Public opinion, or the collection of attitudes and views held by the general public, is very difficult to assess. The public is often uninformed about what the government is doing.. An even greater problem exists in the polling techniques themselves. How a pollster words a question can dramatically affect the answer received. For instance, rates of agreement or disagreement with a one-sided statement can differ when two balanced statements on the same issue are offered. The order in which possible responses are listed can also have an effect on the poll. Accurate polling requires a random sample; there is a correlation between large samples and greater accuracy, but expense can prohibit large samples. For most Americans government and politics are not as big a priority as jobs, family, or friends. Democracy is not dependent on people investing major amounts 'of time on understanding government. In fact, it perhaps works best when people are given simple, clear-cut choices. Furthermore, attitudes towards specific issues are probably less important than larger values such as liberty, equality, individualism, and civic duty.
Sources of Political Beliefs: Our political choices are based on our individual orientation. For adults, this is generally a combination of several factors and the result of a complex process known as political socialization: 1. Family - The most thoroughly researched aspect of opinion formation concerns party identification. The majority of young people identify with their parents' political party. This identification starts in elementary school. As people grow older, they become independent of their parents in many ways, including their political outlook. Yet a strong correlation exists even between mature adults and their parents' political party preferences (probably around 60 percent). 2. Religion - Religious tradition often has an impact on political orientation, again most often through the family. For instance, studies have shown that Catholic families are somewhat more liberal on economic issues than white Protestant ones, while Jewish families (except Orthodox) are much more liberal on both economic and social issues than both Catholics or Protestants. Strong political movements associated with religious groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition show that religious differences can certainly impact a person's politics. 3. Gender - A gender gap exists in American politics. The extent of that gap and its tendencies vary according to different time periods. Men have become increasingly Republican since the mid-1960s, while the voting behavior of women has changed little (they are about 58 percent Democrat). The biggest reason for this gap appears to be attitudes about the size of government, gun control, spending programs aimed at the poor, and gay rights. 4. Education - College students are more liberal than the general population, especially at the most selective colleges. Moreover, the longer students stay in college the more liberal they tend to be. Because Americans today are far more likely to be college graduates than a generation ago, college plays an increasingly important role in political socialization, most likely because of the ideas, movements and liberal professors encountered there.
Cleavages in Public Opinion: The process of political socialization helps explain why political cleavages exist among Americans. These cleavages overlap and crosscut in a bewildering array. Today there are cleavages based on social class, race and ethnicity, and region: 1. Social class - Though social class can be an ambiguous distinction, socioeconomic differences no doubt playa role in politics. They play less of a role in the United States, however, than they do in Europe, and in both, class has had a declining impact. Nevertheless, unskilled workers are more likely than affluent white-collar workers to be Democrats and have liberal views on economic policy. Class is playing a diminishing role because of the increasing importance of non-economic factors in our ideologies. Political ideologies are now more likely to be framed by issues such as race relations, abortion, school prayer, arms control, and environmentalism. 2. Race and ethnicity - African Americans are overwhelmingly Democrats, while whites are more likely to be Republicans, but this traditionally strong cleavage seems to be weakening a little. More young African Americans are identifying themselves as Republicans. Latinos generally identify themselves as Democrats, but to a less significant degree than African Americans. Asian Americans are generally identified with the Republican party. However, all of these generalizations conceal important differences within these ethnic groups. For example, Japanese Americans tend to be more conservative than Korean Americans, and Cuban Americans tend to be more conservative than Mexican Americans. 3. Region - The most significant regional cleavage in American politics has been between southern and northern voters. The South has traditionally been more accommodating to business enterprise, (Texas) and the Northeast supports labor unions. The biggest difference among white voters, however, has been on the issue of race. Today the political views of white southerners are less distinct from those of whites living in other parts of the country. The South, West, and Midwest continue to be conservative, while the Northeast and West Coast tend to be more liberal.
Political Ideology: The definitions of liberal and conservative have changed over time. Originally, a liberal was a person who favored personal and economic liberty, free from the controls and powers of the government (Adam Smith). The term"conservative" was first applied to those who opposed the excesses of the French Revolution (Edmund Burke). Beginning with the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, liberal in the United States was used to describe someone who supported an active national government that would intervene in the economy and create social welfare programs. Conservative described those who opposed this activist national government. Conservatives support a free market rather than a regulated one, states' rights over national supremacy, and greater reliance on individual choice in economic affairs. The meanings of these terms continue to evolve. For instance, liberals were once known for favoring laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity among the races, yet now many liberals would favor affirmative action plans that include racial quotas. Conservatives once opposed American intervention abroad, yet now many would support an active role internationally. In some respects, the categories of liberal and conservative seem too broad to be useful in understanding the ideologies of Americans. For instance, one can be liberal economically but not socially. Others might be quite conservative economically yet not agree with conservative positions on foreign policy. An ideology can be consistent and still contain liberal and conservative values. Overlapping values are so prevalent that liberal or conservative in their pure form describes relatively few people. Then there are Libertarians, conservative on economic matters and liberal on social ones.
The political elite is likely to espouse a purely liberal or purely conservative ideology. The political elite is made up of those who have a disproportionate amount of power in policy-making. In the United States the political elites are activists. While an elite might be an officeholder, he or she might work for campaigns or newspapers, head interest groups or social movements, or have a wide audience in speaking out on public issues. The more a person is an activist, the more likely it is that he or she will show ideological consistency and take a position more extreme in its liberalism or conservatism. Congress, for instance, has a high degree of ideological consistency, as do delegates to national conventions.
Political elites and average voters see politics in different ways, making the power of the elites important for at least a couple of reasons. First, the political elite has more access to the media. This creates the power to raise and frame political issues. For instance, environmentalism at one time received little attention. Later it became an important concern of government. A major study found that elite views shape mass views by influencing both which issues capture the public's attention and how those issues are debated and decided. Second, elites determine the range of acceptable and unacceptable policy options on an issue (state the norm). For instance, civil rights leaders have said over and over again that racism and sexism are wrong. This repetition has created so much pressure that their opponents, even if not convinced that racism and sexism are wrong, must find ways to make their positions less obvious or less strident.
The Framers of the Constitution, unable to reach a compromise on voter eligibility, left the matter mostly in the hands of the states. Control of the voting process has moved gradually from state to federal control. Early federal elections, under state management, varied greatly. Some states picked their representatives at large rather than by district. Others had districts but picked two per district. Still others had elections in odd-numbered years. Through law and constitutional amendment, Congress has required that all members of the House be elected by district and that all federal elections be held in even-numbered years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
The most important congressional changes over the years, however, have been those giving the vote to African Americans, women, and eighteen-year-olds. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, stated that the right to vote would not be denied to any "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Though the language seems plain, several states passed laws to deny suffrage to African Americans-for example, literacy tests and poll taxes. To allow poor or illiterate whites to vote, a grandfather clause said that a person could vote while not meeting all the requirements if his ancestors voted before 1867. White primaries, in which African Americans were kept from voting in primary elections, emerged later. If none of these kept African Americans from the polls, they were intimidated, harassed, and threatened by government officials, law enforcement, and vigilantes. Each of these restrictions has been challenged and overturned at the federal level. The grandfather clause was declared unconstitutional in 1915, and the white primary in 1944. Blatantly discriminatory literacy tests were also overturned. In 1965, the passage of the Voting Rights Act suspended all literacy tests and allowed the federal government to send registrars to states and counties where less than 50 percent of the voting-age public was registered or had voted in the previous presidential election. Black voting rose sharply, particularly in the South. Some states are trying to end federal control of their elections.
Suffrage for women was also slow in developing. Several states in the West had given women the vote by 1915. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, provided most women with their first opportunity to vote after decades of struggle. In one stroke the size of the voting population virtually doubled. Initially, women voted more or less in the same manner as men, squelching fears that dramatic changes would result from the amendment.
The Twenty-sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, gave suffrage to eighteen-year-olds. But voter turnout for people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five has been lower than for the population at large.
During the elections of the late 1800s, at least 70 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls, the number at times getting as high as 80 percent. Voter turnout for the past several decades has remained about the same-between 50 and 60 percent of those eligible-and lags behind the large turnouts of the latter part of the nineteenth century. The meaning of these figures is a source of debate. One view is that a popular decline in interest in elections and a weakening of the competitiveness of the two major parties have occurred. During the late nineteenth century, parties fought bitterly and had great influence over the electorate. They worked hard to get as many voters to the polls as possible, and caucuses and conventions provided other motivating opportunities to participate. Legal barriers to participation (such as complex registration procedures) were kept at a low level, and great general excitement surrounded elections. Interest waned in the early twentieth century as Republicans dominated national elections, and politics seemed to lose its relevance to the average voter. Another view is that the perceived decline in turnout is misleading. Voting fraud during the late nineteenth century was more commonplace. The famous slogan "Vote early and often" was not meant as humor but as a fact. Parties , dominated by political machines (Tammany in New York) controlled the counting of votes. As a result, the number of votes counted was often larger than the number cast, and the number cast was often larger than the number of individuals eligible to vote. As safeguards to the validity of voting developed in the early twentieth century, numbers of votes decreased. This may explain the decline in voter participation.
Strict voter-registration procedures were developed to fight the fraud of the late nineteenth century, but these have had unintended consequences. Voting declined because it was difficult for some groups of voters, such as those with little education, to register. Voter registration is one reason why Americans lag behind other democracies in voter turnout. Most Americans believe low voter turnout reflects voter apathy. This is misleading. In this country, only two-thirds of the voting-age population is registered to vote. In most European nations, registration is done automatically, requiring no effort of the individual voter. Registering to vote in this country falls entirely on individual voters. They must learn how, when, and where to register; they must go to the time and trouble to process their registrations; they must register again if they relocate. The 1993 Motor-Voter Law, which requires states to allow people to register to vote when applying for driver's licenses, was an attempt to simplify voter registration. There was an initial surge of new registrations, but results have been mixed since. The United States compares more favorably with other democracies when turnout of registered voters is the standard of comparison. The real problem, therefore, is the relative percentage of registered voters rather than apathy. Two careful studies found that almost all of the differences between voter turnout in the United States and other democracies could be explained by party strength, automatic registration, and compulsory voting laws.
Voting is by far the most common form of political participation, but it is certainly not the only form. One model assigns six levels of participation to Americans: 1. Inactive - About one-fifth of the population does not participate in any way. They do not vote, and probably do not even talk about politics very much. They would typically have little education and a low income and be young. 2. Voting specialists - These are people who vote but do not participate in any other substantial way. They tend to have little schooling and tend to be older than the average citizen. 3. Campaigners - These people not only vote but also enjoy involvement in campaigns. They are generally better educated than the average citizen. They tend to engage in the conflicts, passions, and struggles of politics. They often have strong identification with a political party, and they have strong positions on issues. 4. Communalists - These have social backgrounds similar to campaigners' but are far more nonpartisan. They devote their time and energy to community activities and local problems, often contacting local officials about these problems. 5. Parochials - These stay away from elections but often contact local politicians about specific, often personal problems. 6. Activists - Constituting about one-ninth of the population, these are people who are often highly educated, have high incomes, and tend to be middle-aged. They participate in all forms of politics. .
Certain profiles are far more likely to produce voters and other forms of political participation. College graduates are more likely to participate than those with less education. Older people (especially those above the age of forty-five) tend to vote and participate more than younger people do. Regular churchgoers tend to participate more than non-churchgoers if all other factors are equal. Men and women vote at about the same rate. Minorities vote less than whites, though the gap has narrowed significantly in 2008 and 2012. However, this is most likely a socioeconomic phenomenon, as minorities with the same level of education and income as whites tend to vote more than whites. Political elites and those with high levels of external efficacy are the group most likely to vote.
Americans may be voting less, but there is evidence that they are participating more in campaigning, contacting government officials, and working on community issues. Some are conventional, using widely accepted modes of influencing government such as voting, trying to persuade others, petitioning, giving money to campaigns and even running for office are considered conventional forms of participation. Aside from voting itself, these forms are all on the rise. Unconventional include more dramatic activities such as protesting, civil disobedience, and even violence. The media often pays attention to these methods.
A political party is a group that seeks to elect candidates to public office by giving those candidates an identification that is recognizable to the electorate. Parties in this country have become relatively weak. There is no mention of parties or the two party system in the constitution. The party system has evolved over time and parties change over time.
Critical periods produce sharp, lasting realignments of the parties. Good examples include the election of 1860, which made the Republicans a major party, and the election of 1932, which began the era of the New Deal. Electoral realignments seem to occur when a new issue of great importance cuts across existing party lines and replaces old issues that previously had held a party together. New coalitions combine to form a different composition within a party. Although the Founders disliked parties and guarded against them, parties quickly emerged in the young republic. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had a number of policy disagreements even while serving in George Washington's administration. Their followers developed into loose caucuses that became the first political parties. Jefferson's followers were labeled the Republicans-not todays Republican party, and Hamilton's followers were called the Federalists. Both parties were relatively weak.
Andrew Jackson and his followers changed the party system by making it a fixture of the masses. By 1832, presidential electors were selected by popular vote in most states, giving the common man greater impact. Jackson's party, the Democrats-the original members of todays Democratic party-built from the bottom up. Presidential caucuses, at which party leaders nominated presidential candidates, were replaced by a national party convention. Another party, the Whigs, emerged to oppose the Jacksonian Democrats. The modern Republican party began as a third party and became a major party as a result of the Civil War. Republican dominance of the White House, and to a lesser extent of Congress, for the following seventy-five years was the result of two forces. Supporters of the Union during the Civil War became Republicans for several generations, while former Confederates consolidated as Democrats. Parties found strength in certain sections of the country, and because of sectionalism, most states came to be dominated by one party, with factions developing within each party.
Reform of the party system began with the progressives of the early 1900s and was amplified during the New Deal. Progressives pushed measures that were designed to curtail the power and influence of both local and national party activities. Primary elections were favored over nominating conventions. Party alliances with business were halted. Strict voter registration requirements became the norm, as did civil service reform to eliminate patronage. Initiative and referendum measures were started in many states to allow citizens to vote directly on proposed legislation. The corruption of machines was controlled through voter registration, civil service, and the Hatch Act, which made it illegal for federal civil service employees to take an active part in a political campaign while on the job. These reforms reduced the worst kinds of corruption. At the same time, they weakened the parties by allowing officeholders to be less accountable to them and by hindering coordination of parties across the branches of government. In recent decades the Democrats and Republicans have seemed to be decaying and dealigning, not realigning as in earlier eras. The proportion of those identifying with a party declined between 1960 and 1980 while the proportion of those voting a split ticket (voting for one party for certain offices and another party for other offices) increased. Ticket splitting creates divided government, in which different parties control the White House and Congress. Divided government is strong evidence of the overall weakening of the parties.
At the national level, the two major parties appear to be quite similar. Both hold national conventions every four years to nominate the presidential candidates. Both have a national committee composed of delegates from the states, who manage affairs between conventions. Congressional campaign committees support congressional candidates with party money, and a national chair manages daily work. The party structures of the Democrats and Republicans took different paths in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Republicans became a well-financed, highly staffed organization devoted to funding and electing Republican candidates, especially to Congress. Democrats changed their rules for nominating presidential candidates, altering the distribution of power in the party. Consequently the Republicans became an efficient bureaucracy while the Democrats became quite factionalized. Republicans were also the first to take advantage of computerized mailings, building a huge file of names of people who had given or might give money to the party. Eventually the Democrats adopted the same techniques, and both parties began to focus on sending money to state parties, sidestepping federal spending restrictions, a loophole referred to as soft money.
The major event of the national parties is the national convention. The national committee sets the time and place for each convention, held every presidential election year. Different formulas are used to allocate delegates at the conventions. Democrats in recent decades have tended to shift delegates away from the South to the North and the West. Republicans have shifted delegates away from the East and towards the South and the Southwest. Ideologically this has caused the Democrats to move more to the left and the Republicans more to the right. In addition, the Democrats have established different rules for their convention. The power of local party leaders was weakened and the proportion of women, African Americans, youth, and Native Americans attending the convention was increased. Later reforms reestablished some of the influence of elected officials by reserving 14 percent of the delegates for party leaders and elected officials, who would not have to commit themselves in advance to a presidential candidate. These became known as superdelegates. Democrats have also changed the distribution of delegates drawn from state primaries and caucuses. A state's delegates are divided among candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote, rather than the traditional winner-reward system that gave primary and caucus winners extra delegates.
The United States has a two-party system that dates back to the original parties-the Republicans and the Federalists. Several unique features are responsible for this system. Elections at every level are based on the plurality, winner-take-all method. A plurality system means that the winner is the person who gets the most votes, even if he or she does not get a majority of all votes cast. The most dramatic example of the winner-take-all principle is the electoral college. In all but two states, Nebraska and Maine, the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. Minor parties cannot compete under this system because they are unable to get enough votes to defeat a major party candidate.
Another explanation for the endurance of the two-party system is found in the opinions of the voters. There has always been a rough parity between the two parties, and most voters have been satisfied to let their individual beliefs fall into one of the two broad coalitions that the parties represent. Bitter dissent within parties has been quite common, but only sparingly has such dissent driven voters to a third party. Though. rarely successful at getting candidates elected, minor parties, or third parties, have often come on the American political scene. These tend to fall into four categories: 1. Ideological parties - tend to be at the edges of the political spectrum. Some examples are the Socialist party, the Communist party, the Green party, and the Libertarian party. 2. One-issue parties - Minor parties often address a single issue. Examples include the Prohibition party (to ban alcohol) and the Women's party (to obtain women's voting rights). 3. Economic protest parties - Often regional, they protest against depressed economic conditions. Examples include the Populist party, the Reform party (under Ross Perot), and the Greenback party. 4. Factional parties - Splits in the major parties can create a factional party, usually over the identity and philosophy of the major party's presidential candidate. Examples include the "Bull Moose" Progressive party and the States' Rights party.