The Most Politically Intolerant Americans Tend To Be Urban, Highly Educated Whites, Survey Shows

An Atlantic article makes the case that some very privileged people don't want to hear from the other side.


Douglas Christian/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Here's a sentence that may surprise many readers: "In general, the most politically intolerant Americans… tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves."

That's according to a recent article in The Atlantic, which cites the results of a survey conducted by the polling firm PredictWise. The authors were interested in gauging political intolerance—where in the U.S. are people more likely to disassociate from members of the opposite political party?—and were able to assemble a county-by-county index of American intolerance based on poll results.

The findings are certainly interesting. Florida, it seems, is just a horribly intolerant place—or at least contains a large number of intolerant counties—and Jefferson County, New York, is extremely chill. The single-most politically intolerant large county is Suffolk County in Massachusetts, which includes the city of Boston.

It turns out that being white, highly educated, urban-dwelling, and older all correlate with political intolerance. The authors think this might be because such people are best able to segregate themselves into like-minded bubbles where they may never encounter someone who represents a different political tradition. Less privileged Americans, on the other hand, "have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be."

Of course, it's very important to note that political intolerance is not the same thing as, say, racial intolerance. Race is an immutable characteristic, whereas membership in a political party is voluntary. We do not choose our skin color, but we can choose our political beliefs (at least in theory; The Atlantic piece notes that the "vast majority of people" stick with whatever party their parents chose for them). If someone has particularly awful political views, it's not necessarily wrong to show them intolerance.

But if wide swaths of the population routinely refuse to engage with anyone who occupies a different position on the political spectrum, they will probably be more ignorant about what those people actually believe. They will tend to demagogue each other, and assume the worst. It's very easy to find examples of this: Relatively privileged, elite media folks were among the most eager to wrongly assume that a bunch of MAGA-hat-wearing teenagers were harassing a Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I wouldn't overinterpret PredictWise's findings, since the questons they asked (how would you feel if a family member married someone from another political party, do you think members of the other party are compassionate, etc.) probably don't fully capture the nuances of people's beliefs. But they are worth keeping in mind as we race toward 2020.