The Stouffer Study
To the Editor:
Many of us owe Nathan Glazer a considerable debt for his penetrating critiques of contemporary work in the social sciences which have appeared regularly in Commentary over the past few years. Major research studies are nowhere else subjected to such searchingly critical yet fair-minded examination of their central assumptions.
I read, therefore, Glazer’s analysis of Samuel Stouffer’s Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties in your August issue with my usual admiration for his dialectic acumen. Shortly afterwards, however, upon reading Stouffer’s book, I discovered that his major criticisms seriously distort it by reading into it implications which the author himself explicitly disavows.
Glazer accuses Stouffer of assuming that because public opinion surveys find certain opinions to be statistically associated with a socially desirable attitude, it is therefore good policy to promote these opinions and to overlook their possible, or even probable, falsity. Since tolerance of non-conformists is associated with a low perception of the Communist threat, Stouffer, according to Glazer, implies that those who cherish civil liberties ought to minimize the threat even though it may in fact be a grave one. Now this sort of reasoning is certainly very common in research studies of problems on which liberals have strong moral or political convictions (Glazer cites ethnic prejudice as an example). The only trouble is that Stouffer does not indulge in it. Glazer has used the wrong argument against the wrong man on the wrong problem.
Twice Glazer quotes Stouffer’s statement: “If the internal Communist threat is now exaggerated, and if the American people were told this and believed it, tolerance of nonconformists would increase.” He asserts that this is Stouffer’s “conclusion” and goes on to suggest that only scientific caution deters Stouffer from stating outright that the internal Communist threat is indeed exaggerated and that civil liberties would be served by a campaign to minimize it. But Stouffer explicitly rejects this line of argument: he points out that the relationship between tolerance and perception of the Communist threat revealed by his data is by no means a consistent one, he suggests that such a campaign might “lull people into too much complacency about Communism,” and he concludes that civil liberties would be better served by a “positive program” stressing their value which would also “be truthful about the internal Communist threat.” . . .
Pursuing his effort to convict Stouffer of what might be called the “virtue by association” theory of ideas, Glazer says that “Dr. Stouffer seems to take it for granted that the sensible position of being aware of the threat and yet upholding tolerance cannot be expected to grow,” and he charges Stouffer with ignoring the existence even in his own sample of people “who are fully aware of the true dimensions of the Communist problem in this country without being intolerant.” Again, Stouffer does nothing of the kind: on page 209 he contends that “there is ample evidence in this survey that knowledge does not breed intolerance. How else explain the relative tolerance of so many people, including many of the local community leaders who are fully aware of the internal Communist threat or may even hold exaggerated views of it?” (his italics). Stouffer takes great pains, as Glazer points out, to observe the taboo of social scientists against making “value-judgments” and he even shuns factual statements that cannot be directly supported by opinion poll data. Nevertheless, I think he plainly indicates his preference for a position that affirms civil liberties without denying the reality of the Communist problem.
Moreover, by concentrating on the opinion survey’s failure to differentiate statistically between those who are “intolerant” of Communists because they realistically see them as a threat and those who are indiscriminately intolerant of all whose views differ from their own, Glazer manages to avoid any admission that the Communist threat is in fact greatly exaggerated and its nature misunderstood by a large part of the public. He neglects entirely the chapters of the book supporting this conclusion.
Glazer states his own conviction that “native Communists exist and have played a considerable role in American government, society, and culture, and still play some role,” but he never defines which aspects of internal Communism constitute a danger. A whole section of Stouffer’s survey dealt with this. Of those who said that the Communists were at least some danger, 28 per cent feared the conversion of others to Communism and the spread of Communist ideas, whereas only 16 per cent mentioned sabotage or espionage as the main threat (other answers were too general to be classified). On one of the few occasions when Stouffer brings himself to make an assertion about the realities of the Communist problem in contrast to people’s opinions about it, he suggests that “the era of making any appreciable number of Communist converts in this country has long since passed.” Does Glazer disagree with this manifestly sound judgment? And isn’t the question of how Communists are dangerous almost as important as the question of whether they are dangerous?
Finally, one amazing statement occurs in Glazer’s article which brought me up short: he refers to “the two positions on Communism and civil liberties that are politically relevant today—the position of those who feel that no measures at all should be taken against native Communists, and the position of those who feel that Smith Acts and McCarran Acts are important and necessary defenses against Communism” (my italics). If by “politically relevant” he means with a real chance of affecting policy, this assertion is fantastic. For what influential political figures or organizations favor taking no action at all against native Communists? The need for some security regulations barring Communists from sensitive posts in government, the army, and some areas of private industry is almost universally recognized, even by the many people who regard the Smith and McCarran Acts as neither important nor necessary and who dislike the present security system.
I hold no special brief for the Stouffer book, which I regard as an important but very limited contribution to the understanding of a complex subject. But I think Nathan Glazer’s zeal to correct what he thinks represents naivety about Communism has misled him in this instance.
Dennis H. Wrong
University of Toronto
Mr. Glazer writes:
A good part of the points in controversy between Dennis Wrong and myself may be settled by a reading of pages 208-9 of Dr. Stouffer’s book, in which he sums up his analysis of the relation between tolerance and perception of the internal Communist threat. If I quote from these conclusions more fully than I did in the original review, I think it will be possible for the readers of this exchange to grasp Dr. Stouffer’s position exactly:
To sum up, these tabulations converge to demonstrate two facts:
1. . . . there is consistency in the relationship between perception of the internal Communist threat and tolerance of non-conformists. The relationship is high enough and consistent enough to suggest that if the internal Communist threat is now exaggerated, and if the American people were told this and believed it, tolerance of non-conformists would increase. [Dr. Stouffer then proposes a test for this hypothesis.]
2. The relationship between perception of threat and tolerance . . . is far from a 1-to-1 relationship. This has further important implications. It suggests that merely accenting the negative—merely asserting that the internal threat is exaggerated—would be limited in its effectiveness. For substantial proportions of the American population are intolerant in spite of the fact that they perceive relatively little internal Communist threat. Somehow one would have to bring home to them the value of the fundamental liberties. . . . This is difficult-even risky. For such a positive program also would presumably be truthful about the internal Communist threat, even if it attacked exaggerations. Some intolerant people who see little or no threat might be made more aware than they are now of the potential danger of an internal Communist conspiracy. . . . Is there not a danger such a program, based on truth, would boomerang and actually increase the intolerance?
Such a possibility exists, of course. But against it is the faith that, in the long run, the American people can be trusted with the truth. . . . Knowledge does not breed intolerance. How else explain the relative tolerance of so many people . . . who are fully aware of the Communist threat. . . ?
. . . a campaign of information might conceivably boomerang in an opposite direction . . . such a campaign might . . . lull people into too much complacency about Communism. This is possible but it seems unlikely.
It is perfectly clear that Dr. Stouffer does not “explicitly reject” the line of argument summed up by the sentence with the two “ifs” in conclusion (1) in the quotation above. Note the order of the conclusions: (1) people should be taught that the Communist threat is exaggerated; (2) they should be taught the value of fundamental American liberties. A “tricky” and “dangerous” consequence of the second campaign is to increase awareness of the internal Communist threat. I think I have been fair in giving Dr. Stouffer’s position, whereas Dennis Wrong raises minor qualifications to the position of major conclusions.
My review argued that Dr. Stouffer had confused the problem of intolerance, which is endemic in this country, and which is directed at Socialists and atheists and “nonconformists” no less than at Communists, with the specific problems raised by Communism—which involve tolerance of non-conformists only in part. It was in the course of this discussion that I said, “it is impossible in his book to distinguish the two positions on Communism and civil liberties that are practically relevant today.” In my effort to formulate the two “practically relevant” political questions I am afraid I used a shorthand open to much misunderstanding. I was referring to political measures against the Communist party, and there the division is between those who wish to outlaw the party, or come close to it, as with the Smith Act and McCarran Act, and those who do not feel special legislation should be passed to limit the Communist party as a political organism. It is of course true that many who hold the latter position (as I myself do) also favor the adoption of security measures against individual members of the Communist party of varying degrees of stringency.
Mr. Wrong finally raises many questions which were outside the limits of a review and are also outside the limits of an exchange of correspondence. In a word, however, I do not very well see how the Communist threat can be exaggerated as long as Russia is one of the two major world military powers. And it is for this reason, too, that though Communists today, I would certainly agree with Dr. Stouffer, make very few converts, this is a matter that could change in a number of years, and under other conditions.
But this has nothing to do with my review, whose main point was that there is no inherent relation between knowledge of and opposition to Communism and intolerance; that rather, there is only an inherent relation between ignorance and intolerance. These are crucial distinctions for the understanding of this problem. On occasion, Dr. Stouffer’s data led him to draw these distinctions; but the whole force of the book was to imply the existence of a necessary relation between anti-Communism and intolerance.
New York City