1 Public Opinion and Government Responsiveness Part II How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in responsible hands? Carl Sagan
2 How We Form Political Opinions socialization: Many people s political opinions start with what they learned from their parents and surrounding culture. For example, there is a high correlation between one s party identification and the liberal-conservative ideology of their parents. events: People can revise their opinions in response to what happens to them and in the world around them. group identity: Groups such as gender, race or education level may influence an individual s opinion in three ways: (1) We learn about politics from the people around us. (2) We may rely on others who are like us as a source of opinions. (3) Candidates and political consultants often formulate their campaign strategies in terms of groups. politicians and other political actors: influence opinions and changes in opinion because of their presumed expertise... also work to shape public opinion in order to win support for their proposals
3 Political Socialization...the process, most notably in families and schools, by which we develop our political attitudes, values and beliefs... continues throughout our lifetimes for example, nationalism: As soon as we are born, in most places on this earth, we acquire a nationality, a membership in a community a royal doll, a flag to wave in a parade, coins with their engraved messages, these are sources of instruction and connect a young person to a country. (Robert Coles)
4 Agents of Political Socialization family socioeconomic status school: teach an idealized view of the nation s slogans and symbols popular culture major events college education job, career media: over ⅔ of Americans report that they receive all or most of their news from television religion: those raised in religious households tend to be socialized to contribute to society and get involved in their communities marriage retirement age / stage of life Number of times a week American families say they eat together life experiences
5 Religion and Socialization The Ideological Self-Identification of Protestants, Catholics and Jews
6 Religion and Socialization Vote by Church Attendance, 2012 Vote by Religious Affiliation, 2012
7 Stage of Life and Socialization Comparing Four Age Cohorts on Issues: A person s age / stage of life can have a profound effect on how he/she views government and political issues.
8 Life Experiences and Socialization Because their socialization has been different, people with different life experiences (marriage, children, religion, career, etc) hold different views about politics.
9 Major Events and Public Opinion Key events play a very important role in a person s socialization. Events in late adolescence and early adulthood (ages 16-25) are incredibly influential. generational effects: events that affect younger generation in such a way that their belief system becomes very distinct from that of the prior generation and possibly later generation Great Depression: move to the Democratic Party Vietnam: growing skepticism toward government Nixon s resignation in 1974: belief that government not always right or honest period effects: events that have the same effect on all generations (9/11, environmental movement)
10 Groups and Public Opinion Many of the agents of socialization occur within a group setting... family, education, job, religion, etc. social group: people who interact with one another, share similar characteristics and collectively have a sense of unity... A primary group is a small social group whose members share personal and lasting relationships (family). Secondary groups are larger groups involving formal and institutional relationships (college, workplace). reference group: group to which an individual or another group is compared... any group that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behavior... point of reference in making evaluations and decisions group effects: characteristics that allow persons to be lumped into categories... also affect development of political beliefs and opinions... religion, race and ethnicity, gender, age, region, etc
11 Party Loyalties Among Social Groups Blacks, city dwellers, women and people of lower income and educational levels tend to be Democrats. Whites, suburbanites, men, college-educated, religious conservatives and people with high incomes tend to be Republicans.
12 Group Voting Patterns, 2012 Presidential Election
13 Education-Level Groups and Public Opinion Higher education is associated with a greater tolerance of diversity (including tolerance of other points of view) and a greater likelihood of voting.
14 Education-Level Groups and Public Opinion Higher education is strongly associated with greater knowledge of politics and government and a greater sense of political efficacy (belief that you can understand and influence political affairs).
15 Collective Knowledge and Stability Americans collective policy preferences are very stable over a long period of time. Recent research indicates that Americans collective policy preferences react fairly sensibly to events.
16 America s Collective Memory The memories that are shared by large majorities of Americans are largely of American events and often very recent ones. Memories of significant events that did not include the US are less clear. Only the events of the 1990s and 2000s serve as shared collective memories for strong majorities of Americans today. The 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy is the earliest memory that a majority of Americans share: 53% say that they know what they were doing the moment they heard the news of his assassination.
17 Are the People Fit to Rule? Most Americans do not know or care about politics. Americans have little specific knowledge about government and politics. What most Americans don t know may not be vital. Lack of detailed knowledge or ideology does not mean that public opinion is unstable or irrelevant. Politics and the New Machine
18 Awareness and Interest knowledge levels: Politics is not the major interest of most Americans and, as a result, knowledge about the political system is limited.
19 The Content of Collective Public Opinion The governmental system in general: significant level of public confidence in the system However, despite some surges, long-term trust in the national government is much lower than it was in the 1950s-1960s.
20 Trust in Government, The graph shows the percentage of Americans who say they trust the national government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Trust in government today is much lower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Surges of trust happened during the Reagan and Clinton presidencies and in the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks on the US. The Long Decline of Trust in Government
21 Government Performance Presidential approval ratings tend to fluctuate in response to particular events state of the economy is especially important Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval,
22 Government Performance George HW Bush s extraordinarily high approval rating declined steadily after the media shifted its focus to the economy rather than Desert Storm. His son, George W Bush, saw an enormous jump in approval rating after 9/11. It subsequently eroded, but not before the 2002 elections, when the Republicans gained in both the House and the Senate.
23 Americans Policy Preferences Theoretically, in a democracy, government does what its citizens want it to do, following citizens policy preferences. That s difficult to do when what citizens want is divided or changes. spending programs: distinct difference in level of support for public spending between Democrats and Republicans... Americans in general support public spending at much lower levels than do Europeans. social issues: Democrats and Republicans take very different positions on most... abortion, civil liberties protections for women and minorities foreign policy: Americans preferred foreign policy stance has changed over the years with the changing global situation... isolationism (policy of remaining apart from the affairs of other countries), unilateralism (one-sided action regardless of the involvement of other countries), multilateralism (require participation of several countries rather than going-it-alone)
24 Support for Public Spending Despite citizens policy preferences, representatives and senators generally vote based on their own personal party affiliation and political ideology, with the justification that voters can always elect someone else if they want. Unfortunately, voters seldom know how their representative and senators vote on spending.
25 Support on Social Issues Only a minority of Americans supports or rejects abortion under any and all circumstances. American support for legal abortions under certain circumstances is long-term and stable... although there is disagreement on what the circumstances should be.
26 Government is responsive to public opinion. Yes, government is responsive to public opinion. When it comes to issues that Americans really care about ending the Vietnam War, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 government listens and responds accordingly. A variety of studies show that policy coincides with public opinion most of the time.
27 Government is not responsive to public opinion. No, government is not responsive to public opinion. Public opinion sometimes coincides with policy, but it does not actually cause policy because government usually ignores public opinion and does what it wants to do. In fact, to justify its actions, it may be that just the opposite is true that government shapes public opinion through outright manipulation (like it did in the Tonkin Gulf incident) or through public relations efforts (like it did by creating the Committee on Public Information in WWI).
28 How does public opinion influence government? Past studies of the influence of public opinion on public policy generally made and accepted a majoritarian argument... some variation of the idea that in a democracy the majority rules and public opinion is the voice of the majority. If that was true of public opinion in the past, it doesn t appear to be true today. There are a few general statements that seem to still hold. In the aggregate, public opinion can be very stable. Page and Shapiro s The Rational Public: collective policy preferences of the American public are predominantly rational, in the sense that they are real, coherent and that when they change, they do so in predictable ways Influence of public opinion may vary depending on issue and context. The public does not always get what it wants.
29 How does public opinion influence government? general statements about public opinion that seem to still hold Salience (an issue's importance to a person or the public in general) appears to affect the impact of public opinion on policy. Small, vocal and influential groups can sway congressional action. Because opinions change, it can be difficult to establish a clear connection between political outcomes and public opinion. Some evidence that government responsiveness to public opinion may have begun to decline around the mid-1970s. Due to the growing economic inequality gap, there have been a number of new studies in recent years. (See, for example, Gilens and Page.) The findings of those studies relating to the impact of public opinion are disturbing. I ve listed some of those findings on the next three slides.
30 Findings of New Studies of Public Opinion When a majority of citizens lower class and middle class disagrees with economic elites (top 10%) and/or with organized business interests, the majority has near-zero impact on public policy. (Pay attention to the next slide.) Regardless of whether a small minority or a large majority of American citizens support a policy, the probability of policy change is nearly the same... approximately 30%. A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans is adopted only about 18% of the time. Ordinary citizens often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen to coincide with those of the economicallyelite citizens who wield the actual influence. The elite hold tremendous sway, not only over policy outcomes but also over which problems government pays attention to and which solutions it considers.
31 Findings of New Studies of Public Opinion
32 Findings of New Studies of Public Opinion Over the past generation, the views of American foreign policy elites diverged sharply from those of the broader mass public whose views were generally ignored. Presidents actually have incentives under a number of conditions not to follow mass opinion, though they also have an incentive not to publicize too heavily that they re doing so. Overall, business-oriented groups have almost twice the influence of mass-based groups. Organizations with mass appeal can matter, but not many exist that represent the interests of the average American. Existing interest groups do not tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. In fact, some groups positions are negatively correlated with the opinion of the average American, as in the case of gun owners.
33 Findings of New Studies of Public Opinion Today s powerful interest groups contribute record sums of money to reelection campaigns. The current Supreme Court s relentless defense of unlimited spending in the political system by the wealthiest Americans (as freedom of speech) will exacerbate the situation. Because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it. Findings hold true for both Democrat and Republican office-holders. Tendencies toward inequality and the shift of resources from labor to capital are endemic in today s capitalism, and may very well get worse. If policymaking is dominated by the elite (powerful business interests and a small number of affluent Americans), then America s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
34 Governing by Public Opinion Example: Congressional hesitation to approve gun control policies National Rifle Association opposition vs. a public majority that favors limits on guns theories: Public opinion in their voting districts matter most to individual Congressmen and they believe their districts are against gun control. Gun control is not a highly salient public opinion issue... Americans may want gun control but it s not that important to them. anti-gun lobby not as intense/passionate as pro-gun lobby The oil and gas industry brings big money to the table to help NRA stop gun safety efforts and, in return, industry gets a powerful ally to battle against protections for public lands and wildlife in energy-producing regions.
35 Governing by Public Opinion Most average Americans support gun control proposals.
36 Participation: Opinions into Action Only a small percentage of the American people are actively engaged in the political process, yet they receive most of the media attention.
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