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Public Opinion and Political Beliefs



  • Public Opinion: how people feel or think about certain issues (Wilson)
  • Framers of the Constitution did not try to create a government that would do from day to day "what the people want." They feared direct democracy, believing that the masses did not have the knowledge or intelligence to vote wisely on every issue. The Framers wanted the government to be separated from the passions of the factions, yet still protect the rights of the people. For this reason, the Senate was kept isolated and was not as heavily influenced by the views of the general public in contrast to the House of Representatives.
  • The framers created a government for the purpose of achieving substantive goals: "To form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty" (Wilson 155).
    • The purpose of the government was to mediate, not mirror public views according to Wilson, which is why direct democracy was not the best option for the Framers
    • While popular rule was provided to achieve the goals of the preamble, a representative government, the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, and an independent judiciary all serve as checks on public opinion (Wilson 155).
    • The government has consistently done things the public opposes. Here are examples of this occurrence (Wilson 155):
      • Federal government often has a large budget deficit, while people want a balanced budget
      • The busing of students for desegregation, despite the fact that most citizens oppose busing
      • The impeachment of Bill Clinton, when most people opposed this
      • Avoiding the creation of term limits for Senators and members of the House, when most people believe that there should be
      • Congress did not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, although it was clear that the citizens fully supported it according to polls



Sources of Political Attitudes and Political Cleavages (differences):

  • Political Socialization: Process by which background traits influence one's political views
  • According to Benson and Waples, there are combination of several factors that result in political socialization

Family: Majority of young people identify with the political party of their parents; maturity=more independence from parents, included political outlook
    • By the time children are in fifth grade children absorb their parents’ party identification, but become more independent thinking with time.
    • A Study showed that around 60% of citizens had the same party identification of their parents even as adults.
    • There has been a decline in partisanship but an increase in citizen who describe themselves as Independents
    • However, the evidence has shown that children tend to become independent in policy preference than in party identification.
    • With recent times, there has been a decline of family influence on party identification
    • However, children are less influenced by family’s on the subject of policy inclinations
    • Family influence is strongest when both parents identify themselves with the same political party
    • Daughters are more likely to identify with their father's political party, while sons are more likely to identify with their mother's political party.
    • Few families pass on clear ideologies.
    • Children raised in families where politics is a prominent subject of conversation have clearer political ideologies.
    • College has a tendency to make people more liberal over time.

Gender: There is a gender gap, a difference in political views between the sexes, in politics that varies from time to time and varies in magnitude.
    • The gender gap exists due to different attitudes between men and women toward issues such as gun control, social programs, and gay rights.
    • Since the 1960's, men have become more Republican.
    • Women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the Nineteenth Amendment, however they had a low voter turnout rate until the 1980’s
      • men have always been more conservative than women in their views on the size of government, gun control, spending programs aimed at the poor, and gay rights, but in the late 1960s, early 1970s men switched their party loyalty to match their policy preferences
    • Women have changed little in their voting behavior, with a majority being Democratic since the early 1950s
    • About 58% of women vote Democratic
    • It is pointed out that women have "deserted" Republican candidates to favor Democratic ones.
    • Gap can be explained by different attitudes on various topics like gun control and abortion, according to Benson and Waples. (pg 91 Fast Track to a 5)
      • Wilson also suggests that the increasing number of female democratic candidates may also have played a role
    • The gender gap is more apparent in presidential elections than in elections like midterm congressional elections.
    • Marriage also plays a role in voting behavior. Such that if the husband were to be in the Republican party then the wife would switch to the Republican side, or the other way around.
    • The gender gap is dynamic-- that is, it changes over time and is more or less apparent in different elections.
    • The gender gap is not so apparent in regards to abortion. Men and women are similar on their views with 57% of men and 60% of women supporting it.
    • The gender gap is apparent in regards to gun control since it has been found that women are more likely to be in favor of stricter gun control laws.
    • It is unclear whether the gender gap is as large for Hispanics as it is for white and African Americans suggesting that gender roles and culture may play a role in the size of the gender gap.
    • The gender gap is less apparent during midterm congressional elections versus presidential elections(Wilson).
Religion: The influence of religion is more evident in social issues than other factors.
    • One of the most significant ways in which political beliefs are transmitted is by the inheritance of religion in families.
    • Following this trend, most children can be expected to take up the faith of their parents, which in turn influences the political affiliation, be it ideology or party, they also end up most likely inheriting from their parents. While not always the case, this tends to be a noteworthy predictor of a child's views.
    • For example, Catholics believe school prayer is an effective way to shape young people's views, while Evangelicals, Jews, and the nonreligious question whether school prayer violates the Constitution.
    • Studies have found that, whatever the faith in question, religious influences on public opinion are most pronounced with respect to social issues and less evident on others (Wilson). For example, only one in ten people attest that their religious beliefs played a role in their opinion on the Iraq conflict (Wilson)
    • Religious Political Movements such as Moral Majority and Christian Coalition have an influence on a person's political beliefs (Wilson).
    • Another example of how religion affects political beliefs is that Catholics are more likely to be opposed to birth control than people of other religions.
    • Typically, religious people used to attending weekly religious services have more often been reliable voters, with religious people tending to vote more conservatively (and more Republican), as they are more likely to go out and vote than their non-religious counterparts.
Schooling & Information:
    • College students are more liberal than the general population, and the longer they stay in college the more liberal they become (Benson and Waples).
    • From the 1920's-1960's, studies showed a college education had a liberalizing effect, possibly because of exposure to liberal elites.
    • In the past, increased schooling has not led to increase in voting and other political activity; in fact, in many observational studies, the proportion college students who participate in government seems to be declining despite the increasing rate of college education.
    • College plays a significant role in political socialization. (Wilson)
      • College tends to make a person's views more liberal the longer they are there.
    • College students today, however are showing signs of breaking the stereotype of being/voting Democratic as compared to the students two decades ago. (Wilson)
    • College students today hold political opinions which are more complicated and harder to categorize (Wilson).
    • Over the past generation, increased schooling has not been associated with increased political activity (political participation among college students has declined).
    • The number of college students in the social sciences and humanities has dropped relative to nonliberal arts fields such as business, computer science, etc. (Wilson 162)
    • Colleges are ground to many political demonstrations and protests as students can easily rally with one another
    • One central theme of the modern college student's political views is individual choice: school vouchers (regarded as the conservative position) and gay marriage (regarded as the liberal position) are two examples demonstrating individual choice (Wilson)
    • A study showed that college students recently don't tend to read newspapers and or news magazines compared to students of past. Now researchers cannot determine of how college students precisely get their opinions. (Wilson)
    • College students tend to be more liberal when being compared to the general public, especially in more selective colleges
Mass Media:
    • Most citizens gain their information through the media, examples include: Television, radio, internet, and magazines.
    • Compared to the political opinions of the American public, the Media tends to hold a more liberal view.
    • Through the media, elites can convey their beliefs and thus affect public opinion more than others.
    • Have the effect of further influencing political attitudes. The media often dictates what policies are discussed in government by bringing them to the attention of the general public. For example, if the media chose to focus heavily on the recent school shootings, which it did, the people would have gun control constantly on their minds and would perhaps lean towards stricter gun control depending on how the situation was presented by the media.
    • Is able to communicate and send messages to large samples of people. The message that is sent out depends on what the individual is listening or watching. Since some stations sway more toward the Republican side and others more to the Democrats.
    • The media fills different roles (namely scorekeeper, gatekeeper, and watchdog) which are important because they dictate how much focus it will give to issues, where it will give the most focus, and keeping the attention and wariness on other issues.



Cleavages in Public Opinion:


Today Public Opinion is determined by various crosscutting cleavages that include race, ethnicity, religion, and education (Wilson 162).

  • Race and Ethnicity:
    • Whites tend to be more Republican in their voting.
      • Example: A southern white male business owner is more likely to be overwhelming Republican over a black woman with a college degree and high income
    • African Americans, according to Waples and Benson are "overwhelmingly Democrats."
    • Racial impact on public cleavages is less clear-cut than that of social class.
    • The gap in opinion between race has been narrowing in the past decades, with younger generations beginning to vote differently than that of the older generation.
    • Latinos associate themselves with the Democratic party. But according to Waples and Benson, the extent to which they are Democratic is less than that of African Americans, partly due to the fact that the majority of Latinos are Catholic
    • On some aspects, the opinions of blacks and whites are similar, especially in terms of opposition to both racial quotas and abortion (164). In addition, blacks and whites are consistent in their belief that the Census Bureau focuses too much on the collection of data on race and ethnicity (164).
    • Latinos tend to be more liberal than Caucasians or Asian-Americans but not to the extent blacks are (165).
    • Cuban Americans and Asian Americans also tend to be more Republican
    • "Japanese Americans are among the most conservative Asian Americans" (Wilson).
    • Korean Americans tend to be the more liberal ones amongst Asian Americans (Wilson).
    • Despite the growing Asian population within the United States, there isn’t any literature on the public opinion of Asians (Wilson, 165).
    • Cuban Americans tend to be more conservative than Mexican Americans (Benson and Waples).
    • Asian Americans tend to be Republican if they are more recent immigrants. With time, newer generations, those usually born in the US, tend to become more liberal.
    • Latinos tend to be more liberal than Asian Americans, but less liberal than African Americans.
    • Jewish voters tend to associate with the Democrat party.

  • Region:
    • Significant regional difference has been between southern and northern voters.
    • South and Midwest are more conservatives
      • Southerners have become more conservative during the 1970s. (Wilson)
      • Conservatism in these regions (commonly referred to as the Bible Belt) is more profound than anywhere else in the nation due to the sparsely populated agrarian nature of Southern society. This breed a greater sense of independence and a higher emphasis on moral judgment to guide households.
      • Southerners have been veering away from the democratic party. About 75% of Southerners considered themselves democratic in the 50's and less than 33% of them were in 1996.
      • More supportive of business enterprise.
    • Northeast and West Coast are more liberals
      • Generally more supportive of labor unions
      • Liberalism is more prevalent in these regions due to the higher amount of densely populated cities, which breeds a greater need for social cohesion and tolerance with regards to government policy.
    • Coastal regions, such as the western-most parts of California, tend to be more liberal than their surrounding areas.
    • Religion has become less important to the Democratic party.
  • Social Class:
    • There is significant sensitivity involving discussion in regards to social class.
    • Opinions differ between whether a person is grouped as part of "working class" (blue-collar) or "upper-class" (white collar/management)
    • Unskilled workers are more likely than white-collar workers to be Democrats and to have liberal views on economic policy.
    • Union leaders for unskilled workers, however, tend to have more liberal views on economic policy as well.
    • Surveys conducted in the 1960s point to some evidence the little influence of social class. Both businessmen and laborers had views that appeared similar in regards to aided the poor, the war in Vietnam, and government's involvement in the economy (wilson 163).
    • At some point economic differences become to important. This usually is most prevalent when the economy is performing badly, owing to inflation or recession. Class cleavages will become more important, as each class tends to support policy most beneficial for it.
    • Similarities exist between the various social classes in terms of foreign policy matters and religion, which are not affected by economic conditions (Wilson 164).
    • Compared to Europe, socioeconomic difference play less of role in US politics.(Wilson)
    • According to Wilson & Dilulio, Americans speak of "social class" with embarrassment, due to the judgment of people by their social group such as lower class, rather than as individuals. The lower class does exist, but Americans have difficulty deciding what constitutes the lower class: wealth? occupation? personality? (Wilson 163)
    • " The voting pattern of different social classes have also become somewhat more similar" (163 Wilson).
    • There is much less class consciousness in the U.S. than in European countries.
    • Although less skilled workers are more likely than white-collar workers to think of themselves as pertaining to the Democratic party and have more liberal view when it comes to economic policy. The influence of social classes is decreasing due to the increasing noneconomic factors within our ideologies. Political ideologies are more likely to be shaped by issues concerning race relations, abortion, the control of arms, in school prayer, and environmentalism rather than by social class.

  • Religion:
    • Catholics initially were Democrats, but have, in general, switched to the Republican camp, primarily because of their stance on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
    • Protestants are very conservative and stand as Republicans. This is even more so for white male Protestants.
    • Religious differences makes for political differences, however this differences are more complex than it seems. Opinions on school prayer differ by religion. Studies show that religious influences on public opinion are most pronounced with respect to social issues and less evident on others. For example, in this same study only one in ten people rank religious beliefs as their biggest influence in their opinions concerning the foreign conflict in Iraq. In contrast a much bigger percentage stated that their religious beliefs influenced their current views on gay marriage.


Opinion Differences definitions:


  • opinion saliency :measures the extent to which issues are important and relevant to people's lives and values. For example, elderly citizens tend to care more about Social Security than young citizens.
  • opinion stability: opinions fluctuate in steadiness and volatility. (A main cause of the fluctuations in opinions is the population's knowledge about what their opinion is about. Many Americans don't know very much about politics, and form opinions based on the first information they hear, or the last commercial they see on the subject, so when an individual first voices his or her opinion, it may be a very uneducated opinion, and when said person becomes more educated on the subject matter they may change their opinion.)
    • opinion stability is greater in domestic affairs than foreign affairs, since fewer American citizens are well-informed about issues overseas that affect our foreign policy
  • opinion-policy congruence: the level of correspondence between government action and majority sentiment on the issue.
    • For example, public opinion fell considerably for the U.S. war against Iraq in 2004 after media involvement, while U.S. involvement continued. In this case government did not share the views of the public (Wilson 157).
  • opinion intensity : when the intensity of a group's opinion is high, that group can wield political influence far beyond their numbers. An example of this is the National Rifle Association which represents a minority position but their opposition to gun control is high so many people are starting to go with the NRA's opposition on rifle control as well



Political Ideology:

It is the more or less consistent set of beliefs about what policies governments ought to pursue.

There are three main categories of questions- economic, civil rights, and public/political conduct- that people differ on. While there may be nine possible choices for someone to choose from based on their answer to each the book only deals with the first and the last ideals resulting in 4 separate choices.

Pure Liberals: Are liberal on both economic and social policies; likely to be young and college educated; religion doesn't play a factor. Also, they would want government to reduce economic inequality, regulate business, spend more money on medical and educational programs, increase hiring opportunities for minorities, tax the rich heavily, cure the economic causes of crime, allow abortions, protect the rights of the accused,
favor legalizing marijuana, "decriminalize" victimless crimes, emphasize rights of accused, and guarantee the broadest possible freedoms of speech and press.

Pure Conservatives: conservative on both economic and social policy; likely to be white,older and have higher incomes. Pure conservatives tend to live in the Midwest. Want government to cut back on the welfare state, allow the market to allocate goods and services, keep taxes low, lock up criminals, and curb forms of conduct they regard as antisocial.

Libertarians: Conservative on economic policy and liberal on social policy; young, college educated, no religion, higher incomes. They want a small, weak government that has little control over either the economy or the personal lives of citizens.

Populists: Liberal on economic policy and conservative on social policy; older, poorly educated, female, low income, religious. Populists tend to live either in the Midwest or South. Want government to reduce economic inequality and control business, but they also want it to regulate personal conduct, lock up criminals, and permit school prayer.

  • These classifications are an oversimplification since there are many exceptions and changes in the number of people within each group. It also leaves out about 1/7th of the population whose views do not fit any of these categories (Wilson 171).
  • Based on ideological surveys in the 1990s, most Americans identify themselves as "moderate" in terms of their views on most political matters. This pattern has continued through to the 2000s (Wilson).
  • People show "inconsistent" opinions , mixing in liberal and conservative views without necessarily deeming themselves any of the big four types of political ideology.
  • Americans in general tend to have their own distinct political culture on the belief in freedom, equality, and civic duty in the form of "Americanism"

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Studies by Lipset and Raab and McClosky and Zaller suggest that most people do not have an across-the-board political ideology; that is, they are not liberal on every issue or conservative on every issue, etc. (Wilson)



Polls

  • Public Opinion: how people think or feel about particular things; collection of attitudes and views held by the general public
    • Public Opinion is generally measured through polls, though it is difficult since the general public if usually uninformed about the activities of the government
    • While certain small groups within the government may have prevalent knowledge about our government ( like the elites), the general public tends to know little to nothing about the dynamics of the governing body or significant policies.
    • However, voters is sharp to identify which policies, parties or candidates are most reflective of their own views.

  • According to the text, a poll is the survey of public opinion.
    • The modern polling system was started in the 1930s by George Gallup ( 5 Steps to a 5 )
    • Those who are creating a poll can purposely manipulate it to achieve results that are skewed toward the person's preference by wording the question in a way that is leading (guiding the individual to a "correct" answer) or simply confusing.
      • Examples
        • Leading: "Are you for or against abortion, the murder of unborn children?" Here, voters will tend to vote against abortion since voters also has to think about the murder of unborn children in their decision making which they are likely against.
        • Non-Leading: "Do you support for a woman's right to decide what is done to her body including abortion, or do you believe that abortion should be illegal under any circumstance?"
    • According to Wilson, good polling consists of posing comprehensible questions (asking people about things they have some basis for forming an opinion about) and wording questions fairly (not using "emotional" or "loaded" words that suggest the "correct" answer).
    • We cannot generalize the results for the entire population unless the persons polled are a random sample of the entire population--meaning every given voter or person has an equal probability of being selected (Wilson and Dilulio)
      • In stratified random sampling, the pollster divides the entire population into different groups then takes a random sample from each group. The random sample from each group is proportional to the group's size.
      • The voting sample should have a very small sampling error
    • Need to pose questions that are reasonable and that are worded fairly
    • With every poll there is always a sampling error--gives us an idea of how précis our estimate is.
    • Sampling error is the difference between the results of random samples taken at the same time. Sampling error can be reduced by taking larger sample sizes. (Wilson).
    • Exit Polls: They target voting districts that collectively represent the voting public and randomly pull voters who are leaving the voting place. (Meltzer)
    • Cavete! Take care to ensure that poll samples are representative and drawn from the target population. In 1936, the Literary Digest magazine incorrectly predicted that Alf Landon would unseat President Roosevelt (Franklin) because their sample was not representative of the voting population as a whole (see here for details, if interested). FDR would go on to win this election and the next two, and the rest, as they say, is the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution.
    • For a population of over 500,000, a pollster needs to reach 15,000 people to reach a number of respondents (1,065) to make sure that the sample differs by less than three percent of what it would have been had the entire population been sampled. (Wilson)
      • Even with such a small sample of around 1,500, it can accurately portray the opinion(s) of over 250 million people, provided the question has no "loaded" terminology.
    • This is difficult to do, especially as people are unwilling to answer their phones or return surveys. (Wilson)
    • Thus, the reliability of a poll can be harmed by low response rates. (Wilson)
    • Public opinion polls make us believe we know what the general population believes but that is not necessarily true (Wilson 156)
  • Random sampling is also used in polling. This is necessary to ensure a somewhat accurate result on what the population thinks or feels on a certain issue.



Mistrust of Government

  • Between 1952 and 1992 the fraction in which the American public who felt that public officials did not care about them doubled from one-third to two-thirds.
  • Most people blame the officials of government not the system.
  • Mistrust with the Government has always endured since the Patronage System and was a hot topic issue it dealt with Boss Tweed and political machines of the twentieth century.
  • Mistrust with the President and his cabinet have also been lingering and they have been seen in present days especially during the hiatus of President Clinton.
  • A high level of Patriotism has always been felt and shown in the United States and most Americans will never question their system of government.
  • Wilson would bring upon saying in the 1950s we had an abnormally high leave of confidence in the government. To say that we didn't have modern problems as we did back then. America as a whole was caught up the war against fascism, the fight against depression, and the power of having the atom bomb in our midst.
  • So to say we were not concerned with federal laws about civil rights ,crime ,illegal drugs ,environmental issues,and the role of women around that time would be fine.
  • Stem from governmental scandals such as Watergate, in which the government lied to the people. In 1972 the Watergate incident happened and was headed by president Nixon. Nixon told the public that he wasn't involved in the scandal and that they had nothing to fear, but in the end he was part of the scandal which lead President Nixon to resign before he got impeached. This event caused ripples of mistrust of the government through out time and still affects us today.
  • Terrorist attacks, such as those on September 11, 2001, generally increase the public's trust in government as citizens want to appear supportive and faithful in the government during times of national crisis.
  • External efficacy: The willingness of the state to respond to the citizenry demands.
    • Since the 1960's the external efficacy has slowly dropped not directly because of specific events, but because citizens have come to believe that the government is too large and cannot address everyone's problems.



Political Elites

  • Political elites or activists are people who hold office, run for office, work in campaigns or on newspapers, lead interest groups, lead social movements, and speak out on public issues. These are people with a disproportionate share of political power because of their active role in political issues.
    • The more a person is an activist, the more likely it is that he or she will display ideological consistency on the conventional liberal-conservative spectrum. (Wilson)
    • A political elite also tends to think differently compared to the general public, which is one reason why his or her ideologies can match his or her respective party's beliefs.The government looks for elite views more often than the public's views, which are most likely scattered.
  • A great ideological consistency of political elites can be seen in Congress: Democratic congress members tend to be liberal while republican congress members tend to be conservative. (Wilson).
  • Being an activist is not an all or nothing thing, people display different degrees of activism from full time politicians to people who occasionally get involved in a campaign.
    • i.e. more people help with a presidential campaign than in any other campaign, certain people only help with the presidential campaigns.
  • elites raise and frame political issues, especially those with access to the media
    • For example. at one point, environmentalism was not on the political schedule, but because of elites, it has become one of government's top concerns.
  • They don't define economic problems- which the public can usually see for themselves (e.g unemployment, inflation, etc)
  • In general, the better informed people are about politics, the more likely they are to have consistently liberal or conservative views
  • Political elites tend to be a pure liberal or purely conservative.
  • It is known that when a political elite, or even a "regular person" develops a stance, either liberal or conservative, they naturally gain more information on the subject become more polarized with their stance (Wilson)
**some political scientists say that congress is more polarized because of the polarized opinions of voters. (Wilson).
  • The reason Democrats in Congress tend to be liberal and Republicans tend to be conservative is because they associate themselves with those that hold those views, which enforces their opinion to a greater degree
  • Political Elites are influential for two main reasons
    • Many have access to Media and can have their political ideologies become well known
    • They tend to set norms that the public tend to slowly adapt (Wilson)
  • Political elites and average voters see politics in a different ways, contributing to the power of the elites.
  • Elites also have a disproportionate amount of resources like money, schooling, prestige, and political power.
  • Elites state the norms on issues
    • norm: standard of right or proper conduct (basically what is acceptable and normal)
    • ex. elites emphasize that racism is wrong, and over a period of time of these repetitive messages, the public starts to believe it too
    • ex. The process was used in the discussion of the relation between AIDS and homosexuality
      • People feared and loathed those with AIDS and attempted to quarantine the infected, but due to the persuasive manner the political elites used in showing it was wrong to do such things to the infected, they ended quarantine and were able to ban AIDS test for a few insurance companies.
  • Elites are often the ones who start and organize interest groups, unions, and coalitions
  • There are many differing elite opinions because of the vast amount of political elites that exist. This can be seen as a limitation to the influence elites have on the public.
  • Research has shown that the opinion of the masses differs from that of the elite, this can be due to the fact that elites have more resources to pull ideas from than does the regular person in the U.S.(Wilson)