Political Science Professor Recognized for His Research on Political and Racial Tolerance

By Richard LeComte

Israel’s drift among the young toward right-wing, anti-Arab politics worries Mark Peffley. Peffley, a UK political scientist, is studying the drift through survey research with colleagues in Israel, and he sees the trend as troubling. Peffley has devoted his career to exploring the extent that intolerance influences political psychology and behavior.  

“We’re looking at the politics of tolerance and the political aspects of tolerance,” Peffley said. “More Israeli Jews are identifying with the right wing. As terrorism escalated, Jews were less likely to see Israeli Arabs as true Israelis, and instead view them as the enemy.”

Peffley, one of the 400 most highly cited political scientists in the United States, was selected as a 2019-2020 University of Kentucky Research Professor. For several years, Peffley and his co-authors have documented how racial intolerance in the United States helps drive opposition to anti-poverty programs and support for punitive anti-crime programs.

“I find it one of the most gratifying jobs in the world—to be able to shine a light on political and racial intolerance around the globe,” he said.

For several years, Peffley and his co-authors documented how racial intolerance in the United States helps drive opposition to anti-poverty programs and support for punitive anti-crime programs. His research on the political consequences of racial intolerance was coauthored largely with someone he went to graduate school with at the University of Minnesota: Jon Hurwitz of the University of Pittsburgh.

Peffley’s research with Hurwitz resulted in a national survey of blacks and whites funded by the National Science Foundation, several articles, and an award-winning book that revealed how starkly the races view the fairness (or lack thereof) of the U.S. criminal justice system (Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites, Cambridge Press). His research with Hurwitz was profiled by The Sentencing Project, a major nonprofit advocating for racial justice and sentencing reform, and The Monkey Cage in The Washington Post

“We documented how the dramatically different personal encounters of whites and blacks with legal authorities, especially police, lead to a vast divide in the way the races view the fairness and legitimacy of the justice system,” Peffley said.

Peffley and Hurwitz teamed up with Jeff Mondak of the University of Illinois to survey four groups in Washington State about their encounters and perceptions with the justice system -- Hispanics and Asian Americans, as well as blacks and whites. The survey was funded by the Washington Supreme Court Commission, which used the researchers’ findings to make presentations around the state highlighting the tendency for people of color (blacks and Hispanics) to report being treated unfairly by the police and courts “because of their race and ethnicity.”

More recently, Peffley’s research has focused on political intolerance in the United States, Israel and other countries. He has teamed up with Michael Shamir of the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, another fellow grad student of Peffley’s at Minnesota; and Marc Hutchison a former doctoral student of Peffleys, who is now an eminent political scientist in his own right at the University of Rhode Island.

One of their recent articles examines how the threat of chronic terrorism in Israel has shifted politics to the right and contributed to the current political climate in Israel. The paper is called “The Impact of Persistent Terrorism on Political Tolerance: Israel, 1980 to 2011.” Political tolerance is the willingness to extend basic civil liberties (i.e., the freedom to speak, assemble, run for office) to one’s domestic enemies.

“We find that the corrosive influence of terrorism on political tolerance is much more powerful among Israelis who identify with the Right, who have also become much more sensitive to terrorism over time,” Peffley said. “Studying terrorist attacks and Israeli Jews’ survey responses over a 30-year period, we saw a troubling trend. More Israeli Jews are identifying with the right wing. As terrorism escalated, Jews were less likely to see Israeli Arabs as true citizens and instead view them as the enemy who shouldn’t be allowed to speak, hold rallies or run for office.”

Peffley sees parallels to the Israeli situation to historical events in the United States.

“The situation in Israel is not unlike the McCarthy Red Scare Era in the U.S. during the 1950s,” he said. “Although American communists, socialists and atheists posed no real threat to the security of the U.S., they were viewed as an existential threat, much like Israeli Arab citizens, who also pose no real threat to the security and existence of Israel, are viewed by Israeli Jews on the Right.”  

Peffley and his colleagues received funding by the Israel Institute to study tolerance in Israel with a new multi-wave survey starting in July 2018 to April 2019, just before the first of three national elections.

“We see a loosening of the Israeli public’s commitment to democratic values and minority rights,” Peffley said. “This matches up with a degree of democratic backsliding in Israel, as Jews on the Right call for stripping the Arab minority of its right to run for office and curtailing the Israel Supreme Court because it champions universal freedoms instead the rights of the Jewish majority.”

Peffley has seen a similar trend in the United States, where fear of immigrants, as during the 2018 midterm elections, generated a lot of political heat. Specifically, he discussed frequent media mentions of a caravan of asylum seekers – “loaded with terrorists,” as it was moving up through Central America – mentions that evaporated after the election.

“Ethnonationalism can be seen in both Israel and in America,” he said.

Growing up in Indianapolis, Peffley charts his political awareness to coverage of the 1968 Democratic presidential convention. He found his interest in studying politics in college at Indiana University and has followed this passion ever since. He has served as the first director of UK’s Quantitative Initiative for Policy and Social Research, and was co-editor of Political Behavior from 2003 to 2011. He is working with Ph.D. candidate Travis Taylor, Master’s student, Kati Stafford, and two undergraduates: Madison Cissell and Olivia Morris-Bush.


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