Chapter five: public opinion and political action



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Chapter 5

CHAPTER FIVE: PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL ACTION


PEDAGOGICAL FEATURES

p. 168 Figure 5.1: The Coming Minority Majority



p. 170 You Are the Policymaker: Should Illegal Immigrants Receive Benefits from Government Programs?

p. 171 Figure 5.2: Shifting Population

p. 173 Table 5.1: How Party Identification is Passed Down From One Generation to the Next

p. 176 Issues of the Times: Does Conducting Surveys by Telephone Still Make Sense?

p. 182 Table 5.2: How to Tell a Liberal from a Conservative

p. 183 Table 5.3: The Political Ideology of Various Demographic Groups

p. 188 Making a Difference: Granny D and Her Walk for Campaign Finance Reform

p. 189 Figure 5.3: Political Participation by Family Income

p. 191 How You Can Make A Difference: Getting Involved



p. 192 Real People on the Job: Maggie Ryner

p. 194 Get Connected

p. 194 For Further Reading



p. 194 Internet Resources


LEARNING OBJECTIVES

After studying this chapter, students should be able to:



  • Explain why an understanding of the content and dynamics of public opinion is important in evaluating the extent to which the people rule in a democracy.




  • Contrast the relative positions of African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans in the American political and economic spheres.




  • Describe the process of political socialization and identify the primary agents of socialization.




  • Outline the components that are essential if one wants to obtain accuracy in public opinion polling.




  • Evaluate the role of polls in American democracy.




  • Ascertain how the American political system works as well as it does given the lack of public knowledge about politics.




  • Identify the political beliefs that are likely to be preferred by liberals and conservatives.




  • Identify the activities that encompass political participation in the United States.




  • Distinguish between conventional and unconventional types of political participation.




  • Show how nonviolent civil disobedience was one of the most effective techniques of the civil rights movement in the American South.




  • Explain what political scientists mean when they conclude that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals.



CHAPTER OVERVIEW

INTRODUCTION
In a representative democracy citizens’ preferences are supposed to guide policymakers. Yet the American people are amazingly diverse, which means that there are many groups with many opinions rather than a single public opinion. And most citizens know very little about politics. This chapter focuses on the nature of these “public opinions,” how citizens learn about politics, and the extent to which these opinions are conveyed to government officials through various types of political participation.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
The United States remains one of the most diverse countries in the world today. Americans live in a multicultural and multilingual society that is becoming more diverse all the time. Despite this diversity, minority groups have assimilated many basic American values, such as the principle of equality.
With its long history of immigration, the United States has often been called a melting pot; but policymakers now speak of a new minority majority because it is estimated that all the minority groups combined should pass the 50 percent mark by the middle of the twenty-first century. Until recently, the largest component of the minority majority was the African-American population. A legacy of racism and discrimination has left the African-American population economically and politically disadvantaged, but African-Americans have recently been exercising a good deal of political power. In 2000, the Hispanic population outnumbered the black population for the first time. Hispanics are rapidly gaining power in the Southwest. The problem of what to do about illegal immigration is of particular concern to the Hispanic community. The recent influx of Asians has been headed by a new class of professional workers. Asian Americans are the most highly skilled immigrant group in American history, and they are the best off of America’s minority groups. Native Americans are by far the worst off of America’s minority groups. Statistics show that they are the least healthy, the poorest, and the least educated group. Most remain economically and politically disadvantaged.
This chapter examines the ways in which the American culture and political system are changing as a result of population changes. Demographic changes are associated with political changes. Over the last 50 years, much of America’s population growth has been centered in the West and South, particularly with movement to the “sunbelt” states of Florida, California, and Texas from “rust belt” states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. The process of reapportionment brings with it gains or losses of congressional representation as the states’ population balance changes. The fastest growing age group in America is composed of citizens over age 65.
HOW AMERICANS LEARN ABOUT POLITICS: POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION
Political socialization is “the process through which an individual acquires his or her own political orientations.” Agents of socialization are numerous, including the family, the media, and schools. Only a small portion of Americans’ political learning is formal; informal learning is much more important.
Politics is a lifelong activity, and political behavior is to some degree learned behavior. The family’s role is central because of its monopoly on time and emotional commitment in the early years. Although most students like to think of themselves as independent thinkers, one can accurately predict how the majority of young people will vote simply by knowing the political leanings of their parents.
The mass media has been referred to as “the new parent.” Television now displaces parents as the chief source of information as children get older. Governments throughout the world use the schools in their attempt to instill a commitment to the basic values of the system. Governments largely aim their socialization efforts at the young because one’s political orientations grow firmer as one becomes more socialized with age.
Unfortunately, today’s generation of young adults is significantly less likely to watch television news and read newspapers than its elders. A recent study attributed the relative lack of political knowledge of the youth of the 1990s to their media consumption, or more appropriately, to their lack of it.
MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL INFORMATION
Public opinion is the distribution of people’s beliefs about politics and policy issues. There is rarely a single public opinion: With so many people and such diversity of populations, there are many opinions. Public opinion is one of the products of political learning.
Public opinion polling was first developed by George Gallup in 1932. Polls rely on a sample of the population (a relatively small proportion of people who are chosen as representative of the whole) to measure public opinion. The key to the accuracy of opinion polls is random sampling, which operates on the principle that everyone should have an equal probability of being selected. However, there is always a certain amount of risk of inaccuracy involved, known as the sampling error.
Sophisticated technology is now available for measuring public opinion. Most polling is now done on the telephone with samples selected through random digit dialing, in which calls are placed to telephone numbers within randomly chosen exchanges. Supporters of polling consider that it is a tool for democracy by which policymakers can keep in touch with changing opinions on issues. Critics of polling think polls can weaken democracy by distorting the election process. Polls are often accused of creating a “bandwagon effect,” in which voters may support a candidate only because they see that others are doing so. Moreover, emphasis on poll results sometimes has drowned out the issues of recent presidential campaigns. The election day exit poll is probably the most criticized type of poll. In the 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1996 presidential elections, the networks declared a winner while millions on the West Coast still had hours to vote (but analysis of survey data show that few voters have actually been influenced by exit poll results). In 2000, the exit polls received much of the blame for the media’s inaccurate calls of the Florida result on election night. But contrary to common perception, the exit polls deserve only a portion of the blame for the networks’ election night fiasco. Inaccurate reports and estimates of the actual votes threw off the network prognostications most. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of polling is that by altering the wording of questions, pollsters can get pretty much the results they want.
Polls have revealed again and again that the average American has a low level of political knowledge. Likewise, surveys show that citizens around the globe lack a basic awareness of the world around them. Increased levels of education over the last four decades have scarcely raised public knowledge about politics. Part of the reason the American political system works as well as it does is that people do know what basic values they want upheld, even when they do not have information on policy questions or decision makers.
WHAT AMERICANS VALUE: POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES
A coherent set of values and beliefs about public policy is a political ideology. Generally, Americans tend to identify themselves as conservatives more than moderates or liberals—which helps to account for the relatively limited scope of government in the United States. But who identifies as a liberal or conservative often varies according to age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Ideological thinking is not widespread in the American public, nor are people necessarily consistent in their attitudes. For most people, the terms liberal and conservative are not as important as they are for the political elite. The authors of the classic study The American Voter (Angus Campbell, et al.) concluded that to speak of election results as indicating a movement of the public to either the “left” or “right” is a misnomer because most voters do not think in such terms.
HOW AMERICANS PARTICIPATE IN POLITICS
Political participation encompasses the many activities used by citizens to influence the selection of political leaders or the policies they pursue. Paradoxically, the United States has a participatory political culture; but only 51 percent of Americans voted in the 2000 presidential election, and the numbers are even lower for state and local elections. Political scientists generally distinguish between two broad types of participation: conventional and unconventional. Conventional participation includes many widely accepted modes of influencing government, such as voting, trying to persuade others, ringing doorbells for a petition, and running for office. Unconventional participation includes activities that are often dramatic, such as protesting, civil disobedience, and even violence.
Protest is a form of political participation designed to achieve policy change through dramatic and unconventional tactics, and protests today are often orchestrated to provide television cameras with vivid images. Throughout American history, individuals and groups have sometimes used civil disobedience, in which they consciously break laws that they think are unjust. Nonviolent civil disobedience was one of the most effective techniques of the civil rights movement in the American South. Although political participation can also be violent (as in some of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s), perhaps the best indicator of how well socialized Americans are to democracy is that protest typically is aimed at getting the attention of government rather than at overthrowing it.
In the United States, participation is a class-biased activity, with citizens of higher socioeconomic status participating more than others. Minority groups like Hispanics and African-Americans are below average in terms of political participation. However, the participation differences between these groups and the national average has been declining. When blacks, Hispanics, and whites of equal incomes and educations are compared, it is minorities who participate more in politics.
UNDERSTANDING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL ACTION
While more people today think the government is too big rather than too small, a plurality has consistently called for spending on programs like education, health care, aid to big cities, protecting the environment, and fighting crime. Many political scientists have looked at these contradictory findings and concluded that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals.
The fact that public opinion is often contradictory in this respect contributes to policy gridlock because it is hard for politicians to know which aspect of the public’s attitudes to respond to.
If the public’s task in democracy is to choose who is to lead, we must still ask whether it can do so wisely. Most choose performance criteria over policy criteria. Thus, even if they are only voting according to the nature of the times, their voices are clearly being heard–holding public officials accountable for their actions.


CHAPTER OUTLINE

I. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

A. American diversity.

1. The United States remains one of the most diverse countries in the world today.

2. Such diversity makes the study of American public opinion especially complex, for there are many groups with a great variety of opinions.

3. The task is further complicated by the fact that people are often not well informed about the issues, and they may have contradictory attitudes.

4. There are also consequences for democracy: The least informed are also the least likely to participate in the political process, thereby leading to inequalities in who takes part in political action.

B. One way of looking at the American public is through demography (the science of population changes).

1. The most valuable tool for understanding demographic changes in America is the census, which was first conducted in 1790 to comply with the constitutional requirement that the government conduct an “actual enumeration” of the population every ten years.

2. Once a group can establish its numbers, it can then ask for federal aid in proportion to its size.

C. The United States has always been a nation of immigrants.

1. Americans live in a multicultural and multilingual society that is becoming more diverse all the time.

2. Despite this diversity, minority groups have assimilated many basic American values, such as the principle of equality.

3. Today, federal law allows up to 800,000 new immigrants to be legally admitted every year (which is the equivalent of adding a city with the population of Washington, D.C., every year).


  1. There have been three great waves of immigration to the United

States:

a. Before the Civil War – northwestern Europeans;

b. After the Civil War (reaching its high point in the first decade of the twentieth century) – southern and eastern Europeans; and

c. After World War II (the 1980s saw the largest number of immigrants of any decade in American history) – Hispanics and Asians.

D. With its long history of immigration, the United States has often been called a melting pot (a mixture of cultures, ideas, and peoples), but policymakers now speak of a new minority majority (a phrase meaning that America will eventually cease to have a white, generally Anglo-Saxon majority).

1. Until recently, the largest component of the minority majority was the African-American population (one in eight Americans).

a. A legacy of racism and discrimination has left the African-American population economically and politically disadvantaged, but African-Americans have recently been exercising a good deal of political power.

b. About 27 percent of African-Americans currently live under the poverty line, compared to about 11 percent for whites.

2. The Hispanic population outnumbered the black population for the first time in the 2000 census.

a. Hispanics are rapidly gaining power in the Southwest, and cities like San Antonio and Denver have elected mayors of Hispanic heritage.

b. The problem of what to do about illegal immigration is of particular concern to the Hispanic community.

c. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act required all employers to document the citizenship of their employees (as of June 1987).

3. Unlike Hispanics who have come to America to escape poverty and African-Americans who were brought as slaves, the recent influx of Asians has been headed by a new class of professional workers looking for greater opportunity.

a. Asian Americans are the most highly skilled immigrant group in American history, and they are the best off of America’s minority groups.

b. Forty-two percent of Asian Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree (almost twice the national average).

E. Demographic changes are associated with political changes.

1. The regional shift.

a. Over the last 50 years, much of America’s population growth has been centered in the West and South, particularly with movement to the sunbelt” states of Florida, California, and Texas from “rust belt” states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

b. The process of reapportionment occurs every ten years following the census, and brings with it gains or losses of congressional representation as the states’ population balance changes (New York has lost about one-third of its delegation over the last 50 years).

2. The graying of America.

a. The fastest growing age group in America is composed of citizens over age 65: People are living longer as a result of medical advances and the birth rate has dropped.

b. By the year 2020, there will be only two working Americans for every person over the age of 65. There are political and economic consequences of the aging population.


II. HOW AMERICANS LEARN ABOUT POLITICS: POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION

A. How Americans learn: The process of political socialization.

1. Political socialization is “the process through which an individual acquires his or her own political orientations.”

2. Only a small portion of Americans’ political learning is formal; informal learning is much more important.

3. Agents of socialization are numerous; they include family, the media, and schools.

a. The family’s role is central because of its monopoly on two crucial resources in the early years—time and emotional commitment.

b. The mass media has been referred to as “the new parent.”

c. Governments throughout the world use the schools in their attempt to instill a commitment to the basic values of the system.

B. Politics is a lifelong activity.


  1. Today’s generation of young adults is significantly less likely to watch

television news and read newspapers than its elders.

2. Aging increases one’s political participation and the strength of one’s party attachment.

3. Political behavior is to some degree learned behavior.

4. Governments largely aim their socialization efforts at the young (not the old) because one’s political orientations grow firmer as one becomes more socialized with age.

C. Unfortunately, today’s generation of young adults is significantly less likely to watch television news and read newspapers than its elders.

1. A recent study attributed the relative lack of political knowledge of the youth of the 1990s to their media consumption, or more appropriately, to their lack of it.

2. Aging increases political participation, as well as strength of party attachment.
III. MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL INFORMATION

A. Public opinion.

1. What Americans believe (and believe they know) is public opinion, the distribution of people’s beliefs about politics and policy issues.

2. There is rarely a single public opinion: With so many people and such diversity of populations, there are also many opinions.

3. Public opinion is one of the products of political learning.

B. Measuring public opinion.



  1. Public opinion polling was first developed by George Gallup in

1932.

2. Polls rely on a sample of the population (a relatively small proportion of people who are chosen as representative of the whole) to measure public opinion.

a. A sample of about 1,000 to 1,500 people can be representative of the “universe” (the larger group whose opinion is being measured) of potential voters.

b. The key to the accuracy of opinion polls is random sampling, which operates on the principle that everyone should have an equal probability of being selected.

c. There is always a certain amount of risk of inaccuracy involved, known as the sampling error.

(1) A typical poll of about 1,500 to 2,000 respondents has a sampling error of plus or minus three percent.

(2) In 1936, a Literary Digest poll underestimated the vote for President Franklin Roosevelt by 19 percent because its methods were flawed: It drew its sample from telephone books and motor vehicle records. In the middle of the Great Depression, the people on these lists were above the average income level and were not representative of the voting public.

3. Sophisticated technology is now available for measuring public opinion.

a. Computer and telephone technology have made surveying less expensive and more commonplace.

b. Most polling is now done on the telephone with samples selected through random digit dialing, in which calls are placed to telephone numbers within randomly chosen exchanges.

C. The role of polls in American democracy.

1. Supporters of polling believe it is a tool for democracy by which policymakers can keep in touch with changing opinions on issues.

2. Critics of polling think it makes politicians more concerned with following than leading and may thus discourage bold leadership.

3. Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg argues that polls actually weaken democracy because polls permit government to think that it has taken public opinion into account when only passive (often ill-informed) opinions have been counted.

4. Polls can weaken democracy by distorting the election process; polls are often accused of creating a “bandwagon effect,” in which voters may support a candidate only because they see that others are doing so.

5. Emphasis on poll results sometimes has drowned out the issues of recent presidential campaigns.

6. The election day exit poll is probably the most-criticized type of poll.

a. In this type of poll, voting places are randomly selected from around the country. As voters leave the polls in the selected locations, workers ask every tenth person how he or she voted.

b. The results enable the television networks to project all but very close races before the polls even close.

c. In the 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, the networks declared a winner while millions on the West Coast still had hours to vote (but analysis of survey data show that few voters have actually been influenced by exit poll results).

d. In 2000, the exit polls received much of the blame for the media’s inaccurate calls of the Florida result on election night. But contrary to common perception, the exit polls deserve only a portion of the blame for the networks’ election night fiasco. Inaccurate reports and estimates of the actual votes threw off the network prognostications most.

7. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of polling is that pollsters can get pretty much the results they want by altering the wording of questions. Although the bias in such questions may be easy to detect, the ethical problem is that an organization may not report how the survey questions were worded.

D. What polls reveal about Americans’ political information.

1. Polls have revealed again and again that the average American has a low level of political knowledge.

a. In the 2000 National Election Study, only 51 percent knew that Janet Reno was attorney general of the United States; 30 percent knew that Tony Blair was prime minister of the United Kingdom; seven percent knew Trent Lott was the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate; and nine percent knew that William Rehnquist was chief justice of the Supreme Court.

2. Increased levels of education and increased availability of political information in the mass media over the last four decades have scarcely raised public knowledge about politics.

3. The “paradox of mass politics,” according to Russell Neuman, is that

the American political system works as well as it does given the discomforting lack of public knowledge about politics.

4. Part of the reason the American political system works as well as it does is that people do know what basic values they want upheld, even when they do not have information on policy questions or decision makers.
IV. WHAT AMERICANS VALUE: POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES


  1. Who are the liberals and conservatives?

1. A political ideology is a coherent set of values and beliefs about public policy.

  1. Overall, more Americans consistently choose the ideological label of conservative over liberal.

  2. Some groups are more liberal than others and want to see government do more; this includes people under the age of 30, minorities, and women. The consistent gap between men and women in supporting Democratic candidates is referred to as the gender gap.

B. Do people think in ideological terms?

1. Ideological thinking is not widespread in the American public, nor are people necessarily consistent in their attitudes.

2. The authors of the classic study The American Voter (Angus Campbell, et al.) first looked carefully at the ideological sophistication of the American electorate in the 1950s. They divided the public into four groups, according to ideological sophistication.

a. Ideologues – Only 12 percent could connect their opinions and beliefs with broad policy positions taken by parties or candidates.

b. Group benefits voters – Forty-two percent of Americans thought of politics mainly by the groups they liked or disliked.

c. Nature of the times voters – The “handle on politics” of 24 percent of the population was limited to whether the times seemed good or bad to them.

d. No issue content voters – Twenty-two percent of the voters were devoid of any ideological or issue content in their political evaluations; most simply voted routinely for a party or judged the candidates by their personalities.

3. If the same methods are used to update the analysis of The American Voter through the 1980s, one finds some increase in the proportion of ideologues, but the overall picture looks much the same.

4. These findings do not mean that the vast majority of the population does not have a political ideology, but that for most people the terms liberal and conservative are just not as important as they are for political elites.


  1. Thus, to speak of election results as indicating a movement of the

public either left (to more liberal policies) or right (to more conservative policies) is not justified because most voters do not think in such terms.
V. HOW AMERICANS PARTICIPATE IN POLITICS

A. Political participation encompasses the many activities used by citizens to influence the selection of political leaders or the policies they pursue.



  1. Americans have many avenues of political participation open to

them.

2. Paradoxically, the United State has a participatory political culture, but only 51 percent of Americans voted in the 2000 presidential election, 39 percent turned out for the 2002 mid-term elections, and the numbers are even less for state and local elections.

B. Political scientists generally distinguish between two broad types of participation—conventional and unconventional.

1. Conventional participation includes many widely accepted modes of influencing government, such as voting, trying to persuade others, ringing doorbells for a petition, and running for office.

2. Unconventional participation includes activities that are often dramatic, such as protesting, civil disobedience, and even violence.

a. Protest is a form of political participation designed to achieve policy change through dramatic and unconventional tactics, and protests today are often orchestrated to provide television cameras with vivid images.

b. Throughout American history, individuals and groups have sometimes used civil disobedience (consciously breaking a law that they think is unjust), illustrated in different eras by people like Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s.

c. Nonviolent civil disobedience was one of the most effective techniques of the civil rights movement in the American South. Rev. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a classic defense of civil disobedience.

d. Political participation can also be violent (as in some of the Vietnam war protests of the 1960s).

C. Class, inequality, and participation.

1. In the United States, participation is a class-biased activity, with citizens of higher socioeconomic status participating more than others.

2. Minority groups like Hispanics and African-Americans are below average in terms of political participation.

a. The participation differences between these groups and the national average has been declining.

b. When blacks, Hispanics, and whites of equal incomes and educations are compared, it is the minorities who participate more in politics.


VI. UNDERSTANDING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL ACTION

A. Public attitudes toward the scope of government.

1. The question of government power is a complex one, but it is one of the key controversies in American politics today.

a. Public opinions on different aspects of the same issue do not always hold together well: While more people today think the government is too big rather than too small, a plurality has consistently called for spending on programs like education, health care, aid to big cities, protecting the environment, and fighting crime.

b. Many political scientists have looked at these contradictory findings and concluded that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals.

B. Democracy, public opinion, and political action.



  1. Americans often take for granted the opportunity to replace our

leaders at the next election.

2. Perhaps the best indicator of how well socialized Americans are to



democracy is that protest typically is aimed at getting the attention of government, not at overthrowing it.

3. Even if they are only voting according to the nature of the times, voters are clearly being heard, which holds elected officials accountable for their actions.


KEY TERMS AND CONCEPTS
Census: a count of the American population conducted every ten years.

Civil disobedience: a form of unconventional participation designed to consciously break a law thought to be unjust.

Demography: the science of human populations.

Exit poll: a poll taken at randomly selected polling places after the citizens have placed their votes.

Gender gap: a consistent attitudinal pattern where women are more likely than men to express liberal attitudes and to support Democratic candidates.

Melting pot: the mixture of cultures, ideas, and peoples in the United States.

Minority majority: a reference to the impending status of white, Anglo-Saxon Americans, currently holding majority status.

Political ideology: a coherent set of values and beliefs about public policy and public purpose.

Political participation: the activities used by citizens to influence political outcomes.

Political socialization: the process by which citizens acquire their knowledge, feelings, and evaluations of the political world.

Protest: a form of political participation designed to change policy through unconventional tactics.

Public opinion: the distribution of the population’s beliefs about politics and issues.

Random digit dialing: phone numbers are dialed at random around the country.

Random sampling: a polling technique which is based on the principle that everyone has an equal probability of being selected as part of the sample.

Reapportionment: the reallocation of 435 seats in the House of Representatives based on changes in residency and population found in the census.

Sample: a small proportion of the population chosen as representative of the whole population.

Sampling error: the level of confidence involved in a sample result—the level is dependent on the size of the sample.

TEACHING IDEAS: CLASS DISCUSSION AND STUDENT PROJECTS


  • Public opinion surveys consistently reveal an astounding lack of public knowledge about politics. Give students a "pop quiz" on several major political issues and have them grade their own quiz. Alternatively, administer to them a subset of questions from the exam that the Immigration and Naturalization Service administers to immigrants applying for citizenship. Briefly discuss their performance, and possible reasons for it. Then ask your students to discuss whether the American political system is affected by such a low level of public information.




  • The textbook points out that the diversity of the American public and its opinions must be faithfully channeled through the political process in order for the American government to work efficiently and effectively. At the same time, the least informed among the public are also the least likely to participate in the political process. Ask your class to evaluate the effect that this inequality of participation has on the democratic process.




  • Select a controversial topic (such as flag burning, partial birth abortion, or affirmative action). Call for each student to devise a survey to measure attitudes on this issue and administer it to a group of friends. Their surveys will not be representative, so they should obtain very different results. Use the results to discuss the problems that may arise with improperly administered surveys, particularly if the public relies on the results.




  • The authors of the textbook point out that more people today think the government is too big rather than too small, yet a plurality has consistently called for increased spending on domestic programs. Many political scientists have looked at these contradictory findings and concluded that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. Ask your class to examine this theory with reference to public debate over President Bush’s budget proposals in 2001.




  • Have students visit the Internet site operated by Gallup, the National Election Study, or the General Social Survey to find public opinion data on a question of interest. Have each student write up, or present orally in class, what the question wording was, the response distribution, and how to interpret the data.




  • One very effective way to reinforce the problems of public opinion measurement, especially in regard to attitude stability, is to examine a policy proposal currently before Congress or awaiting the President's signature. Any policy proposal from the previous two weeks which has been covered by the media is sufficient. Take a simple poll asking students whether they support implementation or not. After each set has expressed either a yes, no, or no opinion response, count or estimate the percentage of the class for each category. Then choose students from each group to tell briefly why they gave their answers. After no more than ten minutes of debate and discussion about the bill, take the poll again. Using the same question format, ask which students are for, against, or have no opinion. Count or estimate the percentage of students in each category again. Discuss the implications of any shift in the percentage answering for, against, and no opinion. In particular, emphasize the role of information and group consciousness in creating the shift. Finally, remind students that if public opinion can shift in ten minutes, to consider the effect of information for determining the accuracy of public attitudes in polls taken in one week, one month, six months, and one year intervals. This exercise reinforces the problems of using public opinion polls to guide public policymaking.

  • The concept of political socialization is difficult for students to grasp without examples and discussion. Ask students to think about the role of political symbols in society. In particular, ask students to list these symbols and where they are most often seen. For example, the flag, the constitution, Uncle Sam, etc. Discuss the pledge of allegiance as a socializing agent for young children as well as activities during Fourth of July celebrations, which are often used to reinforce public values of nationalism, patriotism, and reverence for the Constitution. Once they have listed a variety of these, then ask them to explain why the national anthem is sung at baseball games. Ask how many know all of the words, how many have stood but did not sing, and how many did not sing or stand while the national anthem was being sung at a baseball game. This exercise provides an unintimidating yet thoughtful way of emphasizing just how pervasive political socialization has been used to instill principles, values, and beliefs in citizens. A follow-up exercise may include a short essay debating whether the reciting of the pledge of allegiance or the singing of the national anthem is more appropriate for baseball games, given that most people can say the pledge without hesitation, but have trouble singing the national anthem.

  • Ask students to watch criminal justice entertainment shows from the 1970s compared to those in the 1990s. Then have students write brief essays on the political value or information conveyed in these shows, and the implications of these for individuals’ political beliefs.

  • Using newspaper archives and/or the Internet, ask students to research recent protests at the World Trade Organization meetings, or other international summits or other more "local" protests. Who were the protestors, and what were they protesting? What response did they receive?

  • To provide students with an excellent example of how political scientists evaluate public opinion, ask students to read John Zalber’s article, “What Monica Lewinsky Taught Us About Public Opinion,” and come to class prepared to discuss its major points.


BACKGROUND READING
Alvarez, R. Michael and John Brehm. Hard Choices, Easy Answers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Asher, Herbert. Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1998.

Asher, Herbert. Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know, 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1998.

Campbell, Angus, et. al. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley, 1960.

Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter. What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Key, V. O. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Page, Benjamin I., and Robert Y. Shapiro. The Rational Public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Zaller, John R. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1992.

Althaus, Scott L. Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kellstedt, Paul M. The Mass Media and the Dynamics of American Racial Attitudes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.



MEDIA SUGGESTIONS
Leading Questions. Part of the Public Mind series distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences. This program examines public opinion polling and marketing techniques used in campaigns.

Eyes on the Prize, Selected videos cover various protest strategies of the Civil Rights Movement.






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