Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Sociological Forum, Vol. 32, No. 4, (December 2017), pp 748-769.

doi 10.1111/socf.12374


Copyright © 2017 Eastern Sociological Society; published by John Wiley Inc. Used by permission.


Political tolerance—the willingness to extend civil liberties to traditionally stigmatized groups—is pivotal to the functioning of democracy and the well-being of members of stigmatized groups. Although political tolerance has traditionally been more common among American elites, we argue that as tolerance has increased, it has also diffused to less educated and less affluent segments of the population. The relative stability of political attitudes over the life course and the socialization of more recent birth cohorts in contexts of increased tolerance suggest that this diffusion of tolerance occurs across birth cohorts rather than time periods. Using age-period-cohort models and more than three and a half decades of repeated cross-sectional survey data, we find persistent and robust across-cohort declines in the importance of both income and higher education in determining levels of political tolerance. Declines in the effects of socioeconomic status are evident with tolerance toward all five out-groups in the analysis—anti-religionists, gays and lesbians, communists, militarists, and racists—but to varying degrees. These findings fit with a model of changes in public opinion, particularly views of civil and political rights, through processes of cultural diffusion and cohort replacement.