Chapter 5: Public Opinion I. The Framers of the Constitution did not try to create a government that would do from day to day what the people want. They created a government for the purpose of achieving certain substantive goals. A. One means of achieving these goals was popular rule, as provided for by the right of the people to vote for members of the House of Representatives. But other means were provided as well: representative government, federalism, the separation of powers, a Bill of Rights, and an independent judiciary. These were all intended to be checks on public opinion. B. The Framers knew that in a nation as large as the US, there would rarely be a public opinion: rather there would be many publics holding many opinions. The Framers hoped that the struggle among these many publics would protect liberty while at the same time permitting the adoption of reasonable policies that commanded the support of many factions. II. It is not easy to know what the public thinks. III. The more people are active in and knowledgeable about politics, the more weight their opinion carries in governmental circles. A. Political activists also think differently about politics. B. The government attends more to the elite views than to popular views, at least on many matters. What is Public Opinion? I. Even if people have heard of a given person or issue, how a pollster words a question can dramatically affect the answer he or she gets. A. Many polls ask voters to think only about the benefits of a program and not about the costs. II. Opinions on public officials may not be stable. III. Our specific attitudes about particular matters may be much less important for the health of society than our underlying political culture. The Origins of Political Attitudes I. There are real and important limits to the impact of advertising. Those limits exist because we have learned, independent of government and the market, some things that help us make our own choices. The Role of the Family
The majority of young people identify with their parents political party. This process begins fairly early in life. As people grow older, they become more independent of their parents, but there nevertheless remains a great deal of continuity between youthful partisanship and adult partisanship. II. The ability of the family to inculcate a strong sense of party identification has declined in recent years. Accompanying this decline in partisanship has been a sharp rise in the proportion of citizens describing themselves independents. A. Part of this change results from the fact that young voters have always had a weaker sense of partisanship than older ones. III. Though we still tend to acquire some measure of partisanship from our parents, the meaning of that identification is far from clear. A. So far the evidence suggests that children are more independent of their parents in policy preferences than in party identification. The correlation of childrens attitudes with parental attitudes on issues involving civil liberties and racial questions is much lower than the correlation in their party identification. B. This may be because issues change from one generation to the next, because children are more idealistic than their parents, or because most parents do not communicate to their children clear, consistent positions on a range of political issues. Religion I. One way in which the family forms and transmits political beliefs is by its religious tradition. 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 Catholics or Protestants. A. There are two theories as to why this should be so. The first has to do with the social status of religious groups in America. The second theory emphasizes the content of the religious tradition more than the social status of its adherents. II. Religious differences make for political differences.
A. There are no significant differences in how people holding differing views of the Bible feel about economic issues, as opposed to social or foreign policy issues. B. Fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists have about the same opinion on government job guarantees and spending on government services. This suggests that both social status and religious tradition help explain the effect of religion on politics. The Gender Gap I. The gender gap is the difference in political views between men and women. II. Men have been increasingly republican since the mid1960s, while the voting behavior of women has remained unchanged. A. The biggest reason for this gap seems to involve attitudes about the size of government, gun control, spending programs aimed at the poor, and gay rights. Men have always been more conservative than women in their views on these social issues, but the late 1960s and early 1970s men had changed their party loyalty to match their policy preferences. Schooling and Information I. Attending college has a big impact on political attitudes, usually making them more liberal. College students are more liberal than the population generally, and students at the most prestigious schools are the most liberal. A. The longer students stay in college, the more liberal they are. B. Having gone to college increases the rate at which people participate in politics. II. One possibility for why this is has to do with the people that colleges attract. Another is that college and postgraduate schooling expose people to more information about politics from all sources. A. Their political beliefs may be shaped by their experiences as much as what they learn in the classroom. B. The level of political information one has is the best single predictor of being liberal on some issues. III. Another possibility is that college somehow teaches liberalism. A. The political disposition of professors is in part the result of the kinds of people who become teachers, but it is also the result of the nature of intellectual work.
Intellectuals require freedom to explore new or unpopular ideas and thus tend to work with words and numbers to develop general abstract ideas. Cleavages in Public Opinion I. The way in which political opinions are formed helps explain the cleavages that exist among these opinions and why these cleavages do not follow any single political principle but instead overlap and cross-cut in bewildering complexity. A. There are many crosscutting cleavages based on race, ethnicity, religion, region, and education, in addition to those created by income and occupation. Social Class I. Though different definitions of class produce slightly different groupings of people, most definitions overlap to such an extent that it does not matter too much which we use. II. The voting patterns of different social classes have become somewhat more similar. A. One reason for this pattern has to do with schooling. At one time the income of people did not depend so heavily as it does now on having educational credentials III. Many of the issues that now lead us to choose which party to support and that determine whether we think of ourselves as liberals or conservatives are noneconomic issues. Race and Ethnicity I. There is some evidence that the differences between black and white Americans may be narrowing. Region I. It is widely believed that region affects political attitudes and in particular that southerners and northerners disagree significantly on many policy questions. A. Today the political views of white southerners are less distinct from those of whites living in other parts of the country. Political Ideology I. Not everyone agrees on what liberal and conservative mean. These terms are said to display some degree of a political ideologya coherent and consistent set of beliefs about who ought to rule, what principles rulers ought to obey, and what policies leaders ought to pursue.
A. Political scientists measure the extent to which people have a political ideology in two ways: first, seeing how frequently people use broad political categories to describe their own views or justify their preferences for various candidates and polices, and second, by seeing to what extent the policy preferences of a citizen are consistent over time or are based at any one time on consistent principles. B. The second method involves a simple mathematical procedure: measuring how accurately one can predict a persons view on a subject at one time based on his view on a subject at an earlier time, or measuring how accurately one can predict a persons view on one issue based on their view on a different issue. Consistent Attitudes I. Critics of the view that Americans are nonideological have argued that people can have general, and strongly felt, political predispositions even though they are not able to use terms such as liberal correctly. A. The inconsistency in the answers people give at different times may mean only that the nature of the problem and the wording of the question have changed in ways not obvious to people analyzing the surveys. II. People can have an ideology without using the words liberal or conservative and without having beliefs that line up neatly along the conventional party lines. What do Liberalism and Conservatism Mean? I. Just because most people are not consistent liberals or consistent conservatives does not prove that these terms are meaningless. A. The meaning of these words has changed since they first came into use in the early 19th century. At that time a liberal was a person who favored personal and economic liberty. A conservative was a person who opposed the excesses of the French Revolution and its emphasis on personal freedom and favored a restoration of the power of the state, the church, and the aristocracy. II. Beginning around the time of the New Deal, the meaning of these terms began to change. Roosevelt used the term liberal to refer to his political programone that called for an active national government that would intervene in the economy, create social welfare
programs, and help certain groups acquire greater bargaining power. A. Over time the opponents of an activist national government began using the term conservative to describe themselves. In general a conservative favored a free market rather than a regulated one, states rights over national supremacy, and a greater reliance on individual choice in economic affairs. Various Categories I. We can imagine certain broad categories of opinion in which different people subscribe. These categories are found by analyzing the answers people give to questions about political issues. II. The first category involves questions about government policy with regard to the economy. A. We will describe as liberal those persons who favor government efforts to ensure that everyone has a job, to spend more money on medical and educational programs, and to increase rates of taxation for well-to-do persons. B. The second involves questions about civil rights and race relations. We will describe as liberal people who favor strong federal action to desegregate schools, to increase hiring opportunities for minorities, to provide compensatory programs for minorities, and to enforce civil rights laws strictly. C. The third involves questions about public and political conduct. We will describe as liberal those who are tolerant of protest demonstrations, who favor legalizing marijuana and in other ways wish to decriminalize so-called victimless crimes, who emphasize protecting the rights of the accused over punishing criminals, and who see the solution to crime as eliminating its causes rather than getting tougher with offenders. Analyzing Consistency I. People usually need more than two labels to describe their ideology. 1. Pure liberals. These people are liberal on both economic policy and personal conduct. They want the government to reduce economic inequality, regulate business, tax the rich heavily, cure the economic causes of crime, allow abortions, protect the rights of the accused, and guarantee the broadest possible freedoms
of speech and the press. Pure liberals are more likely to be young, college-educated, and either Jewish or nonreligious. 2. Pure conservatives. These people are conservative on both economic and conduct issues. They want the 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. Pure conservatives are more likely to be older, to have higher incomes, to be white, and to live in the Midwest. 3. Libertarians. These people are conservative on economic matters and liberal on social ones. The common theme is that they want a small, weak governmentone that has little control over either the economy or the personal lives of citizens. Libertarians are more likely to be young, college-educated, and white, to have higher incomes and no religion, and to live in the West. 4. Populists. These people are liberal on economic matters and conservative on social ones. They want a government that will reduce economic inequality and control business, but they also want it to regulate personal conduct, lock up criminals, and permit school prayer. Populists are more likely to be older, poorly educated, low-income, religious, and female and to live in the South or Midwest. Political Elites I. There is a group that can be classified as liberals or conservatives in a pure sense, and it is made up of people who are in the political elite. A. Elite refers to people who have a disproportionate amount of some valuable resource. II. Activists are people who hold office, run for office, work in campaigns or on newspapers, lead interest groups and social movements, and speak out on public issues. A. People display differing degrees of activism. B. 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. The reasons for this greater consistency seem to be information and peers. In general, the better informed people are about politics and the more interest they take
in politics, the more likely they are to have consistently liberal or conservative views. This higher level of information and interest may lead them to find relationships among issues that others dont see and learn from the media. C. The more active you are in politics, the more you will associate with people who agree with you on some issues; and the more time you spend with those people, the more your other views will shift to match theirs. III. On a large number of issues, the policy preferences of average Republican and Democratic voters do differ significantly from one another. Is There a New Class? I. Some speculate that political elites now represent a new class in American politics. The new class consists of people who posses certain advantages conferred not by power, resources, and growth of business but by the power, resources, and growth of government. II. Politicians, bureaucrats, members of the media, interest group leadersthese people and others like them have a stake in the growth of government. Because of that, they often have liberal views even though they also have high incomes. A. The emergence of the new class helps explain why affluent people are not as consistently conservative as they were in the 40s and 50s. III. McAdams suggests that the middle class in the United States has been split in twoone part he calls the traditional middle class and the other he calls the new class. A. The traditional middle class consists of people who often have gone to college but not graduate school and who live in the suburbs, go to the church, are well disposed toward business, have conservative views on social issues, and usually vote Republican. B. The liberal middle class is more likely to consist of people who have a postgraduate education, live in or near big cities, are critical of business, have liberal views on social issues, and usually vote Democratic. C. The strain within the middle class has been particularly felt by the Democratic Party. The strain has made it harder to hold together the coalition that once made the party so strong.
Political Elites, Public Opinion, and Public Policy I. Though the elites and the public see politics in very different ways, and though there are often intense antagonisms between the two groups, the elites influence public opinion in at least two important ways. A. Elites, especially those having access to the media, raise and frame political issues. Elite views shape mass views by influencing both what issues capture the publics attention and how those issues are debated and decided. B. Elites state the norms by which issues should be settled. (A norm is a standard of right or proper conduct.) By doing this they help determine the range of acceptable and unacceptable policy options. II. There are limits to how much influence elites have on the public. Elites do not define economic problems. Elite opinion may shape the policies, but it does not define the problem. A. Elite opinion has little influence on whether we think there is a crime or drug problem. On the other hand, elite opinion does define the problem as well as the policy options with respect to most aspects of foreign affairs. III. It is wrong to assume that there is one elite, united in its interests and opinions.
This chapter discusses the various complexities of public political opinionhow it is formed, how it is defined, and how it changes over time. Public opinion is usually determined by conducting surveys, but this method can sometimes be inaccurate, as the way people respond can be influenced by how the questions are phrased and the order in which they appear. The political inclinations of ones family can have a profound impact on individual philosophy, as does region, socioeconomic level, gender, race, religion, and education level. The most common terms that people use to describe political ideology are liberal and conservative. However, what exactly these terms mean has changed over time, and their definitions can sometimes be convoluted. It is a common misconception that just because a person may be liberal on some issues means that they will be liberal on all of them. There are also variations on traditional liberal and
conservative valuessuch as libertarianism and populism.