Chapter 6: The Politics of Public Opinion

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Chapter 6 Vocabulary

agent of political socialization

a person or entity that teaches and influences others about politics through use of information

bandwagon effect

increased media coverage of candidates who poll high

Bradley effect

the difference between a poll result and an election result in which voters gave a socially desirable poll response rather than a true response that might be perceived as racist

classical liberalism

a political ideology based on belief in individual liberties and rights and the idea of free will, with little role for government


a political and economic system in which, in theory, government promotes common ownership of all property, means of production, and materials to prevent the exploitation of workers while creating an equal society; in practice, most communist governments have used force to maintain control

covert content

ideologically slanted information presented as unbiased information in order to influence public opinion

diffuse support

the widespread belief that a country and its legal system are legitimate

exit poll

an election poll taken by interviewing voters as they leave a polling place


a political system of total control by the ruling party or political leader over the economy, the military, society, and culture and often the private lives of citizens

favorability poll

a public opinion poll that measures a public’s positive feelings about a candidate or politician


shortcuts or rules of thumb for decision making

horserace coverage

day-to-day media coverage of candidate performance in the election

leading question

a question worded to lead a respondent to give a desired answer

margin of error

a number that states how far the poll results may be from the actual preferences of the total population of citizens

modern conservatism

a political ideology that prioritizes individual liberties shunning overreaching government intrusion, preferring a smaller government that generally stays out of the economy

modern liberalism

a political ideology focused on equality and supporting extensive government intervention in society and the economy if it promotes equality or other social agendas

overt content

political information whose author makes clear that only one side is presented

political culture

the prevailing political attitudes and beliefs within a society or region

political elite

a political opinion leader who alerts the public to changes or problems

political socialization

the process of learning the norms and practices of a political system through others and societal institutions

public opinion

a collection of opinions of an individual or a group of individuals on a topic, person, or event

push poll

politically biased campaign information presented as a poll in order to change minds

random sample

a limited number of people from the overall population selected in such a way that each has an equal chance of being chosen

representative sample

a group of respondents demographically similar to the population of interest


a political and economic system in which government uses its authority to promote social and economic equality, providing everyone with basic services and equal opportunities and requiring citizens with more wealth to contribute more

straw poll

an informal and unofficial election poll conducted with a non-random population

theory of delegate representation

a theory that assumes the politician is in office to be the voice of the people and to vote only as the people want

traditional conservatism

a political ideology supporting the authority of the monarchy and the church in the belief that government provides the rule of law

Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the stage in Boston, Massachusetts, to give his “Super Tuesday” victory speech (credit: modification of work by BU Interactive News/Flickr).

Public opinion is a crucial part of politics, and the pinnacle of politics is voting. However – Discerning, in advance, the behavior of voters is not easy…

On November 7, 2012, the day after the presidential election, journalists found failed candidate Mitt Romney’s planned transition website. The website detailed Romney’s plans for the upcoming inauguration celebration and his criteria for Cabinet and White House appointees as well as leaving space on the site for later inserting video of his acceptance speech. Yet, Romney had lost his bid for the White House. In fact, Romney’s campaign staff had been so sure he would win that he had not written a concession speech. How could they have been so wrong? Romney’s staff blamed the campaign’s own polls. Believing Romney voters to be highly motivated, and perhaps misperceiving that many conservatives considered Romney a ‘Rino’ (Republican In Name Only), Romney pollsters had overestimated how many Republicans would actually turn out. The campaign’s polls had shown Romney close to President Barack Obama, although non-campaign polls showed Obama ahead. On election night, Romney was forced to give a hastily drafted concession speech, still unsure how he had lost.

Four years later, in the 2016 election, an overwhelming majority of election polls showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with a significant advantage nationwide and especially in the “election battleground states” in the days leading up to the election. Many mainstream news organizations had prepared extensive presentations about her “certain” win over businessman Donald Trump. However, as the results were tallied late into the evening it became very apparent how surprised and even disappointed many veteran news personalities were as Clinton went down in defeat. The Clinton campaign staff had been so certain she would win that they organized had also prepared extensive, expensive, and elaborate victory parties that they thought certain would kick off early in the evening across the country. Instead, the Republican nominee Donald Trump was elected president in part because many new and unexpected Republican voters had joined the process. These new voters, who had not been well studied in the polls as “likely voters”, surprised most of the so-called political experts with their turnout and support for President Donald J. Trump.

As many a disappointed candidate knows, public opinion matters. The way opinions are formed and the way we measure public opinion also matter. But how much, and why? These are some of the questions we’ll explore in this chapter.

6.1 The Nature of Public Opinion


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define public opinion and political socialization
  • Explain the process and role of political socialization in the U.S. political system
  • Compare the ways in which citizens learn political information
  • Explain how beliefs and ideology affect the formation of public opinion

The collection of public opinion through polling and interviews is a part of American political culture. Politicians want to know what the public thinks. Campaign managers want to know how citizens will vote. Media members seek to write stories in advance or in some cases even influence outcomes. Every day, polls take the pulse of the people and report the results. And yet we have to wonder: Why do we care what people think?


Public opinion is a collection of popular views about something, perhaps a person, a local or national event, or a new idea. For example, each day, a number of polling companies call Americans at random to ask whether they approve or disapprove of the way the president is guiding the economy. When situations arise internationally, polling companies survey whether citizens support U.S. intervention in places like Syria or Ukraine. These individual opinions are collected together to be analyzed and interpreted for politicians and the media. The analysis examines how the public feels or thinks, so politicians can use the information to make decisions about their future legislative votes, campaign messages, or propaganda.

But where do people’s opinions come from? Most citizens base their political opinions on their beliefs and their attitudes, both of which begin to form in childhood. Beliefs are closely held ideas that support our values and expectations about life and politics. For example, the idea that we are all entitled to equality, liberty, freedom, and privacy is a belief most people in the United States share. We may acquire this belief by growing up in the United States or by having come from a country that did not afford these valued principles to its citizens.

Our attitudes are also affected by our personal beliefs and represent the preferences we form based on our life experiences and values. A person who has suffered racism or bigotry may have a skeptical attitude toward the actions of authority figures or others, for example.

Over time, our beliefs and our attitudes about people, events, and ideas will become a set of values, norms, or accepted ideas, about what we may feel should happen in our society or what is right for the government to do in a situation. In this way, attitudes and beliefs form the foundation for opinions.


At the same time that our beliefs and attitudes are forming during childhood, we are also being socialized; that is, we are learning from many information sources about the society and community in which we live and how we are to behave in it. Political socialization is the process by which we are trained to understand and join a country’s political world, and, like most forms of socialization, it starts when we are very young. We may first become aware of politics by watching a parent or guardian vote, for instance, or by hearing presidents and candidates speak on television or the Internet, or seeing adults honor the American flag at an event. As socialization continues, we are introduced to basic political information in an educational setting – private school, homeschool, and public school are potential options. In these venues we may recite the Pledge of Allegiance and learn about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the two major political parties, the three branches of government, and the economic system. A tremendous amount of influence over the future is exercised by those who teach students – because values for good or for ill can be formed so easily in a school setting.

Political socialization begins early. Hans Enoksen, former prime minister of Greenland, receives a helping hand at the polls from five-year-old Pipaluk Petersen (a). Intelligence Specialist Second Class Tashawbaba McHerrin (b) hands a U.S. flag to a child visiting the USS Enterprise during Fleet Week in Port Everglades, Florida. (credit a: modification of work by Leiff Josefsen; credit b: modification of work by Matthew Keane, U.S. Navy)

By the time we complete school, we have usually acquired the information necessary to form political views and be contributing members of the political system. A young man may realize he prefers the Democratic Party because it supports his views on gender diversity, social programs and government-prescribed education, whereas a young woman may decide she wants to vote for the Republican Party because its platform echoes her beliefs about personal liberty, independence from government intrusion, economic growth, and family values.

Accounting for the process of socialization is central to our understanding of public opinion, because the beliefs we acquire early in life are unlikely to change dramatically as we grow older. Our political ideology, made up of the attitudes and beliefs that help shape our opinions on political theory and policy, is rooted in who we are as individuals. Our ideology may change subtly as we grow older and are introduced to new circumstances or new information, but our underlying beliefs and attitudes are unlikely to change very much, unless we experience events that profoundly affect us. For example, family members of 9/11 victims became more Republican and more political following the terrorist attacks. 

If enough beliefs or attitudes are shattered by an event, such as an economic catastrophe or a threat to personal safety, ideology shifts may affect the way we vote. During the 1920s, the Republican Party controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate, sometimes by wide margins. After the stock market collapsed and the nation slid into the Great Depression, many citizens abandoned the Republican Party. In 1932, voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic candidates, for both the presidency and Congress. The Democratic Party gained registered members and the Republican Party lost them. Citizens’ beliefs had shifted enough to cause the control of Congress to change from one party to the other, and Democrats continued to hold Congress for several decades. Another major change occurred in Congress in the 1994 elections when the Republican Party took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in over forty years after years of intense inflation, poor job markets, and higher taxes had become the norm under Democrat Party leadership.

Today, polling agencies have noticed that citizens’ beliefs have become far more polarized, or widely opposed, over the last decade. This polarization has also been reflected in Congress as you can see in the video below:

To track this polarization, Pew Research conducted a study of Republican and Democrat respondents over a twenty-five-year span. Every few years, Pew would poll respondents, asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements. These statements are referred to as “value questions” or “value statements,” because they measure what the respondent values. Examples of statements include “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” “Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person,” and “Society should ensure all have equal opportunity to succeed.” After comparing such answers for twenty-five years, Pew Research found that Republican and Democratic respondents are increasingly answering these questions very differently. This is especially true for questions about the government and politics. In 1987, 58 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that the government controlled too much of our daily lives. In 2012, 47 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement. This is an example of polarization, in which members of one party see government from a very different perspective than the members of the other party.


Political scientists noted this and other changes in beliefs following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, including an increase in the level of trust in government and a new willingness to limit liberties for groups or citizens who “[did] not fit into the dominant cultural type.” According to some scholars, these shifts led partisanship to become more polarized than in previous decades, as more citizens began thinking of themselves as conservative or liberal rather than moderate. 


An agent of political socialization is a source of political information intended to help citizens understand how to act in their political system and how to make decisions on political matters. The information may help a citizen decide how to vote, where to donate money, or how to protest decisions made by the government.

The most prominent agents of socialization are media, family and school. Other influential agents are social groups, such as the Internet, religious institutions and friends. Political socialization is not unique to the United States. Many nations have realized the benefits of socializing their populations. China, for example, stresses nationalism in schools. 

It is easy to understand why different political groups seek to ‘control the narrative’ by gaining access to the media, social media networks, or school policy making bodies.

In the United States, one benefit of socialization is that our political system generally enjoys diffuse support, which is support characterized by a high level of stability in politics, acceptance of the government as legitimate, and a common goal of preserving the system. These traits have in the past kept this country steady, even during times of political or social upheaval. But diffuse support does not happen quickly, nor does it occur without the help of agents of political socialization. It can also be fragile. If trust erodes in those that provide information and guidance, the entire system can be made less stable.

A knowledgeable population that understands the way the system is supposed to function, and which has a high level of respect for the rule of law under the U.S. Constitution can help to bolster stability via individual discernment during times when influencers may not be objective, honest, or fair in handling the information they choose to disseminate.

For many children, family is the first introduction to politics. Children may hear adult conversations at home and piece together the political messages their parents’ support. They often know how their parents or grandparents plan to vote, which in turn can socialize them into political behavior such as political party membership. Children who accompany their parents on Election Day in November are exposed to the act of voting and the concept of civic duty, which is the performance of actions that benefit the country or community. Families active in community projects or politics make children aware of community needs and politics.

Introducing children to these activities has an impact on their future behavior. Both early and recent findings suggest that children adopt some of the political beliefs and attitudes of their parents. Children of Democrat parents often become registered Democrats, whereas children in Republican households often become Republicans. Children living in households where parents do not display a consistent political party loyalty are less likely to be strong Democrats or strong Republicans, and instead are often independents.

A parent’s political orientation often affects the political orientation of his or her child.

While family provides an informal political education, public schools offer a more formal one.

The early introduction is often broad and thematic, covering explorers, presidents, victories, and symbols, but until recently the lessons were idealized and do not discuss many of the specific problems or controversies connected with historical figures and moments. George Washington’s contributions as our first president are highlighted, for instance, but teachers may not mention more contentious issues about the man. Lessons will also try to personalize government and make leaders relatable to children. A teacher might discuss Abraham Lincoln’s childhood struggle to get an education despite the death of his mother and his family’s poverty. Children learned to respect government, follow laws, and obey the requests of police, firefighters, and other first responders. The Pledge of Allegiance once was a regular part of the school day, as students learned to show respect to our country’s symbols such as the flag and to abstractions such as liberty and equality.

As schools pull away from these traditional ways of introducing government and focus more and more on the social and political agendas which are popular at the time, it becomes more difficult for public schools to fulfil an objective role that helps maintain support and respect for the Constitution and government in general.

As students progress to higher grades, lessons should cover more detailed information about the history of the United States, its economic system, and the workings of the government. Complex topics such as the legislative process, checks and balances, and domestic policymaking should be covered. Introductory economics classes teach about the various ways to build an economy, explaining how the capitalist system works. Some high schools offer Advanced Placement classes in U.S. government and history, or other honors-level courses, such as International Baccalaureate or dual-credit courses. These courses can introduce detail and realism, raise controversial topics, and encourage students to make comparisons and think critically about the United States in a global and historical context. Homeschoolers can avail themselves of the same sorts of things without nearly as much formality and without the burden of answering to school boards which often times have specific political agendas.

Unfortunately, many K-12 public school systems have in many cases strayed from teaching the basics of government and economics. There are numerous examples of high school graduates who cannot explain even in general terms the purpose of the U.S. Constitution. Many others cannot explain the idea of why we have a system of government that as a three-level system of checks and balances.

Are American Schools Failing To Teach Students Basic Civics?
Interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

College students may choose to pursue their academic study of the U.S. political system further, become active in campus advocacy or rights groups, or run for any of a number of elected positions on campus or even in the local community. Each step of the educational system’s socialization process is supposed to ready students to make decisions and to be participating members of political society.

Sadly, many schools at all levels have failed to teach students basic civics and history which is inextricably tied to a correct understanding of our system of government and how we have been able to maintain the longest-lived republic in the history of the world. Take a look at this amusing video. When you watch it, consider that these college students are of voting age and know more about Hollywood fluff than about the politicians who will chart the course of the United States for years to come!

Let’s throw in another video for fun:

SIDEBAR: It may be entertaining to watch videos of ‘man on the street’ question and answer videos where people cannot answer even the most basic questions about the American system of government. However, this lack of basic understanding is deeply troubling when you realize that, when casting votes, there are many voters who don’t understand the principles they should consider before they vote for a particular initiative or candidate. If voters do not understand how the system works, they are far more likely to be swayed to vote for things based on emotion or feelings that could, in the long run, be detrimental or even fatal to American democracy and representative government “of the people, by the people and for the people” as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg.

A growing number of people of differing political viewpoints are increasingly accusing the education system, (which is supposed to be unbiased and without any form of partisanship), of indoctrinating students, promoting a specific type of liberal agenda, and demonizing conservative ideology. These people, including the very famous and extremely liberal/progressive Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, see a real danger in what they perceive as promoting a particular agenda that includes silencing those that they disagree with (cancel culture) as well as showing only one side of politics to students.

Watch and think: The principles that liberal legal professor Dershowitz explores in this video are critical to understand and to think about. However because it is so long, this video is optional for this course. Maybe you can watch it on your free time.

Not only are many teachers and faculty accused of being biased, many school textbooks are as well, especially those covering topics such as history, government, and economics. Even some liberal professors are noticing a trend in colleges across the U.S. of the increasing hostile environment towards free speech and polite debate.

In this video, a Princeton professor defends free speech in education amid pressure to conform to woke ideology:

Learning Link mentioned in the video above:

Academic Freedom Alliance – The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.

Here’s an article from one teacher sharing her experiences in the classroom:

Here’s a video on the same subject:

SIDEBAR: Rather than being TOLD what to think, Americans must continue to be allowed to voice differing and even extremely divisive and unpopular opinions. The First Amendment specifically protects this right of all Americans so that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ can sort through differing viewpoints and each person can come to his own conclusion of what is and is not correct. To force anything else is either totalitarianism or rule of mob – neither of which have a place in our Constitutional Republic or American society. Worse yet, it does not allow for ‘outside the box’ thinking by ANYONE – rather towing the ‘party line’ is touted as the only option.

Concerned parents have increasingly turned to homeschooling when they are able to for this and many other reasons.

We are also socialized outside our homes and schools. When citizens attend religious ceremonies, as 70 percent of Americans in a recent survey claimed they do, the citizens are socialized to adopt beliefs that may affect their politics.

Religious leaders often teach on matters of life, death, punishment, and personal obligation, which translate into views on political issues such as charitable giving, helping strangers, being fair in business, as well as more controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and military involvement abroad.

Some political candidates may speak at religious centers and institutions in an effort to meet like-minded voters. For example, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced his 2016 presidential bid at Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian institution. This university matched Cruz’s conservative and religious ideological leanings and was intended to give him a boost from the faith-based community.

Friends and peers also have a socializing effect on citizens. Communication networks are based on trust and common interests, so when we receive information from friends and neighbors, we often readily accept it because we are more likely to trust them. Information transmitted through social media is also likely to have a socializing effect. Friends “like” articles and information, sharing their political beliefs and information with one another… but who controls what is and is not allowed to be mentioned on social media?

Media—newspapers, television, radio, and the Internet—also socialize citizens through the information they provide. Be aware though, that many social media outlets have been accused of restricting free speech and banning users or posts that don’t agree with their specific agendas.

Another way the media socializes audiences is through framing or choosing the way information is presented. Framing can affect the way an event or story is perceived. Candidates described with negative adjectives, for instance, may do more poorly on Election Day. Consider the demonstrations over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot to death by an officer on August 9, 2014. Following his death, family, friends, and sympathizers protested the police actions as excessive and unfair. While some television stations framed the demonstrations as riots and looting, other stations framed them as protests and fights against corruption. The various demonstrations consisted of both riots and protests, but individuals’ perceptions were affected by the framing chosen by their preferred information sources.

Images of protestors from the Baltimore “uprising” (a) and from the Baltimore “riots” (b) of April 25, 2015. (credit a: modification of work by Pete Santilli Live Stream/YouTube; credit b: modification of work by “Newzulu”/YouTube)

Finally, media information presented as fact can contain covert or overt political material. 

Covert content is political information provided under the pretense that it is neutral. A magazine might run a story on climate change by interviewing representatives of only one side of the policy debate and downplaying the opposing view, all without acknowledging the one-sided nature of its coverage. The motivation is to subtly change opinions without stating an otherwise obvious motivation or position up front.

In contrast, when a writer or publication makes clear to the reader or viewer that the information offers only one side of the political debate, the political message is considered overt content. Political commentators like Buck Sexton and publications like Mother Jones – and even the Babylon Bee parody/humor YouTube channel openly state their ideological viewpoints. While such overt political content may be offensive or annoying to a reader or viewer, all are offered the choice whether to be exposed to the overtly presented material.


The socialization process leaves citizens with attitudes and beliefs that create a personal ideology. Ideologies depend on attitudes and beliefs, and on the way we prioritize each belief over the others. Most citizens hold a great number of beliefs and attitudes about government action. Many think government should provide basic community function services such as a military to provide for the common defense, police services, fire services, and roadways. Others argue that government should provide a plethora of individualized goods and services to its citizens in the form of free college education, free food, free shelter, and assistance for the poor including even free cell phones and data plans.

Whether basic or comprehensive, ALL government services must be paid for in the form of taxation of its citizens. Nothing is free and all debt must eventually be paid. As of this writing the U.S. National debt has skyrocketed to nearly 32 TRILLION dollars. You can see a graphic of the current state of the national as well as individual state debts here:

When asked how to divide the national budget, Americans reveal priorities that show deep divisions in public opinion. Should we have a smaller military and larger social benefits, or a larger military budget and limited social benefits? This is the bombs versus butter debate, which acknowledges that governments have a finite amount of money and must choose whether to spend a larger part on the military or on social programs. The choice forces citizens into two opposing groups.

Divisions like these appear throughout public opinion on many topics. Assume we have four different people named Garcia, Chin, Smith, and Dupree. Garcia may believe that the United States should provide a free education for every citizen all the way through college, whereas Chin may believe education should be free only through high school. Smith might believe children should be covered by health insurance at the government’s expense, whereas Dupree believes all citizens should be covered by taxpayer money. In the end, the way we prioritize our beliefs and what we decide is most important to us determines whether we are on the liberal or conservative end of the political spectrum, or somewhere in between.


One useful way to look at ideologies is to place them on a spectrum that compares them based on what they prioritize. Liberal ideologies are traditionally put on the left and conservative ideologies on the right. (This placement dates from the French Revolution and is why liberals are called left-wing and conservatives are called right-wing.) The ideologies at the ends of the spectrum are the most extreme; those in the middle are moderate. Thus, people who identify with left- and right-wing ideologies identify with beliefs to the left and right ends of the spectrum, while moderates balance the beliefs at the extremes of the spectrum.

Here are a few political ideologies and some simplistic and perhaps arguable definitions of each:

Fascism promotes total control of the country by the ruling party or political leader. Hitler’s Germany was a Fascist government. This form of government will run the economy, the military, society, and culture, and often tries to control the private lives of its citizens. Authoritarian leaders control the politics, military, and government of a country, and often the economy as well.

Old Traditional Conservatism supports the authority of the monarchy and the church, believing government provides the rule of law and maintains a society that is safe and organized. 

Conservative governments attempt to hold tight to the traditions of a nation by balancing individual rights with the good of the community. 

Modern conservatism differs from traditional conservatism quite radically. Modern conservatives contend that an elected government should jealously guard individual liberties and provide laws that do not infringe on those liberties. Modern conservatives also prefer a smaller form of government that mostly stays out of the economy, allowing the free market and business to determine prices, wages, and supply to a greater degree than liberal, socialist, and communist governments do. Competition among businesses not encumbered by government controls and mandates keep prices low and goods and services readily available to all. Modern Conservatives believe that almost anyone willing to work hard can rise to high levels of education and success and gain great wealth by doing so.

Classical liberalism believes in individual liberties and rights. Many of the ‘hippies’ in the 1960s and 1970s would fit into this category but so would the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke. Classic liberalism is based on the idea of the free exercise of individual free will and that people are born equal with the right to make decisions without government intervention. It views government with suspicion, since history includes many examples of monarchs and leaders who limited citizens’ rights. Classic liberalism actually has many things in common with Libertarianism which is considered to be more on the conservative side today. Are you confused yet? 🙂

Today, modern liberalism or progressivism supports and encourages government intervention in society and the economy if it promotes an ever-changing notion of “equity”. Modern Liberals expect government to provide numerous social and educational programs and many other goods and services via heavy taxation and spending programs. Rather than celebrating the success of individuals it supports the collectivist notion that everyone should have an equal outcome regardless of personal merit, thus downplaying most personal achievement. Taxing the rich and others who have done well and redistributing their wealth for the good of others is celebrated and encouraged.

Under socialism, the government uses its authority to force a form of social and economic parity within the country via the redistribution of wealth – even that held by private individuals. Socialists believe government should provide everyone with expanded services and public programs, such as health care, subsidized housing, groceries, childhood education, and inexpensive or even free college tuition. Socialism sees the government as a way to ensure all citizens receive equal outcomes regardless of merit or labor. Citizens with more wealth are forced to contribute more to the state’s revenue through higher taxes that pay for services provided to all.

In theory, communism promotes common ownership of all property, the means of production (like factories and farms), and materials. This means that the government, or states, own all of the property, farms, manufacturing, and businesses. By controlling these aspects of the economy, Communist governments theoretically can prevent the exploitation of workers while creating an ‘equal society’. Extreme inequality of income, in which some citizens earn millions of dollars a year and other citizens merely hundreds, is prevented by instituting wage controls or by abandoning currency altogether. Communism presents a problem, however, because the practice differs from the theory. The theory assumes the move to communism would be supported and led by the proletariat, or the individual workers and citizens of a country. In practice however, incalculable numbers of human rights violations including the slaughter of millions of citizens by governments of actual Communist countries make it appear the movement has been driven not by the people, but by leadership. In practice those in the communist governments, particularly those at the top live lavish lifestyles while the common person has little more than subsistence levels of goods and services.

Communism prioritizes full control of both politics and economy, while libertarianism is its near opposite. Libertarians believe in individual rights and extremely limited government intervention in private life and personal economic decisions. Government exists to maintain freedom and life, so its main function is to ensure domestic peace and national defense. Libertarians also believe the national government should maintain a military in case of international threats, but that it should not engage in setting minimum wages or ruling in private matters, like same-sex marriage, recreational drug use, or the right to abortion.

The point where a person’s ideology falls on the spectrum gives us some insight to his or her opinions. Though people can sometimes be liberal on one issue and conservative on another, a citizen to the left of liberalism, near socialism, would likely be happy with raising minimum wage. A citizen to the right of the spectrum is more likely to support.

SIDEBAR – A very interesting thought: It is possible perhaps to add some clarity by suggesting an alternate way of viewing both ends of the ideological spectrum above – by looking at both at the same time.

Perhaps, in practice there can be NO such thing left or right wing! – The political extremes going either direction must naturally result in totalitarianism and a “command economy”. That is to say; taken to the final endpoint, progressive socialism or fascist totalitarianism result in a government which ends up in full control of the economy and of the people themselves.

Rather than being a flat line with a left and a right ‘wing’, perhaps government and economies are more of a ‘hoop’ or a ‘ring’ where, if adherents to either extreme go far enough in either direction by following their completely disparate philosophies, they will meet both meet at the same very dark place where citizens are faceless subjects and personal liberty of any kind is not an option.

While this might at first sound like dystopian fiction, consider the extremely different philosophies of Hitler and Stalin – each with their love of fascism and communism respectively. Both slaughtered untold millions of their own citizens and sought to exercise full control over the lives of their people. As Hitler pushed fascism further and further to the right and Stalin pushed communism further and further to the left, people who believed in individual liberties were increasingly seen in both societies as ‘enemies of the state and the people’ and millions were jailed or executed.

Single party or single philosophy control, whether it be that of one person or by a mob-like society as a whole, always results in the loss of citizens freedom and liberty and induces suffering beyond words on a national scale.

Take a breather!
The thumbnail explanations above can be kind of involved, but if you are interested in a somewhat silly very simplistic look at government and economic systems, select the link below and page through the slideshow:

Questions to consider:

Where do your beliefs come from? The Pew Research Center offers a typology quiz to help you find out. Here’s another test you can take called the political compass as mentioned in the video above.

Ask a friend or family member to answer a few questions with you and compare results. What do you think about government regulation? The military? The economy? Now compare your results. Are you both liberal? Conservative? Moderate?

6.2 How Is Public Opinion Measured?


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how information about public opinion is gathered
  • Identify common ways to measure and quantify public opinion
  • Analyze polls to determine whether they accurately measure a population’s opinions

Polling has changed over the years. The first opinion poll was taken in 1824; it asked voters how they voted as they left their polling places. Informal polls are called straw polls, and they informally collect opinions of a non-random population or group. Newspapers and social media continue the tradition of unofficial polls, mainly because interested readers want to know how elections will end. Facebook and online newspapers often offer informal, pop-up quizzes that ask a single question about politics or an event. The poll is not meant to be formal, but it provides a general idea of what the readership thinks.

Modern public opinion polling is relatively new, only eighty years old. These polls are far more sophisticated than straw polls and are carefully designed to probe what we think, want, and value. The information they gather may be relayed to politicians or newspapers and is analyzed by statisticians and social scientists. As the media and politicians pay more attention to the polls, an increasing number are put in the field every week.


Most public opinion polls aim to be accurate, but this is not an easy task. Political polling is a very inexact science. From design to implementation, polls are complex and require careful planning and care. Our history is littered with examples of polling companies producing results that incorrectly predicted public opinion due to poor survey design or bad polling methods.

In 1936, Literary Digest continued its tradition of polling citizens to determine who would win the presidential election. The magazine sent opinion cards to people who had a subscription, a phone, or a car registration. Only some of the recipients sent back their cards. The result? Alf Landon was predicted to win 55.4 percent of the popular vote; in the end, he received only 38 percent. Franklin D. Roosevelt won another term, but the story demonstrates the need to be scientific in conducting polls.

Polling process errors can lead to incorrect predictions. On November 3, the day after the 1948 presidential election, a jubilant Harry S. Truman triumphantly displays the inaccurate headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune announcing Thomas Dewey’s supposed victory (credit: David Erickson/Flickr).

A few years later, Thomas Dewey lost the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman, despite polls showing Dewey far ahead and Truman destined to lose. More recently, John Zogby, of Zogby Analytics, went public with his prediction that John Kerry would win the presidency against incumbent president George W. Bush in 2004, only to be proven wrong on election night. These are just a few cases, but each offers a different lesson. In 1948, pollsters did not poll up to the day of the election, relying on old numbers that did not include a late shift in voter opinion. Zogby’s polls did not represent likely voters and incorrectly predicted who would vote and for whom. These examples reinforce the need to use scientific methods when conducting polls, and to be cautious when reporting the results.

Most polling companies employ statisticians and methodologists trained in conducting polls and analyzing data. A number of criteria must be met if a poll is to be completed scientifically. First, the methodologists identify the desired population, or group, of respondents they want to interview. For example, if the goal is to project who will win the presidency, citizens from across the United States should be interviewed. If we wish to understand how voters in Colorado will vote on a proposition, the population of respondents should only be Colorado residents. When surveying on elections or policy matters, many polling houses will interview only respondents who have a history of voting in previous elections, because these voters are more likely to go to the polls on Election Day. Politicians are more likely to be influenced by the opinions of proven voters than of everyday citizens. Once the desired population has been identified, the researchers will begin to build a sample that is both random and representative.

random sample consists of a limited number of people from the overall population, selected in such a way that each has an equal chance of being chosen. In the early years of polling, telephone numbers of potential respondents were arbitrarily selected from various areas to avoid regional bias. While landline phones allow polls to try to ensure randomness, the increasing use of cell phones makes this process difficult. Cell phones, and their numbers, are portable and move with the owner. To prevent errors, polls that include known cellular numbers may screen for zip codes and other geographic indicators to prevent regional bias. A representative sample consists of a group whose demographic distribution is similar to that of the overall population. For example, nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population is female. To match this demographic distribution of women, any poll intended to measure what most Americans think about an issue should survey a sample containing slightly more women than men.

Pollsters try to interview a set number of citizens to create a reasonable sample of the population. This sample size will vary based on the size of the population being interviewed and the level of accuracy the pollster wishes to reach. If the poll is trying to reveal the opinion of a state or group, such as the opinion of Wisconsin voters about changes to the education system, the sample size may vary from five hundred to one thousand respondents and produce results with relatively low error. For a poll to predict what Americans think nationally, such as about the White House’s policy on greenhouse gases, the sample size should be larger.

The sample size varies with each organization and institution due to the way the data are processed. Gallup often interviews only five hundred respondents, while Rasmussen Reports and Pew Research often interview one thousand to fifteen hundred respondents. Academic organizations, like the American National Election Studies, have interviews with over twenty-five-hundred respondents A larger sample makes a poll more accurate, because it will have relatively fewer unusual responses and be more representative of the actual population. Pollsters do not interview more respondents than necessary, however. Increasing the number of respondents will increase the accuracy of the poll, but once the poll has enough respondents to be representative, increases in accuracy become minor and are not cost-effective.

When the sample represents the actual population, the poll’s accuracy will be reflected in a lower margin of error. The margin of error is a number that states how far the poll results may be from the actual opinion of the total population of citizens. The lower the margin of error, the more predictive the poll. Large margins of error are problematic. For example, if a poll that claims Hillary Clinton is likely to win 30 percent of the vote in the 2016 New York Democratic primary has a margin of error of +/-6, it tells us that Clinton may receive as little as 24 percent of the vote (30 – 6) or as much as 36 percent (30 + 6). A lower of margin of error is clearly desirable because it gives us the most precise picture of what people actually think or will do.

With many polls out there, how do you know whether a poll is a good poll and accurately predicts what a group believes? First, look for the numbers. Polling companies include the margin of error, polling dates, number of respondents, and population sampled to show their scientific reliability. Was the poll recently taken? Is the question clear and unbiased? Was the number of respondents high enough to predict the population? Is the margin of error small? It is worth looking for this valuable information when you interpret poll results. While most polling agencies strive to create quality polls, other organizations want fast results and may prioritize immediate numbers over random and representative samples. For example, instant polling is often used by news networks to quickly assess how well candidates are performing in a debate.


The days of randomly walking neighborhoods and phone book cold-calling to interview random citizens are gone. Scientific polling has made interviewing more deliberate. Historically, many polls were conducted in person, yet this was expensive and yielded problematic results.

In some situations and countries, face-to-face interviewing still exists. Exit polls, focus groups, and some public opinion polls occur in which the interviewer and respondents communicate in person. Exit polls are conducted in person, with an interviewer standing near a polling location and requesting information as voters leave the polls. Focus groups often select random respondents from local shopping places or pre-select respondents from Internet or phone surveys. The respondents show up to observe or discuss topics and are then surveyed.

On November 6, 2012, the team conducts exit surveys at the polls on the George Mason University campus. (credit: Mason Votes/Flickr).

When organizations like Gallup or Roper decide to conduct face-to-face public opinion polls, however, it is a time-consuming and expensive process. The organization must randomly select households or polling locations within neighborhoods, making sure there is a representative household or location in each neighborhood. Then it must survey a representative number of neighborhoods from within a city. At a polling location, interviewers may have directions on how to randomly select voters of varied demographics. If the interviewer is looking to interview a person in a home, multiple attempts are made to reach a respondent if he or she does not answer. Gallup conducts face-to-face interviews in areas where less than 80 percent of the households in an area have phones, because it gives a more representative sample. News networks use face-to-face techniques to conduct exit polls on Election Day.

Most polling now occurs over the phone or through the Internet. Some companies, like Harris Interactive, maintain directories that include registered voters, consumers, or previously interviewed respondents. If pollsters need to interview a particular population, such as political party members or retirees of a specific pension fund, the company may purchase or access a list of phone numbers for that group. Other organizations, like Gallup, use random-digit-dialing (RDD), in which a computer randomly generates phone numbers with desired area codes. Using RDD allows the pollsters to include respondents who may have unlisted and cellular numbers Questions about ZIP code or demographics may be asked early in the poll to allow the pollsters to determine which interviews to continue and which to end early.

SIDEBAR: Be wary of calls that come in from numbers you are not familiar with. Some scammers have pretended to be pollsters in order to obtain personal information that can then be used to help with hacking, ‘phishing’, or other electronic security attacks against people who thought they were answering a few simple questions for a legitimate pollster. For instance, a fake pollster could ask how many dogs you have and then get into a side-conversation about his own dogs hoping to learn the name of your dog. If you used the dog’s name as an answer to a ‘challenge question’ at a bank or to secure a password reset – the phony pollster now has that much more chance of gaining access to your personal data or accounts.

The interviewing process is also partly computerized. Many polls are now administered through computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) or through robo-polls. A CATI system calls random telephone numbers until it reaches a live person and then connects the potential respondent with a trained interviewer. As the respondent provides answers, the interviewer enters them directly into the computer program. These polls may have some errors if the interviewer enters an incorrect answer. The polls may also have reliability issues if the interviewer goes off the script or answers respondents’ questions.

Robo-polls are entirely computerized. A computer dials random or pre-programmed numbers and a prerecorded electronic voice administers the survey. The respondent listens to the question and possible answers and then presses numbers on the phone to enter responses. Proponents argue that respondents are more honest without an interviewer. However, these polls can suffer from error if the respondent does not use the correct keypad number to answer a question or misunderstands the question. Robo-polls may also have lower response rates, because there is no live person to persuade the respondent to answer. There is also no way to prevent children from answering the survey. Lastly, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (1991) made automated calls to cell phones illegal, which leaves a large population of potential respondents inaccessible to robo-polls.

The latest challenges in telephone polling come from the shift in phone usage. A growing number of citizens, especially younger citizens, use only cell phones, and their phone numbers are no longer based on geographic areas. Younger generations also more likely to text than to answer an unknown call, so it is harder to interview this demographic group. Polling companies now must reach out to potential respondents using email and social media to ensure they have a representative group of respondents.

Also, the technology required to move to the Internet and handheld devices presents further problems. Web surveys must be designed to run on varied types of internet browsers and handheld devices. Online polls cannot detect whether a person with multiple email accounts or social media profiles answers the same poll multiple times, nor can they tell when a respondent misrepresents demographics in the poll or on a social media profile used in a poll. These factors also make it more difficult to calculate response rates or achieve a representative sample. Yet, many companies are working with these difficulties, because it is necessary to reach younger demographics in order to provide accurate data.


For a number of reasons, polls may not produce accurate results. Two important factors a polling company faces are timing and human nature. Unless you conduct an exit poll during an election and interviewers stand at the polling places on Election Day to ask voters how they voted, there is always the possibility the poll results will be wrong. The simplest reason is that if there is time between the poll and Election Day, a citizen might change his or her mind, lie, or choose not to vote at all. Timing is very important during elections, because surprise events can shift enough opinions to change an election result. Of course, there are many other reasons why polls, even those not time-bound by elections or events, may be inaccurate.

Polls begin with a list of carefully written questions. The questions need to be free of slanted-framing, meaning they should not be worded to lead respondents to a particular answer. For example, take two questions about presidential approval. Question 1 might ask, “Given the 40-year-high high inflation rate, do you approve of the job President Biden is doing?” Question 2 might ask, “Do you approve of the job President Biden is doing?” Both questions want to know how respondents perceive the president’s success, but the first question sets up a frame for the respondent to believe the economy is doing poorly before answering. This is likely to make the respondent’s answer more negative. Similarly, the way we refer to an issue or concept can affect the way listeners perceive it. The phrase “estate tax” did not rally voters to protest the inheritance tax, but the phrase “death tax” sparked debate about whether taxing estates imposed a double tax on income.

Many polling companies try to avoid leading questions, which lead respondents to select a predetermined answer, because they want to know what people really think. Some polls, however, have a different goal. Their questions are written to guarantee a specific outcome, perhaps to help a candidate get press coverage or gain momentum. These are called push polls. In the 2016 presidential primary race, MoveOn tried to encourage Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. Its poll used leading questions for what it termed an “informed ballot,” and, to show that Warren would do better than Hillary Clinton, it included ten positive statements about Warren before asking whether the respondent would vote for Clinton or Warren. The poll results were blasted by some in the media for being fake.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (a) poses with Massachusetts representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III (left) and Barney Frank (right) at the 2012 Boston Pride Parade. Senator Hillary Clinton (b) during her 2008 presidential campaign in Concord, New Hampshire (credit a: modification of work by “ElizabethForMA”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Marc Nozell)

Sometimes lack of knowledge affects the results of a poll. Respondents may not know that much about the polling topic but are unwilling to say, “I don’t know.” For this reason, surveys may contain a quiz with questions that determine whether the respondent knows enough about the situation to answer survey questions accurately. A poll to discover whether citizens support changes to the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid might first ask who these programs serve and how they are funded. Polls about territory seizure by the Islamic State (or ISIS) or Russia’s aid to rebels in Ukraine may include a set of questions to determine whether the respondent reads or hears any international news. Respondents who cannot answer correctly may be excluded from the poll, or their answers may be separated from the others.

People may also feel social pressure to answer questions in accordance with the perceived norms of their area or peers. If they are embarrassed to admit how they would vote, they may lie to the interviewer. In the 1982 governor’s race in California, Tom Bradley was far ahead in the polls, yet on Election Day he lost. This result was nicknamed the Bradley effect, on the theory that voters who answered the poll were afraid to admit they would not vote for a Black man because it could appear politically incorrect and racist. In the 2016 presidential election, the level of support for Republican nominee Donald Trump may have been artificially low in the polls due to the fact that some respondents did not want to admit they were voting for Donald Trump despite their view that he would make a better president than Clinton.


One of the newer byproducts of polling is the creation of push polls, which consist of political campaign information presented as polls. A respondent is called and asked a series of questions about his or her position or candidate selections. If the respondent’s answers are for the wrong candidate, the next questions will give negative information about the candidate in an effort to change the voter’s mind.

In 2014, a fracking ban was placed on the ballot in a town in Texas. Fracking, which includes injecting pressurized water into drilled wells, helps energy companies collect additional gas from the earth. It is controversial, with opponents arguing it causes pollution and earthquakes. During the campaign, a number of local voters received a call that polled them on how they planned to vote on the proposed fracking ban. If the respondent was unsure about or planned to vote for the ban, the questions shifted to provide negative information about the organizations proposing the ban. One question asked, “If you knew the following, would it change your vote . . . two Texas railroad commissioners, the state agency that oversees oil and gas in Texas, have raised concerns about Russia’s involvement in the anti-fracking efforts in the U.S.?” The question played upon voter fears about Russia and international instability in order to convince them to vote against the fracking ban.

These techniques are not limited to issue votes; candidates have used them to attack their opponents. The hope is that voters will think the poll is legitimate and believe the negative information provided by a “neutral” source.

Similarly, a poll asking a specific type of audience for their opinions is also completely illegitimate. If a poll is posted by one of the various left-leaning news organizations asking only their own viewers for a response, the outcome will almost certainly be overwhelmingly in favor of a leftist or progressive policy or candidate because the viewer-demographics of such a network are likely progressives or even socialist-leaning. So, you must also consider the source and intended audience of any poll that you are getting results from.

6.3 What Does the Public Think?


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why Americans hold a variety of views about politics, policy issues, and political institutions
  • Identify factors that change public opinion

While attitudes and beliefs are slow to change, ideology can be influenced by events.
A student might leave college with a liberal ideology but become more conservative as she ages. A first-year teacher may view unions with suspicion based on second-hand information but change his mind after reading newsletters and attending union meetings. These shifts may change the way citizens vote and the answers they give in polls. For this reason, political scientists often study when and why such changes in ideology happen, and how they influence our opinions about government and politicians.


Ideological shifts are more likely to occur if a voter’s ideology is only weakly supported by his or her beliefs. Citizens can also hold beliefs or opinions that are ambivalent, (contrary or conflicting), especially if their knowledge of an issue or candidate is limited. Having limited information also makes it easier for them to abandon a previously held opinion. Finally, citizens’ opinions will change as they grow older and separate from family.

Citizens use differing methods to form an opinion about an issue or candidate. The first is to rely on heuristics, shortcuts or rules of thumb (cues) for decision making. Political party membership is one of the most common heuristics in voting. Many voters join a political party whose platform aligns most closely with their political beliefs, and voting for a candidate from that party simply makes sense. A Republican candidate will likely espouse conservative beliefs, such as smaller government and lower taxes, that are often more appealing to a Republican voter. Studies have shown that up to half of voters make decisions using their political party identification, or party ID, especially in races where information about candidates is scarce.

In non-partisan and some local elections, where candidates are not permitted to list their party identifications, voters may have to rely on a candidate’s background or job description to form a quick opinion of a candidate’s suitability. A candidate for judge may list “criminal prosecutor” as current employment, leaving the voter to determine whether a prosecutor would make a good judge.

The second method is to do research, learning background information before making a decision. Candidates, parties, and campaigns put out a large array of information to sway potential voters, and the media provide wide coverage, all of which is readily available online and elsewhere. But many voters are unwilling to spend the necessary time to research and instead vote with incomplete information.

Gender, race, socio-economic status, and interest-group affiliation also serve as heuristics for decision making. Voters may assume female candidates have a stronger understanding about social issues relevant to women. Business owners may prefer to vote for a candidate with a college degree who has worked in business rather than a career politician. Other voters may look to see which candidate is endorsed by the National Organization of Women (NOW), because NOW’s endorsement will ensure the candidate supports abortion rights.

Opinions based on heuristics rather than research are more likely to change when the cue changes. If a voter begins listening to a new source of information or moves to a new town, the influences and cues he or she meets will change. Even if the voter is diligently looking for information to make an informed decision, demographic cues matter. Age, gender, race, and socio-economic status will shape our opinions because they are a part of our everyday reality, and they become part of our barometer on whether a leader or government is performing well.

A look at the 2012 presidential election shows how the opinions of different demographic groups vary. For instance, 55 percent of women voted for Barack Obama and 52 percent of men voted for Mitt Romney. Age mattered as well—60 percent of voters under thirty voted for Obama, whereas 56 percent of those over sixty-five voted for Romney. Racial groups also varied in their support of the candidates. Ninety-three percent of African Americans and 71 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama instead of Romney. These demographic effects are likely to be strong because of shared experiences, concerns, and ideas. Citizens who are comfortable with one another will talk more and share opinions, leading to more opportunities to influence or reinforce one another.

Breaking down voters by demographic groups may reveal very different levels of support for particular candidates or policies among the groups.

Similar demographic effects were seen in the 2016 presidential election. For instance, 54 percent of women voted for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and 52 percent of men voted for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. If considering age and race, Trump garnered percentages similar to Mitt Romney in these categories as well. And, as in 2012, households with incomes below $50,000 heavily favored the Democratic candidate, while those households in the $50,000–90,000 bracket slightly favored the Republican.

The political culture of a state can also have an effect on ideology and opinion. In the 1960s, Daniel Elazar researched interviews, voting data, newspapers, and politicians’ speeches. He determined that states had unique cultures and that different state governments instilled different attitudes and beliefs in their citizens, creating political cultures. Some states value tradition, and their laws try to maintain longstanding beliefs. Other states believe government should help people and therefore create large bureaucracies that provide benefits to assist citizens. Some political cultures stress citizen involvement whereas others try to exclude participation by the masses.

State political cultures can affect the ideology and opinions of those who live in or move to them. For example, opinions about gun ownership and rights vary from state to state. Polls show that 61 percent of all Californians, regardless of ideology or political party, stated there should be more controls on who owns guns. In contrast, in Texas, support for the right to carry a weapon is high. Fifty percent of self-identified Democrats—who typically prefer more controls on guns rather than fewer—said Texans should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit. In this case, state culture may have affected citizens’ feelings about the Second Amendment and moved them away from the expected ideological beliefs.

The workplace can directly or indirectly affect opinions about policies, social issues, and political leaders by socializing employees through shared experiences and peer pressure. People who work in education, for example, are often surrounded by others with a specific type of education. Their concerns will be specific to the education sector and different from those in other workplaces. Frequent association with colleagues can align a person’s thinking with theirs.

Workplace groups such as professional organizations and especially unions can also influence opinions. These organizations provide members with specific information about issues important to them and lobby on their behalf in an effort to better work environments, increase pay, or enhance shared governance. They may also directly pressure members to vote for particular candidates or ballot initiatives they believe will help promote the organization’s goals. For example, teachers’ unions often support the Democrat Party.

Important political opinion leaders, or political elites, also shape public opinion, usually by serving as short-term cues that help voters pay closer attention to a political debate and make decisions about it. Through a talk program or opinion column, the elite commentator tells people when and how to react to a current problem or issue.

Because an elite source can pick and choose the information and advice to provide, the door is open to covert influence if this source is not credible or honest. Voters must be able to trust the quality of the information. When elites lose credibility, they can lose their audience. News agencies are aware of the relationship between citizens and elites, which is why news anchors for major networks are carefully chosen. When Brian Williams of NBC was accused of lying about his experiences in Iraq and New Orleans, he was suspended pending an investigation. Williams later admitted to several misstatements and apologized to the public, and he was removed from The Nightly News. In some ways the consequences of public backlash can be even more humiliating with the general public gets into the mix. Have a look at an image search for Brian Williams memes: williams memes


What do Americans think about their political system, policies, and institutions? Public opinion has not been consistent over the years. It fluctuates based on the times and events, and on the people holding major office. Sometimes a majority of the public express similar ideas, but many times not. Where, then, does the public agree and disagree? Let’s look at the two-party system, and then at opinions about public policy, economic policy, and social policy.

The United States is traditionally a two-party system. Only Democrats and Republicans regularly win the presidency and, with few exceptions, seats in Congress almost always g to members of those parties. The majority of voters cast ballots only for Republicans or Democrats, even when third parties are represented on the ballot and more closely align with the voter’s own views! Yet, citizens say they are frustrated with the current party system. Interestingly, 58 percent of Americans say a third party is needed in U.S. politics today.

At its heart, politics is about dividing scarce resources and balancing liberties, rights, and ‘required obligations’. Public policy often becomes messy as politicians struggle to fix problems with the nation’s limited budget while catering to numerous opinions about how best to do so. While the public often remains quiet, simply answering public opinion polls or simply casting their votes on Election Day, occasionally citizens weigh in more audibly by protesting or lobbying.

Where does the public stand on economic policy? Only 26 percent of citizens surveyed in 2015 thought the U.S. economy was in excellent or good condition, yet 42 percent believed their personal financial situation was excellent to good. While this seems inconsistent, it reflects the fact that we notice what is happening outside our own homes. Even if a family’s personal finances are stable, members will be aware of friends and relatives who are suffering job losses or foreclosures. This information can give them a broader, and at times, more negative view of the economy beyond their own pocketbook.

When asked about government spending, the public was more united in wanting policy to be fiscally responsible without raising taxes. In 2011, nearly 73 percent of interviewed citizens believed the government was creating a deficit by spending too much money on social programs like welfare and food stamps, and only 22 percent wanted to raise taxes to pay for them. When polled on which programs to cut in order to balance the nation’s budget, however, respondents were less united. Nearly 21 percent said to cut public education spending, whereas 22 percent wanted to cut spending on health care. Only 12 percent said to cut spending on Social Security. All these programs are used by nearly everyone at some time in their lives, which makes them less controversial and less likely to actually be cut.

When asked about budget cuts, poll respondents seldom favor cutting programs that directly affect them, such as Social Security or health care.

In general, programs that benefit only some Americans or have unclear or underwhelming benefits cause more controversy and discussion when the economy slows. Few citizens directly benefit from welfare and business subsidies, so it is not surprising that 52 percent of respondents wanted to cut back on welfare and 57 percent wanted to cut back business subsidies. While some farm subsidies decrease the price of food items, like milk and corn, citizens may not be aware of how these subsidies affect the price of goods at the grocery store, perhaps explaining why 44 percent of respondents stated they would prefer to cut back on agricultural subsidies.

Social policy consists of government’s attempts to regulate public behavior in the service of a better society. To accomplish this, government must achieve the difficult task of balancing the rights and liberties of citizens. A person’s right to privacy, for example, might need to be limited if another person is in danger. One controversial issue is abortion. Proponents of abortion say a woman has a right to privacy and right to control what happens with her body. Those against abortion say that there are two human bodies involved and the life of the unborn child must be protected. They believe abortion is murder. To what extent should the government intrude in the private lives of its citizens?

Click here to return to Guest Hollow’s Government Online Textbook table of contents.

Image credits (any not mentioned directly beneath the photos):

We’ve taken excerpts from the below-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for our intended audience.

This text was adapted (with permission) from: American Government – 3e

Original authors/editors:

Glen Krutz, Professor of Political Science and Associate Director, Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. Krutz joined the Department of Political Science in 2002. Before joining OU, he served on the faculty of Arizona State University and helped run two large-scale National Science Foundation projects as a doctoral student at Texas A&M University.
Prosper Bernard, Jr., City University of New York
Jennifer Danley-Scott, Texas Woman’s University
Ann Kordas, Johnson & Wales University
Christopher Lawrence, Middle Georgia State College
Tonya Neaves, George Mason University
Adam Newmark, Appalachian State University
Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State University
Joel Webb, Tulane University
Abram Trosky, US Army War College
Shawn Williams, Campbellsville University
Rhonda Wrzenski, Indiana University Southeast
Original Editor: Sylvie Waskiewicz, PhD, is an editor, researcher, and writer who specialties include textbook publishing and e-learning instructional design, including copyediting and proofreading with meticulous review of text, layout, and media from first pages to printer proofs as well as QC of web content (HTML/XML).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Guest Hollow, LLC

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