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Taking America's Temperature

This column was written by Arthur C. Brooks.
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.

Was I right that conservatives and liberals are more politically intolerant today than they were in the past? It turns out I was wrong — in part. Conservatives gave liberals slightly higher scores in 2004 than in 1998, and the same was true for the scores liberals gave conservatives.

This is especially counterintuitive because over the same period, people became more partisan: The percentage of the population calling itself "politically moderate" shrank by eight percent, while the percentage identifying itself as liberal or conservative increased by 18 percent.

Before celebrating the end of political hatred, however, there is a dark side to the story told by the data, and it comes at the political fringe. While average political partisans may bear each other less animus than they have in the past, certain people who voluntarily label their views as "extreme" are more hostile to their opposition than ever.

We can see this by looking at the people who give their political foes a thermometer reading of 20 or below. This is an unusually chilly score, which most people reserve for highly unpopular figures, not fellow average citizens.

To give an idea of what a score of 20 represents, consider the fact that in 2002, Americans gave Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat an average score of 22. The countries of North Korea and Iran received average scores of 34 and 28, respectively.

People with moderately partisan views were a bit less likely in 2004 to give their foes a 20-or-below than in 1998. But one group — the far left — bucked the trend, getting angrier and more radical over this period. In 1998, 48 percent of people saying they were "extremely liberal" gave conservatives a score of 20 or under. By 2004, this had risen to 65 percent of this group.

And about one in three of these people gave conservatives the lowest possible score: zero. (Note that in 2002, even Saddam Hussein received an average score of eight.) In contrast, the percentage of "extreme conservatives" giving an under 20 score to liberals inched up only slightly over this period, from 45 to 48 percent.

Remember, thermometer scores are ratings of people, not ideas: An ice-cold score is equivalent to saying, "I don't like certain people simply because of the views they hold." It is the essence of intolerance, and it describes two-thirds of America's far left today (and nearly half of America's far right, which is not a whole lot better). The anger this group has is not just with President Bush or his policies, but rather with the average Americans who support him.

One explanation for the explosion in intolerance on the left is frustration, of course. The Bush administration has been an unmitigated nightmare for many liberals. From the Iraq war to the appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices, America seems increasingly like an alien nation to some people. Worst of all, more than half the country was complicit in the nightmare when it supported Mr. Bush for re-election in 2004. No wonder extreme liberals, regardless of what they might claim in polite company, appear to dislike conservative people almost as much as they detest the president himself.

Most political prognostications at this point are pointing toward a political realignment in 2006, and maybe 2008 as well. The left may enjoy a Democrat-controlled House and Senate next year, and be back in the White House shortly thereafter.

This might ameliorate the far left's disdain for conservative Americans. But if and when liberal political power returns in America, we should remember the findings here every time we hear the inevitable progressive homilies on the importance of tolerance for a good society.

I couldn't agree more that tolerance is a great virtue. Let's not forget where, at this moment, it is most conspicuously absent.

Arthur C. Brooks is a professor of public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. His newest book, entitled "Who Cares: The Surprising Truth About Who Is Charitable, Who Isn't, and Why It Matters for America," will be released in November 2006 by Basic Books.
By Arthur C. Brooks