American Government/Public Opinion

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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.