|Public Opinion and Political Socialization: Shaping the People's Voice|
This chapter deals with the formation of public opinion and its influence upon the American political system. A major theme is that public opinion is a powerful and yet inexact force in American politics. These are the chapter's main points:
The chapter begins by discussing the role of public opinion in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the events which followed in Afghanistan and on the homefront. Accordingly, public opinion consists of those views held by ordinary citizens that government takes into account in making its decisions. However, public opinion in America is not homogeneous--there are many "publics," and opinion might be lacking, contradictory, or only applicable to major issues. So, it is relatively difficult to run a government by relying on "majority" opinion.
Public officials do have many ways of assessing public opinion, such as election outcomes or mass demonstrations. However, officials have found opinion polls to be more reliable. Modern polls are based upon representative, randomly selected samples that in turn mirror the opinion characteristics contained in a much larger "population." For example, the Gallup poll interviews only a thousand or so carefully selected individuals who in turn represent millions of American voters. Polls are not infallible--they can be invalidated through poor wording of questions, unrepresentative sampling, or other ways. However, a properly conducted poll can provide an accurate indication of what the public is thinking and can dissuade political leaders from believing that the views of the most vocal citizen are also the views of the broader public. Polls can also indicate to leaders the direction, intensity, or stability of opinions.
The process by which individuals acquire their political opinions is called political socialization. Political socialization in America is a lifelong process that is facilitated by a number of important agents--family, schools, peer groups, the media, political leaders and institutions, and churches. For example, children are likely to adopt the political party loyalties of their parents; schools promote civic virtues and loyalty to democratic institutions. Peer groups can help to maintain existing opinions, the media can shape political perceptions, and leaders can guide opinion formation. Political learning is generally casual and uncritical unless an important event makes a conscious evaluation necessary.
Individual opinions are also shaped by several frames of reference. Four of the most important are political culture, ideology, group attachments, and partisanship. Cultural beliefs, such as individualism and support for equality, can result in a range of acceptable and unacceptable policy alternatives. Ideology, "a consistent pattern of opinion on particular issues that stems from a pattern of thought," influences a relatively small part of the population, though it is particularly significant in the case of political activists. Conservatives and liberals differ over the role of government regarding economic controls, activism, and the promotion of certain social values. Libertarians oppose nearly all forms of government activity, while populists favor governmental action to rectify exploitations of the common person. (Polls revealed that a plurality of Americans considered themselves conservatives in 1997.) Group or individual characteristics stemming from religion, class, region, race, gender, and age can also account for opinion differences. For example, white Americans and African Americans have major differences over the pace and extent of integration; men and women tend to disagree over issues of war and welfare support for the have-nots of American society. Finally, despite a decline in partisanship (loyalty to a particular party) since the 1960s, most voters still identify with one party or the other. Still, issues and candidates can erode that pattern of loyalty.
Public opinion has a significant influence on government but seldom determines exactly what government will do in a particular instance. Public opinion serves to constrain the policy choices of officials. Some policy actions are beyond the range of possibility because the public will not accept change in existing policy or will not seriously consider policy that seems clearly at odds with basic American value. Evidence indicates that officials are reasonably attentive to public opinion on highly visible and controversial issues of public policy. Finally, the question remains as to whether government is sufficientlyresponsive to public opinion.Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following: