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11. Public Opinion: Voice of the People, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Topic Overview Unit 11

Public Opinion: Voice of the People

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Define public opinion and discuss its major characteristics.

  • Discuss the role that public opinion has in the American political system.

  • Discuss the role of public opinion polls in politics and government.

  • Describe the factors important to carrying out an accurate poll, and the strength and weaknesses of data from polls.

  • Describe means, other than polling, for gauging public opinion.

Unit 11 examines the important role of public opinion in American democracy. The difficult concept of public opinion is illustrated by first exploring the political culture of the United States. The unit then offers an illustration of the powerful influence that public opinion can and often does have on decision makers. The unit also elucidates the process of taking a poll, demonstrating the pitfalls that can befall those who do polling. Finally, the unit explores other avenues available to the public to express their opinion. The prevalence of polling often obscures these other powerful ways of expressing one's views.

Most Americans share a common, or core, political culture, which is a set of values, beliefs, and traditions regarding politics and government. Our shared values include a general faith in representative democracy, in basic freedoms like freedom of speech, in basic rights such as voting, and in the principles of capitalism and private property.

While our shared values that make up our political culture remain intact, many Americans have lost confidence in their government and public officials. Beginning in the 1960s, an increasing proportion of Americans expressed a general distrust of government officials and a cynicism about politics and government. By 2000, almost two-thirds of Americans felt distant and disconnected from government. There are various possible reasons for this growing discontent with government and political processes including people's frustration with the influence of moneyed interests in American politics and latent distrust of political leaders that stems from events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate. Despite these feelings of discontent and distrust, most Americans still believe that no other country provides the opportunities found in the United States.

Our core political values shape our attitudes. Political socialization is the process by which we learn our political values. There are several socializing agents that influence our political values including family, school, peers, mass media, and social groups. Children, for example, often adopt the party identification of their parents, especially if both parents strongly identify with the same party. In addition, primary and secondary schools familiarize young people with authority figures outside the family and teach respect for democratic processes. Personal and group attributes such as gender, race, and religion may also influence a person's political values.

The process of political socialization is unique to each individual. However, some common attributes may be identified among people with similar social backgrounds. Socioeconomic status (SES) is a composite measure of an individual's income, education, and occupation. While there are exceptions to the rule, individuals with higher incomes and education levels and more-professional occupations tend to be more politically conservative than those with lower incomes and education and with less-professional jobs. Individuals in higher SES brackets also tend to vote more than those with lower SES measures.

Public officials, political candidates, and media outlets have increasingly come to depend on public opinion polls to gauge public opinion. The selection of interviewees by method of random probability sampling, in which every person in the population theoretically has an equal chance of being selected, is essential to a good poll. But even with random probability sampling the best polls contain a margin of error, which means the results can vary by a defined probability depending on the size of the sample. For example, national samples of 1,500 respondents will usually be accurate within three percentage points, plus or minus.

Poorly designed polls provide inaccurate or misleading findings. In addition to inadequate sample size or lack of randomness in selecting interviewees, leading or biased questions can undermine the accuracy of poll results. For example, pollsters would likely get different aggregate responses to a question about "intrusive government programs" versus "necessary government programs."

Polling technology has come a long way since the 1930s. But there are limits to how much polls can tell us. It is one thing to understand how a majority of people responds to a survey question, it is another thing to measure a person's intensity of feelings. Some people may state an opinion or preference on an issue even though they don't care deeply about it either way. Others may feel strongly about the issue, but the multiple choices offered don't accurately reflect how deeply they care. Another factor to consider is issue salience, or how important the issue is to the public. Some issues that may be very important to most people may be addressed in the same poll with issues that most people care or know little about. Also, most polls only provide a snapshot picture of what the public feels on an issue at that time. Public opinion, however, is not always stable; as events change, so do attitudes.

The fact that public officials and political candidates use polls does not mean that their decision-making is guided solely by poll results. Instead, public officials use polls as one form of feedback on public opinion. They also try to gauge the intensity and saliency of the public's policy preferences by talking to constituents, reading their mail, listening to interest groups, interpreting election results, and relying on their own political instincts and values. If they perceive that the public does not feel strongly about an issue or that opinions are unstable, they may try to shape public opinion through their leadership on an issue.


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