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The Tolerance Dilemma

The great question facing liberal societies today is how far tolerance should extend.

Shadi Hamid

What does it mean to tolerate, and is toleration enough? After the insurrection at the Capitol, the question of tolerance is perhaps thornier than it has ever been in modern American politics.

To talk about tolerance is to talk about liberalism and its ends. The minimalistic conception of classical liberalism, which Francis Fukuyama rightly favors, envisions “simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies.” This simplicity is what makes it classical. If liberalism could stay thus confined, we would all be the better for it.

Part of the problem of liberalism, however, is that it holds within it—and always held—an unresolvable tension. This is what the philosopher John Gray calls the “two faces of liberalism.” For some early Enlightenment thinkers, toleration was merely a means of preserving peace through coexistence. But for others, including John Locke, toleration was a means to a more ambitious end. Tolerance and freedom of expression promoted a free marketplace of ideas, which, in turn, allowed the “best” ideas to rise to the fore and then be adopted by policymakers for the common good. Liberal toleration, in this reading, was not meant to accommodate conflicting interpretations of the good life. Instead, it aspired to harmony through the search for public reason and rational consensus.

The hope held out by this vision of liberalism was that citizens, over time, would learn through education the errors of their ways. Mere toleration was a temporary concession to an unfortunate reality, needed only until sufficient progress could be secured. This type of progression was fine, in principle. But modernizing states couldn’t help but be involved in the educational process. Thus, they ended up adopting not Fukuyama’s liberalism of diversity but the more muscular liberalism of Locke.

In the 19th century, in countries like the Netherlands, schools became a primary battleground. Liberals tried to use the machinery of the state—in particular, universal centralized education—to weaken religious and sectarian identities. As Matthew Kaemingk notes, ambitious administrators hoped to bring “even religious schools under the direct oversight of the liberal nation-state.” They succeeded.

It wasn’t enough for liberals to wait for the marketplace of ideas to work its magic, because the idea of the marketplace producing the “right” outcomes wasn’t just an ideal; it was also a fantasy. A free marketplace does not in fact produce the best ideas. We know this because we know that citizens do not agree on what the best ideas are in the first place. Consensus on big, foundational questions is especially difficult, if not impossible, in increasingly plural societies. If there was any doubt, it should have been put to rest by recent developments in American politics.

Of course, early Enlightenment thinkers couldn’t have anticipated the extent of modern religious and ethnic diversity. They were still operating under—and assuming the permanence of—relatively homogenous societies. This is why liberalism and pluralism are not natural bedfellows; the ever increasing diversity of modern life heightens their contradictions.


Thus, liberalism, with the passing of time, tends to have trouble staying minimalist and “classical.” Instead, it ends up wanting more for itself, using its cultural power—and, when possible, the state—to advance a particular conception of the Good. For left-leaning liberals, this can mean something resembling wokeness. But the impulse can afflict the Right in a similar way.

In Western Europe, as I have discussed elsewhere, right-wing populists increasingly present themselves as defenders of liberalism and Enlightenment values against Muslim conservatism. Tjitske Akkerman and Anniken Hagelund have outlined the basic thrust of this underappreciated shift:

The gender critique raised by feminists and others has offered the radical right a new arsenal of issues and rhetoric with which to fight immigration and defend a unitary national culture. The result is, in the Netherlands and Norway at least, a radical right defending liberal values—human rights, liberty, individualism and gender equality—against immigrant cultures represented as collectivist, authoritarian, patriarchal and honor-bound.

More recently, in France and Austria secularists—left, center, and right—have argued for aggressive state intervention to limit Islam’s role in public life, again ostensibly in the service of Enlightenment values. The result is illiberalism in liberalism’s name, another illustration of Gray’s liberalism with two faces.

In this way, in practice if not in theory, classical liberalism tends to grow out of its classical phase. But there are also built-in theoretical problems, although for some they won’t be problems at all. Political liberalism, as expounded by John Rawls, is based on a “veil of ignorance,” the principle that the founders of a new polity are free to construct their society without any knowledge of their future positions in it or any particular set of preferences or values it must embody. However, as Lenn Goodman writes, “Even neutrality, in Rawls’ scheme, is not neutral.” Rawls’ choosers are “trapped in a liberal society:” They are in fact “not free” to “construct a value system.” In other words, the notion that liberalism is “neutral” can exist only within a liberal framework.

Maybe it wasn’t always like this, and maybe it didn’t have to be like this. But modernity creates a toleration paradox: Modernity begins, as Gray argues, “not with the recognition of difference but with a demand for uniformity.” It longs for sameness precisely as that sameness drifts out of reach.

Fukuyama writes in his essay, “The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: You do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what those things are without interference from you or from the state.” Are there enough classical liberals left in the United States who actually believe this? Elections in the United States have become existential, because so much—too much—is at stake. The question of who wins elections affects not just the state but the regulation (or lack thereof) of private companies that sometimes seem to resemble public utilities. This situation doesn’t bode well for tolerance.

It is also becoming unclear exactly who deserves to be tolerated. Should insurrectionists be tolerated? No. Should the seventy-four million Americans who voted for an insurrectionist enjoy the fruits of toleration? Needless to say, seventy-four million Americans are not enemies of the state, or at least they shouldn’t be. The question for liberalism today is how much it can tolerate—and whether it can prove magnanimous now that it finds itself with not only cultural hegemony but political power.

Shadi Hamid, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a founding editor of Wisdom of Crowds. He is author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (2017).

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