-1Ch.4 - Public Opinion and Political Socialization
There are several key characteristics of American public opinion:
The public’s attitudes toward a given government policy vary over time.
Public opinion places boundaries on allowable types of public policy.
Citizens are willing to register opinions on matters outside their expertise.
Governments tend to react to public opinion.
The government sometimes does not do what the people want. If the government does not do what
the people want, can it properly be called a democracy?
This chapter compares the majoritarian and pluralist models of democracy (introduced in Chapter 1) by
focusing on their assumptions about public opinion and examining the validity of those assumptions.
Before the development of opinion polling, officials had no reliable way of knowing what the people
wanted. Sampling theory, combined with computer technology, enabled researchers to study public opinion
much more accurately.
The process of political socialization—how people acquire their values through the interplay of cultural
factors, knowledge, and ideology—underlies the formation of public opinion. Family, peers, schools, and
the community are early agents of political socialization. Later influences include neighbors, fellow
workers, club members, the mass media, and the voting experience. Political values, the foundation of
public opinion, are shaped differently for each individual through the political socialization process. Still,
people with similar social backgrounds tend to share similar political opinions. Income, region, ethnicity,
religion, religiosity, race, and education are all factors that affect values. Figure 4.3 displays the effect of
these characteristics upon policy preferences related to freedom and equality.
Most people will classify themselves along a liberal-conservative continuum, but few will reflect true
ideological thinking in public opinion surveys. A two-dimensional framework for assessing the values of
order and equality yields four ideological categories of comparable size (see Figure 4.3).
equality but not order.
want government to enforce order but not equality.
want more government action to promote both order and equality.
oppose government actions for either purpose. Liberals and conservatives have less difficulty placing
themselves on a traditional liberal-conservative scale than do communitarians or libertarians.
People in the United States are generally willing to share their political opinions, but scholars have noted
surprisingly low levels of political knowledge. Public opinions are sometimes formed upon perceived self-
interest, particularly in economic matters. Political leaders sometimes serve as cue-givers to the public.
This role is possible in part because of the media.