Public Opinion and Political Ideology – Text Notes and Discussion Questions

Public Opinion and Ideology


The purpose of this chapter is to explore what
we mean by public opinion and to ask what sorts of effects public
opinion has on our supposedly democratic form of government. After
reading and reviewing the material in this chapter the student should
be able to do each of the following:

1 . List the sources of our political
attitudes, and indicate which are the most important.

2. Explain why there are crosscutting cleavages
between liberals and conservatives in this country. Assess the
significance of race in explaining political attitudes.

3. Define political ideology and give reasons
why most Americans do not think ideologically. Summarize the liberal
positions on the economy, civil rights, and political

4. Identify which elite groups have become
liberal, and compare their present attitudes with the past political
preferences of these groups. Discuss the new class theory as an
explanation for changes in attitudes. Analyze why these changes are
causing strain in the political party system.

A political ideology is a coherent and
consistent set of beliefs about who ought to rule, what principles
rulers ought to obey, and what policies rulers ought to pursue.
Whether people have a political ideology can be measured in two ways:
(1) by seeing how frequently people speak in terms of broad political
categories-liberal or conservative-when they discuss politics;. and
(2) by measuring the extent to which we can predict a person’s view
on one issue by knowing his or her view on another issue.

Most studies show relatively little ideological
thinking among Americans. However, several qualifications should be
kept in mind. Ideological consistency is defined somewhat
arbitrarily. It is assumed that consistent liberalism involves
favoring social welfare policies at home and opposing a strong stand
against communism abroad. It is clear, however, that political
activists are much more likely than the average citizen to think in
ideological terms and to take “consistent” positions on issues. Also,
voters may think more ideologically when one or both presidential
candidates take sharply ideological positions (as in 1964, 1972,
1980, and 1984).

Text Outline

I. What is public opinion?

A. Government does not always do what
people want

1. Unbalanced budget

2. Opposition to busing

3. Support for ERA

4. Aid to Nicaragua

5. Congressional term limits

6. Campaign Finance Reform

7. Gun Control

8. Abortion

B . Reasons public policy and public opinion
may differ

1. Many constitutional checks on
public opinion; many public’s conflict

2. Difficult to know public

3. Government listens more to elite

C. Influences and limitations

1. Public ignorance: Monetary
Control Bill ruse, poor name recognition of leaders

2. Importance of wording of questions:
affects answer

3. Instability of public

4. Public has more important things to
think about-need clear-cut political choices

5. Specific attitudes may be less
important for health of society than political

II. The origins of political

A. The role of family

1. Party identification of family
absorbed, but more independent as child grows

2. Much continuity between

3. Declining ability to pass on

4. Younger voters exhibit less
partisanship; more likely to be independent

5. Meaning of partisanship unclear; less
influence on policy preferences

6. Clear political ideologies passed on
in a few families

B. Religion

1. Religious traditions affect

a. Catholic families somewhat
more liberal

b. Protestant families more

c. Jewish families decidedly more

2. Two theories on differences

a. Social status of religious

b. Content of the religious

3. Christian Coalition – grassroots
mobilization, Republican affiliation

C. The gender gap

1. Changing partisan

a. Women were likely to be
Republicans in 1950’s

b. Women were likely to be Democrats
since late 1960’s

c. Change due to shift in party policy
positions (abortion, equal pay/equal work, etc.)

D. Schooling and information

1. College education has
liberalizing effect

2. Effect extends beyond end of

3. Cause of this

a. Personal traits: temperament,
family, intelligence

b. Exposure to information

c. Liberalism of professors

4. Effect growing as more go to

5. Increasing conservatism since

a. Yes (oppose legalizing
marijuana and abortion) and …

b. …No (support school

III. Cleavages in public opinion – Cleavages in
opinion in the United States are numerous and crosscutting. No single
feature of an individual’s life (such as social class) explains all
(or even most) of that individual’s attitudes. Among the important

cleavages are:

A. Social class / Occupation: less
important in U.S. than in Europe

Today occupation has a weaker association
with political opinions than it did in the 1950s. The traditional
gap-manual workers were more liberal that business or professional
persons in their attitudes toward the economy and social welfare
legislation-has narrowed. This is not necessarily because class no
longer matters but rather because a new elite whose status is
based on education and technical skills, the new class,
has arisen over the past generation.

This new class is situated not in
traditional, capitalist business enterprise but in government,
academia, think tanks, and the media. This class has strained the
Democratic party; it is younger, urban, and more liberal on
economic and social issues than the traditional middle class,
which is conservative and blue-collar. Gary Hart appealed to this
new class in the primary campaigns of 1984, as did Paul Tsongas in

1 . More important in 1950’s on
social welfare and foreign policy

2. Less important in 1960’s on poverty
programs, health insurance, Vietnam, government – created

3. Why the change?

a. Occupation depends more on
schooling, so upper-class exposed to liberalism

b. Non economic issues now define
liberal and conservative


B . Race and ethnicity – Blacks are
generally far more liberal than whites, on issues ranging from
busing and housing discrimination to the death penalty, national
defense, and national health insurance.

1 . Becoming more important even on
nonracial matters

2. Blacks most consistently liberal group
within Democratic Party; little cleavage among

3. Hispanic and Asian Americans less

C. Region – The South is the least liberal
of the four regions, with the Midwest somewhat more liberal and
the East and West most liberal. The South became, and long
remained, part of the Democratic coalition because southerners
were fairly liberal on economic issues. However, the rise of
racial and social issues (on which the South is quite
conservative) ended southern attachment to the Democratic

1. Southerners more conservative
than northerners regarding military and civil rights issues,
but difference fading among whites

2. Southerners more accommodating of

IV. Political ideology

A. Consistent attitudes

1. Ideology: coherent and
consistent set of political beliefs about who ought to rule,
the principles rulers ought to obey, and what policies rulers
ought to pursue

2. Most citizens moderates

3. Yet many have strong political

B. What do “liberalism” and “conservatism”

1. Liberal and conservative labels
have complex history

a. early 1800’s: liberal-support
personal, economic liberty; conservative-restore power of
state, church, aristocracy

b. Roosevelt and New Deal: liberalism
= activist government

c. Conservative reaction to activism
(Goldwater): free market, states’ rights, individual choice
in economics

d. Today’s meanings are imprecise and

C. Various categories

1. Three useful categories emerge
from studies

a. Economic policy: liberals
favor jobs for all, subsidized medical care and education,
taxation of rich

b. Civil rights: liberals prefer
desegregation, strict enforcement of civil rights

c. Public and political conduct:
liberals tolerant of demonstrations, legalization of
marijuana, etc.

D. Analyzing consistency: people mix

1. Pure liberals: liberal on both
economic and personal conduct issues

2. Pure conservatives: conservative on
both economic and personal conduct issues

3. Libertarians: conservative on economic
issues, liberal on personal conduct issues

4. Populists: liberal on economic issues,
conservative on personal conduct issues

5. What about abortion and homosexuality,
where do these issues fit in?

E. Political elites

1. Definition: those who have a
disproportionate amount of some valued resource

2. Elites, or activists, display greater
ideological consistency

a. They have more information
than most people

b. Their peers reinforce

F. Is there a new class?

1. Definition: those who are
advantaged by the power, resources, and growth of government
(not business, as elites previously were)

Linda Medcalf and Kenneth Dolbeare
contend that the new class has evolved a distinctive ideology,
one they call neoliberalism. Instead of assigning priority to
equality and freedom, as in classical liberalism, this ideology
focuses on producing new wealth through high technology.
Neoliberalism uses public needs as a guide and relies on
government incentives to encourage industrial development. Gary
Hart / Bill Clinton / Al Gore endorses new liberal

2. Two explanations of well-off
individuals who are liberals

a – Directly benefit from

b. Liberal ideology infusing
postgraduate education

3. Traditional middle class: four years
of college, suburban, church affiliated, pro business,
conservative on social issues, Republican

4. Liberal middle class (or new class):
postgraduate education, urban, critical of business, liberal on
social issues, Democrat

5. Emergence of new class creates strain
in Democratic party

V. Political elites, public opinion, and public

A. Elites influence public opinion in
two ways

1. Raise and frame political

2. State norms by which to settle issues,
defining policy options

3. Elite views shape mass

B. Limits to elite influence on the

1. Elites do not define

2. Many elites exist, hence many elite


conservative A political
ideology that, although changing in meaning, adheres to the following
principles and practices: on economic matters, it does not favor
government efforts to ensure that everyone has a job; on civil
rights, does not favor strong federal action to desegregate schools
and increase hiring opportunities for minorities; and on political
conduct, does not favor tolerance toward protest demonstrations,
legalizing marijuana, or protecting the rights of the

elite People with a
disproportionate amount of a valued resource.

gender gap Differences between
the political views of men and women.

John Q. Public The average man
or woman on the street, often portrayed by cartoonists as

liberal A political ideology
that, although changing in meaning, adheres to the following
principles and practices: on economic matters, it favors government
efforts to ensure that everyone has a job; on civil rights, it favors
strong federal action to desegregate schools and increase hiring
opportunities for minorities; and on political conduct, it favors
tolerance toward protest demonstrations, legalizing marijuana, and
protecting the rights of the accused.

libertarians And adherent of a
political ideology that is conservative on economic matters and
liberal on social ones. The ideology’s goal is the creation of a
small, weak government.

Middle America A phrase coined
by Joseph Kraft in a 1968 newspaper column to refer to Americans who
have moved out of poverty but who are not yet affluent and who
cherish the traditional middle-class values.

new class People whose
advantages stem not so much from their connections with business as
from the growth of government.

norm A standard of right and
proper conduct. Elites tend to state the norms by which issues should
be settled.

partisanship Identification
with a political party.

political elite A person who
possesses a disproportionate share of political power.

political ideology A coherent
and consistent set of beliefs about who ought to rule, what
principles rulers ought to obey, and what policies rulers ought to

poll A survey of public

populists An adherent of a
political ideology that is liberal on economic matters and
conservative on social ones. It believes the government should reduce
economic inequality but regulate personal conduct.

pure conservatism A political
ideology that is conservative on both economic and personal

pure liberalism A political
ideology that is liberal on both economic and personal

random sample A sample

selected in such a way that any member of the population being
surveyed (e.g., all adults or voters) has an equal chance of being

religious tradition The values
associated with the major religious denominations in America:
Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. In general, Catholic families are
somewhat more liberal on economic issues than white Protestant ones,
while Jewish families are much more liberal on both economic and
social issues than families of either Christian religion.

sampling error The difference
between the results from two different samples of the same
population. This difference in answers is not significant and its
likely size can be computed mathematically. In general, the bigger
the sample and the bigger the differences between the percentage of
people giving one answer and the percentage giving another, the
smaller the error.

silent majority A term
referring to people, whatever their economic status, who uphold
traditional values, especially against the counterculture of the


1. How is religion related to political
attitudes? The text suggests that the theologies of various religions
have an important effect. Can you think of other explanations for the
correlation between religion and political attitudes? For example,
does it matter that, historically, Catholics tended to be blue-collar
workers in northern cities? That Jews were disproportionately
intellectuals? To what extent would economic self-interest explain
why religious groups differ in the ways they do?

2. The text contends that public opinion in the
United States is split by many cleavages. Yet historian Louis Hartz
argues that Americans embrace the same fundamental values. Alexis de
Tocqueville concurs; he found that “Americans were agreed upon the
most essential points.” Does the text exaggerate the degree of
cleavage in public opinion? What major disagreements exist in the
United States today?

3. What is political elite? Do we have one
unified elite, or are there different elites with radically different
views on policy? How have the political attitudes of well-off
Americans changed in recent years?

4. Who constitutes the new class? How does the
new class differ from more traditional elites in its political
attitudes? How do you explain the attitudes of the new class?
Consider the two occupational categories mentioned in the text
bankers, doctors, corporation presidents, and Wall
Street lawyers (the traditional elite) versus government officials,
research scientists, professors, and the mass media. Which group
would benefit most from each of the following

  • large-scale nationalization of
  • a reduction of income taxes on high
  • an increase in the number of social welfare
  • increased government control over the
  • more political democracy through, for
    example, referenda

5. How is race related to political attitudes?
To what extent are the distinctive political beliefs of blacks
explained by the socioeconomic position of individual blacks? Can
they be explained by the experience of blacks as a group?

6. Which of the demographic variables-sex,
race, education, age, or religion-has the greatest impact on
citizens’ policy preferences? (This is the variable whose
coefficients have the largest absolute value, for the greatest number
of issues.) List the variables from greatest to least influence. Are
your findings congruent with your expectations? For example, did you
expect gender to have a greater impact on citizens’ politics? Why or
why not?

7. Using the variables, describe individuals
who are more likely to be liberal. (These are individuals who score
high on the demographic variable-see above and whose coefficients are
positive. Women, blacks, the better educated, the young, and those
who are not evangelicals are more often liberal.) Why are such
individuals more likely to be liberals? Repeat this exercise for
conservatives. (Conservatives are more often men, whites, less
educated, older, and evangelicals.)

8. Explore the concepts of liberal and
conservative more closely. On which policy issues do women/men
respondents, black/white respondents, and so forth, take more liberal
or conservative positions? Less liberal or conservative positions?
The goal here is to look beyond stark contrasts to see the
complexities of mass opinion.

9. To what extent are your students typical of
the mass public as described in this table? To what extent are they
different? What possible explanations can be offered for the
differences? (You may wish to reference previous discussions on state
and regional political cultures.)

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