POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION: THE ORIGINS OF AMERICANS’ OPINIONS
People’s opinions form in response to events, issues, and problems that catch their attention or are enduring enough to retain their interest. But opinions also
reflect people’s prior beliefs. A striking example is the differing opinions of Republicans and Democrats toward U.S. military intervention in Kosovo in 1999
and in Iraq in 2003. Democrats were more supportive of the first war, whereas Republicans were more supportive of the second war. Although differences in
the nature and purpose of these wars might partially explain this split, long-standing party loyalties clearly do. The first of these conflicts was initiated by a
Democratic president, Bill Clinton. The second was begun by a Republican president, George W. Bush.
Partisanship is a learned response. People are not born as Democrats or as Republicans, but instead they acquire these attachments. This learning is called poli
tical socialization . Just as a language, a religion, or an athletic skill is acquired through a learning process, so too are people’s political orientations.
Broadly speaking, the process of political socialization has two distinguishing characteristics. First, although socialization continues throughout life, most
people’s political outlooks are influenced by childhood learning. Basic ideas about which political party is better, for example, are often formed uncritically in
childhood, in much the same way that belief in the superiority of a particular religion—typically, the religion of one’s parents—is acquired.
A second characteristic of political socialization is that its effect is cumulative. Early learning affects later learning because people’s beliefs affect how new
information is interpreted. Prior attitudes serve as a psychological screen through which new information is filtered, as in the case of the contrasting responses
of Republicans and Democrats to the wars in Kosovo and Iraq.
The political socialization process takes place through agents of socialization
. They can be divided between primary and secondary agents.
Primary agents interact closely and regularly with the individual, usually early in life, as in the case of the family. Secondary agents have a less
intimate connection with the individual and are usually more important later in life, as in the case of work associates. It is helpful to consider briefly how
various primary and secondary agents affect political learning.
Primary Socializing Agents: Family, School, and Church
The family is a powerful primary agent because it has a near-monopoly on the attention of the young child, who places great trust in what a parent says. By the
time children reach adulthood, many of the beliefs and values that will stay with them throughout life are firmly in place. Indeed, as sociologist Herbert
Hyman concluded from his research: “Foremost among agencies of socialization into politics is the family.”5 Many adults are Republicans or Democrats today
almost solely because their parents backed that party. They can give all sorts of reasons for preferring their party to the other, but the reasons came later in life.
The family also contributes to basic orientations that, while not directly political, have political significance. American children, for example, often have a
voice in family decisions, contributing to a sense of social equality.6
The school, like the family, affects children’s basic political beliefs. Teachers at the elementary level praise the country’s political institutions and
extol the exploits of national heroes such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King.7 Although teachers in the middle and
high school grades present a more nuanced version of American history, they tend to emphasize the nation’s great moments—for example, its decisive role in
the two world wars. U.S. schools are more instrumental in building support for the nation and its cultural beliefs than are the schools in most other
democracies. The Pledge of Allegiance, which is recited daily in many U.S. schools, has no equivalent in Europe. Schools there do not open the day by asking
students to take a pledge of national loyalty.
Religious organizations are a powerful socializing agent for some children. Although many American children do not experience religion or do so only
fleetingly, others attend church regularly. Scholars have not studied the influence of religion on childhood political socialization as closely as they have studied
the influence of families or schools.8 Nevertheless, religion can have a formative influence on children’s attitudes, including beliefs about society’s obligations
to the poor and the unborn.
Grade school is a primary agent of political socialization, serving to introduce students to American ideals, customs, and historical heroes.
© McGraw-Hill Education/Jill Braaten, photographer
Secondary Socializing Agents: Peers, Media, Leaders, and Events
With age, additional socializing agents come into play. An individual’s peers—friends, neighbors, coworkers, and the like—become sources of opinion.
Research indicates that many individuals are unwilling to deviate too far politically from what their peers think. In The Spiral of Silence, Elisabeth NoelleNeumann shows that individuals tend to withhold opinions that are at odds with those of the people around them. If nearly everyone in a group favors
legalizing same-sex marriage, for example, a person who believes otherwise is likely to remain silent. As a result, the group’s dominant opinion will appear to
be more widely held than it actually is, which can persuade those with lightly held opinions to adopt the group opinion as their own.9
The mass media are also a powerful socializing agent. Politics for the average citizen is a secondhand affair, observed mainly through the media rather than
directly. In the words of journalist Walter Lippmann, “the pictures in our heads of the world outside” owe substantially to how that world is portrayed for us by
the media.10 For example, heavy exposure to crime on television, whether through news or entertainment, can lead people to believe that their community is
more dangerous than it is.11
Individuals in positions of authority are also sources of opinion.12 In the American case, no authority figure has more influence on public opinion than does
the president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, many Americans were confused about who the enemy was and how
America should respond. Their opinions became firmer a few days later when President George W. Bush in a nationally televised speech identified
al Qaeda members as the perpetrators and declared that America would attack Afghanistan if it continued to provide them sanctuary. Polls indicated that 9 of
every 10 Americans supported Bush’s stance on Afghanistan. On the other hand, political leaders’ ability to influence public opinion depends on their
standing. After President Bush led America into a costly war in Iraq on the erroneous claim that it had weapons of mass destruction, his political support
weakened, as did his ability to persuade Americans that the war in Iraq was worth fighting.
Finally, no accounting of the political socialization process would be complete without considering the impact of major events. The Great Depression, World
War II, the Vietnam War, and the 2001 terrorist attacks are examples of events that had a lasting influence on Americans’ opinions. America’s costly and
inconclusive war in Vietnam, for example, changed how many citizens thought about military force. Opinion polls in the war’s aftermath revealed a sharp
decline in public support for military intervention. As with other such events, the Vietnam War affected the views of adults of all ages, but particularly those
of a young age. Major developments make a greater impression on younger citizens because their political beliefs are less fully developed.
HOW THE U.S. DIFFERS
POLITICAL THINKING THROUGH COMPARISONS
Political socialization in the United States is not the rigid program of indoctrination that some countries impose on their people.
Nevertheless, Americans are told of their country’s greatness in many ways, everything from the Pledge of Allegiance that American
children recite at the beginning of the school day to the flying of the flag on American homes and businesses. Such practices are
uncommon elsewhere and contribute to Americans’ comparatively high degree of national pride. Following are the percentage of
respondents from selected countries who responded “very proud” when asked in the World Values Survey how proud they were of their
Source: Miguel Basanez, A World of Three Cultures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 142.
Q: Why might words and symbols of the nation's greatness be more important to Americans than to people of most countries?
A: The unifying bond in most countries is a common ancestral heritage. The French and Chinese, for example, have ancestral ties that go
back centuries. In contrast, Americans come from many diﬀerent countries and depend more heavily on national symbols and ceremonies
as a common bond.
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