Saylor.org's Comparative Politics/How Do People Form Political Attitudes?
What is Public Opinion?
When looking at public opinion and polls, it is not easy to find out what the public thinks. The more people are active in and knowledgeable about politics, the more weight their opinions carry in governmental circles. Many polls ask voters the benefits of something, not the cost. In any poll, opinions on public issues may not be stable; they may change at any time.
The Origins of Political Attitudes
The Role of the Family
Party identification is well known; children follow their parents' party. They become more independent as they get older. Party identification has declined within past years.
Catholics are mostly Democrats, Protestants are mostly Republican due to social status and religious tradition. Religion makes for many political differences.
The Gender Gap
Women are leaning towards being democrats, men are becoming republicans. Social issues differ greatly; women support them more than men.
Schooling and Information
Colleges have a more liberal outlook, and the most prestigious colleges are most liberal. Intellectuals require freedom to explore new ideas, which provides a possible theory as to why professors are liberal.
Cleavages in Public Opinion
Even if there was one group (such as white Protestants), many political conflicts would still occur. Three "cleavages" include:
Blue collar and management people vote similarly because definitions overlap greatly. Higher-educated people, management, vote liberal because of their college experiences. Blue collar vote the same way even though they don’t have the education, but still they support the social issues.
Race and Ethnicity
There are some differences between black and white voters, such as the views about affirmative action and criminal justice system. There are some similarities (racial quotas, toughness of courts on criminals, abortion). The Latino population is mixed on political standings (Gray Davis in CA, democrat and George Bush, TX, republican). In general, the Asian population votes Republican.
Geography affects the political attitudes; Northerners vote differently than southerners.
Liberal and conservative overlap greatly in definitions. We think that each group has a patterned set of beliefs (political ideology). Except in polls, people do not call themselves liberal or conservative very often. People can have nonideological ideas even though they do not use the terms liberal or conservative correctly. Many people make decisions without using the political ideology rule of thumb.
What do Liberalism and Conservatism Mean?
Definitions have changed since their inception. After the New Deal, definitions began to change. Words still used as generalizations, not issue-by-issue definitions. There are three basic issues that can create "cleavages" in the liberal/conservative thought: economy, civil rights, and conduct.
- Pure liberals: liberal on economic policy and personal conduct; want the government to reduce economic inequality; regulate business; allow abortions; protect freedoms of speech (17%)
- Pure conservatives: conservative on both economics and personal conduct; want government to cut back on welfare spending; allow the market to allocate goods and services; keep taxes low; lock up criminals (28%)
- Libertarians: conservative on economic matters; liberal on social ones; want minimal government (21%)
- Populists: liberal on economic matters; conservative on social issues; want reduction in economic inequalities (24%)
People who are pure liberals or conservatives make up the political elite. They are elite in the sense of the fact that the person has a disproportionate amount of a resource (money, political power). They are also referred to as “activists”. The “new class” of political elites represent the power, resources, and growth of government, not business. Many have liberal (progovernment) views.
Political Elites, Public Opinion, and Public Policy
Elites influence public opinion in two ways: those who have access to the media raise political issues; elites state the norms by which issues should be settled (AIDS and homosexuality). Elites do not define economics problems, but they may define the problem as well as the policy options with respect to foreign affairs (Iraq, Panama); the public cannot adequately judge issues.