-mails about the column. One irony-challenged correspondent accused me of lacking balance in my treatment of DeVos, whom he labeled "Christian Taliban."
The truth is, in 2006 it is difficult to write in a public forum about anything even remotely political, without stimulating a torrent of abuse. I perceive — and other writers on current affairs say so as well — that this problem has gotten worse in recent years.
Is it true that people are becoming more aggressively unable to tolerate views that differ from their own? A tour through the unhinged e-mail I receive might provide a few amusing clues, but to answer this question convincingly, we need to look at actual data on political tolerance. Doing so tells an interesting story.
The most convenient way to look at political tolerance is with "feeling thermometers," a common public opinion survey tool in which respondents are asked to express their personal feelings about people and issues on a 0-100 scale. A freezing score of zero is basically absolute hatred (think Hitler), while 100 means adoration (Santa Claus). Respondents are told that a score of 50 means "neutral."
The most prominent survey using feeling thermometers is the American National Election Study from the University of Michigan. This survey regularly asks a random sample of Americans their feelings about, among other things, "liberals" and "conservatives" — not these political views per se, but rather the people who hold them.
Unsurprisingly, the Michigan data always show that conservatives like other conservatives much more than liberals do, and vice versa. In 2004, for example, conservatives gave themselves a toasty average score of 80, but gave liberals a cool 40. Liberals gave themselves 75 but rated conservatives 39.