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Intolerance and Political Repression in the United States: A Half Century after McCarthyism


  • This is a revised version of a paper prepared for delivery at the 2005 “Workshop for Preliminary Presentations of Findings from the Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy (CID) Survey Project,” Center for Democracy and the Third Sector (CDATS), Georgetown University. Support for the research on which this article is based has been provided by the Atlantic Philanthropies in a grant to the Center for Democracy and the Third Sector (CDATS) at Georgetown University, and by the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. Marc Morjé Howard, with the assistance of James L. Gibson, was primarily responsible for executing that survey. I greatly appreciate Howard's untiring efforts on the 2005 project, as well as the support for this research provided by Steven S. Smith of the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis. I also appreciate the research assistance of Marc Hendershot, Jessica Flanigan, and Eric Wolfish and the comments of E. J. Dionne on an earlier draft of this article.

James L. Gibson is Sidney W. Souers professor of government and director, Program on Citizenship and Democratic Values, Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, 219 Eliot Hall, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 ( Professor Gibson is also a fellow at the Centre for Comparative and International Politics, Stellenbosch University (South Africa).


What consequences for political freedom arise from high levels of political intolerance among the American public? Comparing surveys from 1954 to 2005, I document the level of perceived freedom today and consider how it has changed since the McCarthy era. Levels of intolerance today and in 1954 are also compared. Next assessed is whether restrictions on freedom are uniformly perceived or whether some subsections of the population are more likely to feel repressed than others. I find that while intolerance may have declined somewhat since 1954, perceived constraints on individual freedom have actually increased. These findings produce telling consequences for the subtheory of pluralistic intolerance. During McCarthyism, intolerance focused on the Left; today, many groups are not tolerated, so the loss of freedom is more widespread. Heretofore, many thought that pluralistic intolerance tended to be benign. At least in the case of the contemporary United States, it seems not to be.

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