1. Discuss public opinion and why it is so important in a healthy democracy.
Explain why public policy often differs from public opinion.
Roderick Hart has argued that democracy is threatened by hopelessness, aimlessness, contentedness, rigidity, anomie and hegemony. Collectively these forces can cause a real drag on our political efficacy. In this unit we will be assessing the strength of our democracy by looking at our critical linkage institutions. When our American government and politics works, it does so because of a healthy relationship. Linkage institutions like political parties and elections connect “we the people” to the government of our choosing. The result of government acting unresponsively is a decline in political efficacy. But when the critical linkage institutions like political parties and elections build a truly representative and responsive government our efficacy increases. And when that happens our democracy remains strong.
Political hopelessness and aimlessness is assuaged by our ability to actively participate in our government. To do so one must first formulate a clear set of ideas. A clear set of attitudes, opinions and ideas is called a political ideology. Surprisingly our political ideology is formed at a young age. Here, family plays the biggest role. The political orientations of our parents have an enormous impact on our worldview. So too do demographic characteristics that often lay out of our control.
Certain demographic characteristics have a profound influence on our political attitudes. They are: gender, age, religion, race, education, occupation, economic status and region. Together, along with parental influences, we have a seemingly inherent political bent. These political dispositions align to certain labels used in our democratic system to simplify and organize the citizenry. Political scientists have traditionally used a political spectrum to simplify and provide clarity to the consequences of our civic opinions.
Public opinion in our democracy is vital but it does not wield unfettered influence. Elites continue to exert a disproportionate influence. Additionally, our constitution has put in to place many checks upon the influence of public opinion. Originally only members of our House of Representatives were directly elected. The other national offices were chosen by other means. Senators and federal judges were appointed; presidents chosen by an electoral college. Nevertheless our political continues to grow more and more democratic. Practically speaking this means that public opinion is growing more and more important.
Each unit of study is broken down into ten (10) essential objectives. Each objective requires a context of understanding. You will find that context here. Read carefully. Each word matters. In the end we hope that by distilling the content of American government and politics to its bare essentials a larger number then before can count themselves as educated citizens. Without such a citizenry our hope for a bright future is in peril.
2. Discuss where Americans get their political values and explain the process of political socialization. Explain the significance of the political spectrum.
Learning to think politically is a process known as political socialization. As stated above, this typically does not happen while contemplating deep thoughts in your room. According to political science data, demographic characteristics jumpstart our engagement in the political process. Below you will learn about what the latest data suggests about these characteristics. Check out if it is generally true for you. [Note: these are generalizations and not absolute characterizations].
Gender: Men tend to be more conservative and therefore supporters of the Republican Party. Women, on the other hand, are more liberal and side with Democrats. Can you guess why?
Age: The rule of thumb here is the older you are the more likely you are to be conservative.
Religion: Few demographic characteristics are as telling as this. Citizens who faithfully practice their religion tend to be more conservative. Protestantism is the most conservative religion. Base Republicans tend to be active Protestants. Often labeled the conservative right, these faithful Republican voters are called evangelicals. Catholics, despite their conservative views on social issues, lean left on the political spectrum. Slim majorities of Catholics still vote for the Democratic Party. Jews historically have overwhelmingly supported liberal Democrats. The irreligious also side with Democrats.
Race: Caucasians as a group are most often found on the right side of the political spectrum. African-Americans are the most reliable sub-group on the left. Ninety percent of all African-Americans vote Democratic. Pacific Rim citizens, due to their religious and family traditions, tend to the right and the Republican Party.
Education: The more educated you are the more likely you are to be conservative. The one exception would be those citizens holding graduate degrees. Statistically college graduates narrowly vote Republican. Those with less education narrowly vote Democratic.
Occupation: Education influences this demographic characteristic more then any other. Those occupations requiring more education tend lean more to the conservative side. White-collar jobs lean Republican while blue-collar jobs tend to be more Democratic. This means labor unions, a smaller and smaller percentage of our total workforce, are reliable voters on the left.
Economic status: The Republican Party and its values tend to a appeal to the middle class. The Democratic Party champions lower classes. The wealthy are more split in their political allegiances. Determining the political persuasion of the wealthy depends upon other leading demographic ingredients.
Region: Democrats do better in urban environments while Republicans win more in suburban and rural areas. Liberal Democrats dominate the Northeast. The South is SOLIDLY conservative and Republican. The West coast now leans strongly liberal though the Plains are clearly conservative. Many of the fiercest political battleground states now reside in the Midwest.
3. Discuss the affects of cross-cutting cleavages in public opinion.
But what if certain demographic characteristics contradict each other? For instance, where on the spectrum would I be if my religion pushed me right but my race pushed me left? These demographic tensions are called crosscutting cleavages. There are no easy rules when it comes to reconciling cross cutting cleavages on the political spectrum. Certain demographic characteristics, however, have greater influence. These would be religion, race and education. Crosscutting cleavages remind us that labels can help us understand our politics but they are not absolutely determinative. In the end your political views are a by-product not only of demographic characteristics but life experiences that are truly unique. It has been said that zip code is destiny. Though not completely accurate it is a helpful starting point when trying to understand American government and politics.
4. Explain the factors that affect the validity of public opinion polls.
Political data, such as we have learned above, is culled from scientifically collected public opinion polls. Public opinion polls measure what “we the people” think at any given point. Yet not all polls are accurate measurements of public opinion. There are certain cautionary steps we should take before accepting the validity of a public opinion poll. Accurate polls are unbiased. Poll samples need to be random. A sufficient sample size is also required. Perhaps most important is the margin of error. What is the range of results one could expect if an infinite number were included in the poll? A +/- 4 margin of error is considered acceptable. The way questions are worded in a poll is also important. Not unlike ideological labels public opinion polls provide the political process an important short cut. They can be used improperly. Push polls, for instance, do not measure opinion but rather attempt to shape opinion. Push polls are considered unethical.
In a representative government like ours it is absolutely necessary to know what the people want. First label and group together like-minded citizens. Then collect opinions on the issues. Taken together these short cuts enable our elected officials to properly represent the citizenry. When done properly our political efficacy is strong. More importantly it demonstrates that our democracy works.
Once we understand the political socialization process and accept the importance of measuring public opinion in scientific polls we have an important question to answer – now what? Democracy is a verb. With comparatively high levels of political efficacy citizens in the United States act upon their beliefs. Though voting is the highest form of political participation in the United States there are many more ways to demonstrate our civic will.
5. Explain what it means to be a LIBERAL and/or CONSERVATIVE; a DEMOCRAT and/or REPUBLICAN.
Now that we have explained the impact of demographic characteristics on our civic dispositions, let’s look at the essential labels found on the American political spectrum.
The political right: The right side of the political spectrum is reserved for conservatives. The Republican Party represents conservatives in our government. Conservatives tend to look back. They are fond of the glory days of the past. Conservatives tend to hold traditional moral values. They approve of government intervention when upholding these values. For instance, conservatives push the Republican Party to advocate against abortion, drug use and sexual promiscuity. They do not, however, welcome government interference in private business affairs. Conservatives speak loudly about market forces and the free flow of capital. Republican policies support small business and lower taxes. On the right side of the political spectrum you find conservatives who are supported by the Republican Party.
The political left: The left side of the political spectrum is reserved for liberals. The Democratic Party represents liberals in our government. Liberals tend to look forward. Rather then relying upon old ideas, they favor policy experimentation. This attitude affects their values. They oppose government intervention when it comes to private choices. For instance, liberals push the Democratic Party to maintain a women’s right to choose an abortion. Liberals do, however, advocate government intervention when it comes to the economy. Often liberal Democrats are characterized as “the tax and spend” party. Democrats favor policies that redistribute wealth across the economic base. On the left side of the political spectrum you find liberals who are supported by the Democratic Party.
6. Discuss the various forms of political participation. What are grassroots?
Sheldon Wolin wrote, “The experience of democracy is not ultimately about winning but about deliberating and acting together.” This kind of political participation takes on many different forms. You can write elected officials, join a civic group or club, contribute campaign money, litigate (take someone to court), join a protest movement or engage in political conversations. By far, however, the most common form of political participation in America is voting.
Political scientists tell us that the most important way to involve people in government is to engage them at the grassroots level. Just focusing on the big national issues by watching the partisan finger pointing usually is a turn off. Getting citizens engaged, rather, at the local level in real world problem solving all but assures greater participation down the road.
7. Discuss voter turnout patterns in America today. Explain differences between DO NOT voters and CANNOT voters.
Turnout rates are higher in most democracies around the world. Here in the United States voting turnout in presidential elections rarely exceeds 60% of eligible citizens. In non-presidential years turnout is much lower. Citizens who are white, older, college educated, with professional jobs tend to vote at higher rates. For this reason conservative Republicans tend to focus on voting integrity. For instance, Republicans favor strict registration laws that also require picture identification of all voters. In contrast, liberal Democrats look for ways to make voting even easier. They are worried that their constituents, citizens less likely to vote, are underrepresented. Democrats push for early voting, same-day registration and touch screen ballots. Undoubtedly there are institutional barriers that do make voting more difficult.
An institutional barrier is a rule or law that prevents eligible adults from voting. One such barrier is the citizenship requirement. Unless you are an American citizen you cannot vote. Registration requirements in most states also make voting more difficult. Unless you have signed up in advance you are prohibited from voting. Most states also prohibit, for a period of time, convicted felons from voting. Our federal election day is always on a workday. This simple fact makes it difficult for many working Americans. Some complain that here in America we have too many elections and that our ballots are too confusing. Voting turnout is low here. Grassroots efforts, work done at the local level by real citizens, like Suffrage @ 17 in Illinois have worked to increase political efficacy and subsequently increase voter turnout. Participating at the grassroots effort is often successful at encouraging more Americans to vote. Of course that presumes we want more voters? Right?
8. Explain how suffrage rights have expanded throughout American history. Explain the relationship between increasing suffrage rights and voter turnout.
Historically the qualifications to vote were determined by state and local governments. Early in our history suffrage, the right to vote was restricted to male property owners. The franchise, another term for voting, has been greatly expanded. The 15th Amendment (1870) extended the right to vote to African American males. The 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote. The 26th Amendment gave eighteen year olds and older the right to vote. Other federal actions have been taken to make voting easier. The 24th Amendment (1964) eliminated poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 not only removed literacy tests as a voting barrier but also gave federal oversight in Southern polling places. Despite the expansion of our democracy and the increase in the number of people eligible to vote fewer and fewer Americans choose to.
9. Discuss which demographic groups vote consistently for Democrats and Republicans.
Remember Democrats represent liberals on the left side of the political spectrum. Democrats, although malleable, traditionally advocate for progressive social policies. This requires bigger government. Although government should serve as the referee in regulating economic policy Democrats believe social issues should be left up to private choices. For these reasons base Democrats tend to be more secular and younger. The rank and file of the Democratic Party approve of higher taxes on the rich, agree with a women’s right to choose an abortion and see government as an important agent in assuring equality for all. Immigrant groups, African Americans, young people and the working class clearly favor the Democratic Party.
Remember Republicans represent conservatives on the right side of the political spectrum. Republicans, although malleable, traditionally advocate for stricter regulation when it comes to social policies. Republicans believe in traditional moral values. Nevertheless they advocate for smaller government. Government should practice a laissez-faire economic policy. For these reasons base Republicans tend to be more religious and older. The rank and file of the Republican Party desire lower taxes for all, push for a right to life policy and see government as an important agent upholding conservative values such as a traditional view of marriage. Older Americans, rural Americans and white middle class professionals clearly favor the Republican Party.
10. Discuss tensions over voting rights in today’s political arena. Who is most likely to favor reforms that improve voter access? Who is most likely to favor reforms that improve voter integrity?
One might imagine that universally Americans desire more people to vote. This would be far from the truth. In recent years Democrats and Republicans have focused their civic ends on different means. Democrats have pursued policies that broaden access to voting by easing registration restrictions. Then Democratic president Bill Clinton pushed the Motor Voter Bill in 1993. Liberals have fought in court any attempt to make voting more difficult. Republicans, in contrast, look to assure voting integrity. Republican president George W. Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. This law modernized voting procedures in hope of reducing any Election Day shenanigans. In the end both goals are noble yet reflect the interests of each political party. It is argued that Democrats are advantaged when turnout is higher while Republicans are helped by the turnout of more traditional voters.
Beyond partisan politics we can all agree that the health of our democracy depends upon the active participation of its citizenry. James Madison said no less when he wrote, “The very success of democracy depends upon the knowledge and skills of its citizens.” In essence Madison was saying, ‘Democracy is a verb.’