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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:

  • Public opinion consists of those views held by ordinary citizens that are openly expressed. Public officials have many means of gauging public opinion but increasingly have relied on public opinion polls to make this determination.
  • The process by which individuals acquire their political opinions is called political socialization. This process begins in childhood, when, through family and school, Americans acquire many of their basic political values and beliefs. Socialization continues into adulthood, when peers, political institutions and leaders, and the news media are major influences.
  • Americans' political opinions are shaped by several frames of reference. Four of the most important are ideology, group attachments, partisanship, and political culture. These frames of reference form the basis for political consensus and conflict among the general public.
  • Public opinion has an important influence on government but ordinarily does not directly determine what officials will do. Public opinion works primarily to impose limits and directions on the choices made by officials.

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:

List the various political socialization agents and explain their importance.
Describe the different methods used to measure public opinion, and discuss why some are more accurate than others.
Describe the ideological classifications and group characteristics that help explain how Americans think politically.
Assess the degree to which American policymakers are responsive to public opinion. Comment on how this question relates to the issue of "representation" in American politics.
Describe how partisan thinking influences opinions about issues and candidates.







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