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Public Opinion and Ideology

Instructional Objectives

The purpose of this chapter is to explore what we mean by public opinion and to ask what sorts of effects public opinion has on our supposedly democratic form of government. After reading and reviewing the material in this chapter the student should be able to do each of the following:

1 . List the sources of our political attitudes, and indicate which are the most important.

2. Explain why there are crosscutting cleavages between liberals and conservatives in this country. Assess the significance of race in explaining political attitudes.

3. Define political ideology and give reasons why most Americans do not think ideologically. Summarize the liberal positions on the economy, civil rights, and political conduct.

4. Identify which elite groups have become liberal, and compare their present attitudes with the past political preferences of these groups. Discuss the new class theory as an explanation for changes in attitudes. Analyze why these changes are causing strain in the political party system.

A political ideology is 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. Whether people have a political ideology can be measured in two ways: (1) by seeing how frequently people speak in terms of broad political categories-liberal or conservative-when they discuss politics;. and (2) by measuring the extent to which we can predict a person's view on one issue by knowing his or her view on another issue.

Most studies show relatively little ideological thinking among Americans. However, several qualifications should be kept in mind. Ideological consistency is defined somewhat arbitrarily. It is assumed that consistent liberalism involves favoring social welfare policies at home and opposing a strong stand against communism abroad. It is clear, however, that political activists are much more likely than the average citizen to think in ideological terms and to take "consistent" positions on issues. Also, voters may think more ideologically when one or both presidential candidates take sharply ideological positions (as in 1964, 1972, 1980, and 1984).

Text Outline

I. What is public opinion?

A. Government does not always do what people want
1. Unbalanced budget

2. Opposition to busing

3. Support for ERA

4. Aid to Nicaragua

5. Congressional term limits

6. Campaign Finance Reform

7. Gun Control

8. Abortion

B . Reasons public policy and public opinion may differ

1. Many constitutional checks on public opinion; many public's conflict

2. Difficult to know public opinion

3. Government listens more to elite views

C. Influences and limitations

1. Public ignorance: Monetary Control Bill ruse, poor name recognition of leaders

2. Importance of wording of questions: affects answer

3. Instability of public opinion

4. Public has more important things to think about-need clear-cut political choices

5. Specific attitudes may be less important for health of society than political culture

II. The origins of political attitudes

A. The role of family
1. Party identification of family absorbed, but more independent as child grows

2. Much continuity between generations

3. Declining ability to pass on identification

4. Younger voters exhibit less partisanship; more likely to be independent

5. Meaning of partisanship unclear; less influence on policy preferences

6. Clear political ideologies passed on in a few families

B. Religion

1. Religious traditions affect families
a. Catholic families somewhat more liberal

b. Protestant families more conservative

c. Jewish families decidedly more liberal

2. Two theories on differences

a. Social status of religious group

b. Content of the religious tradition

3. Christian Coalition - grassroots mobilization, Republican affiliation

C. The gender gap

1. Changing partisan affiliations
a. Women were likely to be Republicans in 1950's

b. Women were likely to be Democrats since late 1960's

c. Change due to shift in party policy positions (abortion, equal pay/equal work, etc.)

D. Schooling and information

1. College education has liberalizing effect

2. Effect extends beyond end of college

3. Cause of this liberalization?

a. Personal traits: temperament, family, intelligence

b. Exposure to information politics

c. Liberalism of professors

4. Effect growing as more go to college

5. Increasing conservatism since 1960's?

a. Yes (oppose legalizing marijuana and abortion) and ...

b. ...No (support school busing)

III. Cleavages in public opinion - Cleavages in opinion in the United States are numerous and crosscutting. No single feature of an individual's life (such as social class) explains all (or even most) of that individual's attitudes. Among the important cleavages are:

A. Social class / Occupation: less important in U.S. than in Europe

Today occupation has a weaker association with political opinions than it did in the 1950s. The traditional gap-manual workers were more liberal that business or professional persons in their attitudes toward the economy and social welfare legislation-has narrowed. This is not necessarily because class no longer matters but rather because a new elite whose status is based on education and technical skills, the new class, has arisen over the past generation.

This new class is situated not in traditional, capitalist business enterprise but in government, academia, think tanks, and the media. This class has strained the Democratic party; it is younger, urban, and more liberal on economic and social issues than the traditional middle class, which is conservative and blue-collar. Gary Hart appealed to this new class in the primary campaigns of 1984, as did Paul Tsongas in 1992.

1 . More important in 1950's on social welfare and foreign policy

2. Less important in 1960's on poverty programs, health insurance, Vietnam, government - created jobs

3. Why the change?

a. Occupation depends more on schooling, so upper-class exposed to liberalism

b. Non economic issues now define liberal and conservative

 

B . Race and ethnicity - Blacks are generally far more liberal than whites, on issues ranging from busing and housing discrimination to the death penalty, national defense, and national health insurance.
1 . Becoming more important even on nonracial matters

2. Blacks most consistently liberal group within Democratic Party; little cleavage among blacks

3. Hispanic and Asian Americans less liberal

C. Region - The South is the least liberal of the four regions, with the Midwest somewhat more liberal and the East and West most liberal. The South became, and long remained, part of the Democratic coalition because southerners were fairly liberal on economic issues. However, the rise of racial and social issues (on which the South is quite conservative) ended southern attachment to the Democratic party.

1. Southerners more conservative than northerners regarding military and civil rights issues, but difference fading among whites

2. Southerners more accommodating of business

IV. Political ideology

A. Consistent attitudes
1. Ideology: coherent and consistent set of political beliefs about who ought to rule, the principles rulers ought to obey, and what policies rulers ought to pursue

2. Most citizens moderates

3. Yet many have strong political predispositions

B. What do "liberalism" and "conservatism" mean?

1. Liberal and conservative labels have complex history
a. early 1800's: liberal-support personal, economic liberty; conservative-restore power of state, church, aristocracy

b. Roosevelt and New Deal: liberalism = activist government

c. Conservative reaction to activism (Goldwater): free market, states' rights, individual choice in economics

d. Today's meanings are imprecise and changing

C. Various categories

1. Three useful categories emerge from studies
a. Economic policy: liberals favor jobs for all, subsidized medical care and education, taxation of rich

b. Civil rights: liberals prefer desegregation, strict enforcement of civil rights law

c. Public and political conduct: liberals tolerant of demonstrations, legalization of marijuana, etc.

D. Analyzing consistency: people mix categories

1. Pure liberals: liberal on both economic and personal conduct issues

2. Pure conservatives: conservative on both economic and personal conduct issues

3. Libertarians: conservative on economic issues, liberal on personal conduct issues

4. Populists: liberal on economic issues, conservative on personal conduct issues

5. What about abortion and homosexuality, where do these issues fit in?

E. Political elites

1. Definition: those who have a disproportionate amount of some valued resource

2. Elites, or activists, display greater ideological consistency

a. They have more information than most people

b. Their peers reinforce consistency

F. Is there a new class?

1. Definition: those who are advantaged by the power, resources, and growth of government (not business, as elites previously were)

Linda Medcalf and Kenneth Dolbeare contend that the new class has evolved a distinctive ideology, one they call neoliberalism. Instead of assigning priority to equality and freedom, as in classical liberalism, this ideology focuses on producing new wealth through high technology. Neoliberalism uses public needs as a guide and relies on government incentives to encourage industrial development. Gary Hart / Bill Clinton / Al Gore endorses new liberal values.

2. Two explanations of well-off individuals who are liberals

a - Directly benefit from government

b. Liberal ideology infusing postgraduate education

3. Traditional middle class: four years of college, suburban, church affiliated, pro business, conservative on social issues, Republican

4. Liberal middle class (or new class): postgraduate education, urban, critical of business, liberal on social issues, Democrat

5. Emergence of new class creates strain in Democratic party


V. Political elites, public opinion, and public policy

A. Elites influence public opinion in two ways
1. Raise and frame political issues

2. State norms by which to settle issues, defining policy options

3. Elite views shape mass views

B. Limits to elite influence on the public

1. Elites do not define problems

2. Many elites exist, hence many elite opinions

Important Terms

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.

Discussion Questions

1. How is religion related to political attitudes? The text suggests that the theologies of various religions have an important effect. Can you think of other explanations for the correlation between religion and political attitudes? For example, does it matter that, historically, Catholics tended to be blue-collar workers in northern cities? That Jews were disproportionately intellectuals? To what extent would economic self-interest explain why religious groups differ in the ways they do?

2. The text contends that public opinion in the United States is split by many cleavages. Yet historian Louis Hartz argues that Americans embrace the same fundamental values. Alexis de Tocqueville concurs; he found that "Americans were agreed upon the most essential points." Does the text exaggerate the degree of cleavage in public opinion? What major disagreements exist in the United States today?

3. What is political elite? Do we have one unified elite, or are there different elites with radically different views on policy? How have the political attitudes of well-off Americans changed in recent years?

4. Who constitutes the new class? How does the new class differ from more traditional elites in its political attitudes? How do you explain the attitudes of the new class? Consider the two occupational categories mentioned in the text bankers, doctors, corporation presidents, and Wall Street lawyers (the traditional elite) versus government officials, research scientists, professors, and the mass media. Which group would benefit most from each of the following developments?

  • large-scale nationalization of industry
  • a reduction of income taxes on high incomes
  • an increase in the number of social welfare programs
  • increased government control over the economy
  • more political democracy through, for example, referenda

5. How is race related to political attitudes? To what extent are the distinctive political beliefs of blacks explained by the socioeconomic position of individual blacks? Can they be explained by the experience of blacks as a group?

6. Which of the demographic variables-sex, race, education, age, or religion-has the greatest impact on citizens' policy preferences? (This is the variable whose coefficients have the largest absolute value, for the greatest number of issues.) List the variables from greatest to least influence. Are your findings congruent with your expectations? For example, did you expect gender to have a greater impact on citizens' politics? Why or why not?

7. Using the variables, describe individuals who are more likely to be liberal. (These are individuals who score high on the demographic variable-see above and whose coefficients are positive. Women, blacks, the better educated, the young, and those who are not evangelicals are more often liberal.) Why are such individuals more likely to be liberals? Repeat this exercise for conservatives. (Conservatives are more often men, whites, less educated, older, and evangelicals.)

8. Explore the concepts of liberal and conservative more closely. On which policy issues do women/men respondents, black/white respondents, and so forth, take more liberal or conservative positions? Less liberal or conservative positions? The goal here is to look beyond stark contrasts to see the complexities of mass opinion.

9. To what extent are your students typical of the mass public as described in this table? To what extent are they different? What possible explanations can be offered for the differences? (You may wish to reference previous discussions on state and regional political cultures.)


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