Chapter Study Outline


Public opinion—citizens’ attitudes about political issues, leaders, institutions and events—serves as a political basis of support for contemporary politicians. Presidents, members of Congress, and even the Supreme Court must take account of public opinion in their efforts to govern and to make and implement policy. As the standard by which we judge the strength of American democracy, public opinion—its origins, its development, and its influence—is a key concern of modern political science. Operating at both the individual level and the collective level, public preferences are quite complex. Understanding the origins of public opinion, the state of contemporary public knowledge about politics, and the ways that political elites and the media shape public opinion are the key aims of this chapter.

  1. What Is Public Opinion?
    What is public opinion? How is it expressed? What are the most common topics on which people hold political opinions? To what extent is the character of American public opinion best described as consensus-oriented or as evidence of polarization?
    • Public opinion is the aggregation of many citizens’ views and interests regarding political issues, leaders, institutions, and events.
    • There are areas of commonality, or consensus, within American public opinion, including consensus on the legitimacy of the government, equality of opportunity, liberty, and democracy.
    • Still, there are many areas in which the public disagrees on political matters and people express their divergent opinions through private communications to officeholders, public writings and statements, and the vote.


  2. Origins of Public Opinion
    From where do Americans get their opinions about politics? What role does self-interest play in determining one’s political views? What are the most common sources of political socialization and how do they shed light on the differences in opinion that occupy American politics? What is the role of political ideology in organizing the political opinions Americans hold?
    • Individuals’ preferences about politics and policy are rooted partly in self-interest, including economic interests as well as interests arising from laws relating to geographical location, social status, and other personal attributes.
    • Individuals’ attitudes about politics also tend to be shaped by underlying values that are deeply seated and reflect established community norms.
    • Individuals’ identities shape their preferences as well, since they tap fundamental psychological attachments that go beyond interests and values.
    • Preferences are formed socially, as the product of various agents and processes known as political socialization. There are numerous agents of socialization.
      • The family is an important agent of socialization. Children often (though by no means always) absorb political preferences from their parents.
      • Education, often a great equalizer and source of common values, also produces political differences, as disparities in educational attainment are strongly associated, for example, with differences in political participation.
      • Involuntary social groups (e.g., gender and racial groups) as well as voluntary social groups (e.g. political parties, labor unions, religious organizations, educational and occupational groups) yield important differences in political attitudes. Patterns of differing opinions based on race, ethnicity, religious denomination, and gender emerge repeatedly in surveys.
      • Changing political conditions associated with generational differences and when individuals are first recruited into political involvement can alter political attitudes and behavior.
    • Sometimes individuals’ beliefs, attitudes, and opinions cohere to form a political ideology (that is, a general philosophy about the role of government).
      • Liberals tend to support political and social reform; extensive governmental intervention in the economy; federal social services; greater efforts on behalf of the poor, minorities, and women; environmental concerns; and consumer rights.
      • Conservatives tend to support the social and economic status quo; many support smaller government, oppose regulation of business, oppose abortion, support school prayer, and advocate the maintenance of American military power.


  3. How are Political Opinions Formed?
    What is the state of political attentiveness and political knowledge among American citizens? What are the consequences of the current state of political knowledge in America?
    • Because gaining political information is costly, Americans devote insufficient time, energy, or attention to politics to fully understand or evaluate issues; this “rational” ignorance of politics yields a citizenry that has little knowledge and awareness of politics.
    • When Americans do seek information on politics, many look to acquire “cheap” political information by taking cues from trusted others (e.g., ministers, commentators, journalists, friends, etc.) or interpret issues in light of prior general beliefs and ideology.
    • The consequences of this collective inattentiveness to politics include individuals’ inability to defend their political interests and the fact that widespread inattentiveness opens up democratic processes to greater manipulation by those who seek to shape public opinion. Yet democratic politics is possible due to “the magic of aggregation.”
    • All governments attempt to manipulate their citizens’ beliefs, though in America, governmental messages compete with many other political actors. Although they differ in terms of precisely how they approach changing public opinion, all recent presidents have made use of election campaign–type polling to gauge and shape public opinion.
    • Political, business, and public interest groups are opinion leaders who look to shape public opinion on individual issues and promote ideological causes.
    • Communications media are among the most powerful forces operating in the marketplace of ideas. The mass media can be thought of as mediators between political elites, on the one hand, and the people, on the other. Still, these are mediators with effect: mass media set the public agenda; “prime” the criteria by which citizens evaluate politicians and political events; and “frame” events and issues in ways that affect public interpretations of politics.


  4. The Media as an Institution
    What is the media’s role in relaying information to the public? How have 24-hour cable news networks changed the way that people receive information?
    • Americans obtain their news from three main sources: broadcast media (radio and television), print media (newspapers and magazines), and, increasingly, the Internet.
      • Television news, while reaching more Americans than any other news source, serves the important function of alerting viewers to issues and events. However, these outlets often offer little more than headlines with pictures, and little in-depth coverage. Radio news is generally little more than headlines, with five minutes per hour of news.
      • Print media remain a very important source of news, in part because they set the agenda for broadcast media and because they provide more context for analysis. In addition, the nation’s economic, social, and political elites rely on detailed print coverage to inform and influence their views about important public matters. In recent years, newspapers have come under economic trouble due to a decrease in classified and other advertising as people turn to free Internet sites like Craigslist.
      • The Internet is becoming one of the primary sources of news. However, the most-viewed content consists of electronic versions of print sources. One great advantage is that they can potentially combine the depth of coverage of print with the frequent updating of broadcast news. Blogs are also an important new aspect, allowing individuals to comment on the news and drive important stories that may have been missed into the limelight.
    • Although the United States government does not own or control the media, it does regulate the content and ownership of broadcast media. Print media, on the other hand, are essentially free from government interference.
      • Broadcasters must provide candidates for the same political office equal opportunities to communicate their messages to the public. This is known as the equal time rule. In addition, the right of rebuttal states that individuals must be given opportunity to respond to personal attacks. The fairness doctrine, which has not been enforced since 1985, stated that broadcasters who aired programs on controversial issues were required to provide air time for opposing views.
      • Prior restraint is the policy whereby government agencies may not censor or block the publication of material except in the most extreme circumstances. However, newspapers may still be subject to libel cases after the fact.
    • One of the media’s powerful tools is agenda setting, or bringing important issues to the public’s attention. The media may also prime the criteria by which citizens evaluate politicians and political events and frame events and issues in ways that affect public interpretations of politics. Due to the imbalance in information available because of media framing, a president may have the upper hand in setting the agenda and making policy statements.


  5. How Does Public Opinion Influence Government Policy?
    What is the appropriate role for public opinion to play in a polity that values both democracy and republicanism? In what ways do politicians govern for us? How can we make policy for ourselves?
    • Whereas some scholars argue that American citizens lack fundamental political knowledge and have been unpredictable in the opinions they reported to pollsters, others argue that, at the aggregate level, public opinion is coherent and stable.
    • In democratic nations, leaders should pay heed to public opinion, and most evidence suggests that they do. Even so, policies sometimes do not match up with popular opinion, either because the minority cared much more intensely, or because opinion changes more quickly than do policies.
    • Democratic devices such as ballot initiatives might resolve the inconsistencies between public opinion and public policy, though these mechanisms, too, are subject to elite manipulation.