Public Opinion and Political Participation
This chapter examines what the American people actually think about politics, how they come to think what they do, and how they translate their thoughts into politically relevant actions. Chapter 4 described the major patterns of American political beliefs in philosophical and historical terms. In this chapter we concernourselves with the extent to which the general public actually subscribes to those beliefs, which leads into an examination of how people learn to think about politics. What are the influences that encourage people to become Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, as well as determine their opinions on political issues? These topics are discussed in the sections on political socialization. Thechapter concludes with a discussion of how political beliefs are translated into political actions, ranging from voting to protest demonstrations and civil disobedience.
CHAPTER 5 • Public Opinion and Political Participation
Public Opinion: What Americans Think About Politics
What Americans think about politics is important because it determines, in part, how they actpolitically. The diverse but predominantly moderate character of Americans’ political views and the relatively modest intensity with which most people advance their views set the tone for the whole political process. To understand how people think about politics is to understand an essential element of the environment within which the political process functions.
The Character of Public Opinion
The array of beliefs and attitudes that people hold about political and related affairs
Public opinion may sound like a simple and stable concept, but it is actually complex and ever changing. Public opinion is a combination of the views, attitudes, and ideas held by individuals in a community. There is no single public opinion; there is, rather, a wide variety of viewpoints.Different publics or groups of people think differently about political questions. Some people hold very sophisticated views about politics; others do not. Some people devote their entire lives to politics; others hardly ever think about politics. Certain facets of public opinion are remarkably constant. Love of country and pride in the nation’s accomplishments, for instance, are attitudes that are almostalways present and widely shared. Other facets of public opinion are dynamic, fluctuating considerably in response to social, political, and economic events. Some opinions are held intensely; others seem to be little more than casual preferences. An opinion that is intensely held is more likely
President Barack Obama discusses with CNN's Wolf Blitzer Time Magazine's cover story about himselfduring the presidential campaign in May 2008. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Public Opinion and Political Participation • CHAPTER 5
to influence what a person thinks about political candidates and how that person might get involved politically. The politically sophisticated and the general public observe the same political world. However, much of the public sees it, to borrow an expressionfrom the Bible, “through a glass darkly.” Politicians and political commentators can argue at length about what they see as the major political issues of the time, but much of this seems to pass by most of the public. As explained in the following sections, a substantial share of the American public does not care much about politics, knows relatively little about it, and does not think about it invery sophisticated terms. Still, few would admit that public opinion is unimportant. Indeed, political analysts and politicians are very concerned about what the public thinks.
How Much Americans Care and Know About Politics
The first public opinion pollsters assumed that the public cared and was reasonably wellinformed about politics; however, they were startled to find that many Americans...