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Chapter 6
Public Opinion and Political
Sources of Public Opinion
• ‘Political socialization’ refers to the factors that shape our political
opinions. These include financial interest, family, friends, education,
gender, race, religion, and major life events.
• Party identification has become the most reliable predictor of public
opinion in recent years.
• Self-interest and political elites also influence political attitudes.
• How issues are framed can shift individual and collective views.
• Dramatic events, especially wars, also have a powerful role in shaping
our opinions.
Measuring Public Opinion
• Scientific surveys have come a long way since their origins in 1936.
Professionals now design well-specified polls that capture popular
views with a high degree of accuracy.
• Poll results can affect public opinion.
• Sampling errors, response bias, and other potential flaws inevitably
confer a measure of uncertainty on any survey.
Public Opinion in a Democracy
• Some Americans have viewed public opinion as an unreliable, even dangerous, guide to
government policy making, based in part on voter ignorance.
• Others argue that, in practice, a “rational public” is the best source of democratic
decision making.
• One way to combine these clashing views is to focus not on what individuals know about
politics but on how the many different popular views add up to a “wisdom of crowds.”
• If public opinion is to guide politics, three conditions must be met: The public must know
what it wants; its views must be effectively communicated; and leaders must pay
• Even strong public opinion may not be specific enough to offer policy guidance.
• United States government officials devote more resources to polling operations than top
officials in other nations.
• All government officials constantly have to weigh doing what they think is best against
doing what the public desires. Popular views can help set governing agendas.
Traditional Participation
• Traditional Participation involves engaging politics through formal
government channels. Voting is the most familiar form of traditional
political participation.
• Americans participate in politics year round. One in five contacts a
public official in the course of a year.
• Civic voluntarism is a form of engagement with public life that
operates outside of government – but enhances democracy.
• Direct Action seeks change by going outside the formal channels of
government. It has a long legacy in the United States that goes back
to the nation’s founding and includes some of the nation’s great
reform movements.
Why People Get Involved?
• Participating in politics and government is influenced both by
personal factors: background characteristics such as income and
education; family and friends; political mobilization; and receiving
government benefits from programs that treat beneficiaries with
respect (like Social Security).
• Americans participate in political life at very different rates. A few
engage passionately, a larger number are moderately engaged, and
the majority of us are only sporadically involved. This contributes to
the appearance of high and low participation in the United States.
• Political mobilization is also influence by the larger social and
historical context.
What Discourages Political Participation?
• Participation in civic life tends to vary by age, income level, and
• Several other factors have fueled a decline in Americans’ political
participation in recent years. These include alienation, barriers to
participation, complacency, and shifting mobilization patterns.