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American Government

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Public Opinion

What is Public Opinion?

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When looking at public opinion and polls, it is not easy to find out what the public thinks. The more people are active in and knowledgeable about politics, the more weight their opinions carry in governmental circles. Many polls ask voters the benefits of something, not the cost. In any poll, opinions on public issues may not be stable; they may change at any time.

The Origins of Political Attitudes

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The Role of the Family

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Party identification is well known; children follow their parents' party. They become more independent as they get older. Party identification has declined within past years.


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Catholics are mostly Democrats, Protestants are mostly Republican due to social status and religious tradition. Religion makes for many political differences.

The Gender Gap

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Women are leaning towards being democrats, men are becoming republicans. Social issues differ greatly; women support them more than men.

Schooling and Information

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Colleges have a more liberal outlook, and the most prestigious colleges are most liberal. Intellectuals require freedom to explore new ideas, which provides a possible theory as to why professors are liberal.

Cleavages in Public Opinion

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Even if there was one group (such as white Protestants), many political conflicts would still occur. Three "cleavages" include:

Social Class

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Blue collar and management people vote similarly because definitions overlap greatly. Higher-educated people, management, vote liberal because of their college experiences. Blue collar vote the same way even though they don’t have the education, but still they support the social issues.

Race and Ethnicity

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There are some differences between black and white voters, such as the views about affirmative action and criminal justice system. There are some similarities (racial quotas, toughness of courts on criminals, abortion). The Latino population is mixed on political standings (Gray Davis in CA, democrat and George Bush, TX, republican). In general, the Asian population votes Republican.


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Geography affects the political attitudes; Northerners vote differently than southerners.

Political Ideology

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Liberal and conservative overlap greatly in definitions. We think that each group has a patterned set of beliefs (political ideology). Except in polls, people do not call themselves liberal or conservative very often. People can have nonideological ideas even though they do not use the terms liberal or conservative correctly. Many people make decisions without using the political ideology rule of thumb.

What do Liberalism and Conservatism Mean?

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Definitions have changed since their inception. After the New Deal, definitions began to change. Words still used as generalizations, not issue-by-issue definitions. There are three basic issues that can create "cleavages" in the liberal/conservative thought: economy, civil rights, and conduct.

Analyzing Consistency

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  • Pure liberals: liberal on economic policy and personal conduct; want the government to reduce economic inequality; regulate business; allow abortions; protect freedoms of speech (17%)
  • Pure conservatives: conservative on both economics and personal conduct; want government to cut back on welfare spending; allow the market to allocate goods and services; keep taxes low; lock up criminals (28%)
  • Libertarians: conservative on economic matters; liberal on social ones; want minimal government (21%)
  • Populists: liberal on economic matters; conservative on social issues; want reduction in economic inequalities (24%)

Political Elites

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People who are pure liberals or conservatives make up the political elite. They are elite in the sense of the fact that the person has a disproportionate amount of a resource (money, political power). They are also referred to as “activists”. The “new class” of political elites represent the power, resources, and growth of government, not business. Many have liberal (progovernment) views.

Political Elites, Public Opinion, and Public Policy

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Elites influence public opinion in two ways: those who have access to the media raise political issues; elites state the norms by which issues should be settled (AIDS and homosexuality). Elites do not define economics problems, but they may define the problem as well as the policy options with respect to foreign affairs (Iraq, Panama); public cannot adequately judge issues


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  • conservative A political ideology that, although changing in meaning, adheres to the following principles and practices: on economic matters, it does not favor government efforts to ensure that everyone has a job; on civil rights, does not favor strong federal action to desegregate schools and increase hiring opportunities for minorities; and on political conduct, does not favor tolerance toward protest demonstrations, legalizing marijuana, or protecting the rights of the accused.
  • elite People with a disproportionate amount of a valued resource.
  • gender gap Differences between the political views of men and women.
  • John Q. Public The average man or woman on the street, often portrayed by cartoonists as befuddled.
  • liberal A political ideology that, although changing in meaning, adheres to the following principles and practices: on economic matters, it favors government efforts to ensure that everyone has a job; on civil rights, it favors strong federal action to desegregate schools and increase hiring opportunities for minorities; and on political conduct, it favors tolerance toward protest demonstrations, legalizing marijuana, and protecting the rights of the accused.
  • libertarians And adherent of a political ideology that is conservative on economic matters and liberal on social ones. The ideology's goal is the creation of a small, weak government.
  • Middle America A phrase coined by Joseph Kraft in a 1968 newspaper column to refer to Americans who have moved out of poverty but who are not yet affluent and who cherish the traditional middle-class values.
  • new class People whose advantages stem not so much from their connections with business as from the growth of government.
  • norm A standard of right and proper conduct. Elites tend to state the norms by which issues should be settled.
  • partisanship Identification with a political party.
  • political elite A person who possesses a disproportionate share of political power.
  • political ideology A coherent and consistent set of beliefs about who ought to rule, what principles rulers ought to obey, and what policies rulers ought to pursue.
  • poll A survey of public opinion.
  • populists An adherent of a political ideology that is liberal on economic matters and conservative on social ones. It believes the government should reduce economic inequality but regulate personal conduct.
  • pure conservatism A political ideology that is conservative on both economic and personal conduct.
  • pure liberalism A political ideology that is liberal on both economic and personal conduct.
  • random sample A sample selected in such a way that any member of the population being surveyed (e.g., all adults or voters) has an equal chance of being selected.
  • religious tradition The values associated with the major religious denominations in America: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. In general, Catholic families are somewhat more liberal on economic issues than white Protestant ones, while Jewish families are much more liberal on both economic and social issues than families of either Christian religion.
  • sampling error The difference between the results from two different samples of the same population. This difference in answers is not significant and its likely size can be computed mathematically. In general, the bigger the sample and the bigger the differences between the percentage of people giving one answer and the percentage giving another, the smaller the error.
  • silent majority A term referring to people, whatever their economic status, who uphold traditional values, especially against the counterculture of the 1960's.

Review Questions

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  • What did the Framers of the Constitution hope for with their goals?
  • What are some factors that determine the effectiveness of a poll for public opinion?
  • What are the four common origins of political attitudes?
  • College education has a liberalizing effect. What are some causes for this?
  • What are three “cleavages” in public opinion? Briefly explain each one.
  • What is ideology? Do most citizens display political ideology? Is there consistency with different political ideologies?
  • In regards to economic policy, civil rights, and public/political conduct, what does the liberal ideology explain about them?
  • What are the four general groups of political ideology?
  • What are political elites? Why are they ideologically consistent?
  • How do elites influence public opinion? Name three ways.

Political Parties

The country as envisioned by George Washington was to have no political parties. The good of the country on the whole was to be the total and unselfish goal of all. Even the electoral college was idealistically set up to elect the best man with the most votes as president and the second best, runner-up was to be vice-president. This did not allow for the current party system, with a "political ticket" running together as president/vice president.

This ideal quickly dissolved. During the term of John Adams a law called the sedition act came to be which was to limit dissent about the government itself. This desire has followed us into the 21st Century. During the rule of Adams, who also successfully defended the soldiers who, in a state of panic, opened fire on rioters during the Boston Massacre, several writers and others were thrown into jail. (The Boston Massacre was an event of the 1700s in which British troops opened fire on colonial civilians and caused several deaths and injuries. John Adams successfully defended British troops in court, because he did not want anyone to go without legal counsel.)

The Washingtonian ideal was dead when, in the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams. Jefferson beat Adams, but tied with his vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr. This led to the electoral college being unable to reach a decision on the winner and the election was forced into the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives balloted 36 times before deciding on Thomas Jefferson as president, which was the clear will of the people. As a result of this election party politics was actively in motion, and the constitution was changed to separately elect the office of Vice President and President.

Third Parties

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There are many third parties in American politics. The Green Party and Libertarian Party are parties that cross countries. These parties exist both in U.S. politics and world politics. While their beliefs are the same, the Green and Libertarian parties in the United States are separate from the parties of the same name in other countries. This same distinction is true of these parties in other countries.

The Greens are progressive. Ecology is only one part of their platform. They also believe in racial diversity, a living wage, and laws and policies expressed in a humanitarian manner, locally, nationally, and globally.

Libertarians believe that citizens should have complete control over their actions as long as their actions do not interfere with the actions of others. In other words, you have your rights as long as they don't interfere with other people’s rights. Libertarians also believe in decentralized government, where the power lies with the States themselves.

Third Party History

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Third Parties have been around since the founding of the United States.

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of political parties. This was a smart move; it would be anti-Constitutional to show any preference to any political party.

The first two political parties were the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans. The Federalists believed in a strong central government and the Democrat-Republicans believed in strong states’ rights.

Issues, disagreements, and beliefs are the reasons for the major political parties and the third parties. Some past third parties include: Anti-Masonic Party, Free Soil Party, Union Party (merged with another third party - the Republicans), Whigs, the Know-Nothing Party (also known as the American Party), Dixiecrats (also known as the States' Rights Democrats), the Progressive Party, and the Bull Moose Party.

What did these third parties believe in? What were their causes and goals?

The first third party was the Anti-Masonic party (1831). They were also the first party to hold a national convention.

They didn't like the secrecy of the Masons. They believed this group to be un-American.

William Wirt (Anti-Masonic) ran against Andrew Jackson in the 1832 election. He didn't win but he carried Vermont. This election featured 3 candidates: Andrew Jackson (Democrat), Henry Clay (National Republican), and William Wirt (Anti-Masonic).

Abraham Lincoln (originally a member of the Whig Party) won the presidency as a Republican; a third party that was against slavery in the territories but upheld slavery in the South. Lincoln was also a member of the Union Party whose goal was "the Constitution as it is and the Union as it is". Members of the Whig Party and the Know-Nothing Party formed this party.

This election featured 4 candidates: Abraham Lincoln (Republican), Stephen Douglas (Democrat), John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat), and John Bell (Constitutional Unionist). Lincoln won and Douglas came in last behind the Southern Democrat and Constitutional Unionist candidates.

The Free Soil Party (1846–1854) as the name suggests, was anti-slavery. They opposed the expansion of slavery into the new states (the western territories), as they became part of the Union.

Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president and a Democrat, served one term from 1837-1841. He ran as a Free Soil candidate in the 1848 presidential election and lost.

This election featured 3 candidates: Zachary Taylor (Whig), Martin Van Buren (Free Soil), and Lewis Cass (Democrat). Taylor won the election with Van Buren finishing second.

The Know-Nothing Party (also known as the American Party) was popular during the 1850s. They believed in setting limits to immigration and naturalized citizenship. They received their moniker by adhering to a simple rule - if people asked them about the party, they were told to say that they know nothing.

The party dissolved in 1856. The pro-slavery members joined the Democrats and the anti-slavery members joined the Republicans.

The Whig Party was formed in opposition to President Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson was very popular, had a strong personality, and was not afraid to use it.

His opponents interpreted his strong personality negatively and saw him as a king. They also believed in a strong national bank; Jackson didn't believe in a central bank. He favored state banks.

Andrew Jackson was a popular and strong candidate. His presidency was the beginning of the modern Democratic Party.

The Whig Party dissolved over the issue of slavery. The Northern Whigs (anti-slavery) joined the Republicans and the Know-Nothing Party and the Southern Whigs (pro-slavery) joined the Democrats.

The Republican Party incorporated a variety of different political parties. These parties included: the Free Soil Party, some of the Know-Nothing Party, and some of the Whigs (the Northern Whigs).

Theodore Roosevelt served nearly 2 full terms as a Republican president from 1901-1909. In 1912, he accepted the nomination of the Bull Moose Party. This party believed in progressive politics. The party consisted of a group of liberal Republicans who were against the conservative policies of the Republican president William Taft.

The 1912 election was a 4-person race. It included the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, the Republican, William Taft, the Bull Moose, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Socialist, Eugene Debs.

Roosevelt lost, but received 25% of the vote. Woodrow Wilson won the election with Roosevelt finishing second.

Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat (also known as the States' Rights Democrats) in the 1948 presidential election. The Dixiecrats were an extremely conservative faction of the Democrat Party. They opposed the Democrats' civil rights program. They were alarmed at the changes being wrought by the Truman Administration, which included desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1950.

The 1948 election featured 4 candidates: Harry Truman (Democrat), Thomas Dewey (Republican), Strom Thurmond (Dixiecrat), and Henry Wallace (Progressive Party). Truman won the election but Strom Thurmond received over 1 million votes, carried 4 states, and won 39 electoral votes. Henry Wallace was once a friend of Truman's but had become radical, and in some quarters, was considered a Communist. Truman's great fear was with the Democrat Party effectively splitting into three factions, one moderate, one right of center, and one left of center, the Republicans would have a cake walk. In fact one newspaper called for Dewey before all the results were in, so convinced were they Truman had lost. This is an important reason why Third Parties can be instrumental in the incumbent President losing the election. Truman won and was able to continue his plan of following New Deal principles laid down by former President Roosevelt.

Third parties are essential ingredients for our political process. They draw attention to issues and causes that the major parties ignore. They invigorate and introduce people to the political process. They are a perfect example of free speech.

Many citizens join third parties because they believe both the Democrats and the Republicans don't represent them. If it weren't for third parties, they wouldn't be part of the political process.

Third parties also spotlight the question - Can a two party system represent the interests of all Americans? Most countries have a parliamentary form of government. Parliaments have many parties representing both diverse and minority points of view. While there will be no parliament in the United States, maybe there needs to be more parties to represent the diversity of the United States. James Madison had always maintained, however, that majority rule was against the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers. With majority rule, one party and then the other, may achieve an unassailable majority to enact controversial legislation. Madison believed people should stand for a time as representative of their community, and in turn elect senior law makers and governors who would quorum to enact legislation. Once these people had served, they returned to lives in the local community, thus making them reflect the interests of their constituents rather than some spurious political ideology compelled on them from above.

Answer Key to Review Questions

To check your answers to the chapter review questions, see your chapter below. Don't cheat!

Chapter 5: Public Opinion

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  • Government not intended to do "what the people want"; Popular rule was only one of several means toward these goals; Large nations feature many "publics" with many "opinions."
  • Importance of wording of questions, affects answers; Questions may focus one side of an issue at the expense of another (benefits / costs); Instability of public opinion
  • The role of the family; Religion; The gender gap; Schooling and information
  • Personal traits: temperament, family, intelligence; Exposure to information on politics; Liberalism of professors
  • 1. Social class: Noneconomic issues now define liberal and conservative; 2. Race and ethnicity: Social class becoming less clear-cut source of political cleavage; Impact of race and ethnicity is less clear; 3. Region: Southerners more conservative than northerners on military and civil rights issues but difference fading overall
  • Ideology: patterned set of political beliefs about who ought to rule, their principles and policies; Most citizens display little ideology; moderates dominate; "Consistency" criterion somewhat arbitrary
  • Economic policy: liberals favor jobs for all, subsidized medical care and education, taxation of rich; Civil rights: liberals prefer desegregation, equal opportunity, etc.; Public and political conduct: liberals tolerant of demonstrations, favor legalization of marijuana, and so on
  • Pure liberals; Pure conservatives; Libertarians; Populists
  • Definition: those who have a disproportionate amount of some valued resource; More information than most people and Peers reinforce consistency and greater difference of opinion than one finds among average voters
  • Raise and form political issues; State norms by which to settle issues, defining policy options; Elite views shape mass views