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Political Culture and Public Opinion

Political Socialization

What Is Political Culture?

Social Capital

People acquire political culture through a process known as political socialization. Although the bulk of political socialization occurs during childhood, adults continue to be socialized. Political socialization occurs in many ways:

  • Family: Young children usually spend far more time with their families than with anyone else and thus tend to acquire the family’s habits, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. For this reason, family tends to be the most important source of political socialization. Families mostly impart political culture unintentionally by acting as examples for the children. Very often, people end up with political beliefs similar to those of their parents.
  • School: Most children learn about their country at school, usually through a curriculum known as civic education. This curriculum trains young people to be good citizens, often via history, government, and social studies. Although these lessons are usually basic, many of the key ideas and values of a society are imparted through school.

Example: Most students learn about U.S. history at a young age, but textbooks and teachers tend to simplify the history and present it in a positive light. For example, the end of racial segregation is usually discussed as a sign of the progress America has made toward equality and liberty.

  • Peers: At all ages, friends and acquaintances will influence one’s beliefs.
  • Religion: Different religious traditions have very different values, and one’s faith often significantly influences one’s political views.

Example: Roman Catholicism has a well-defined set of positions on many political issues, ranging from abortion to capital punishment to social justice. Although not all Catholics oppose abortion or favor more welfare programs, many do as a result of their religious beliefs.

  • Social and economic class: The social class to which one belongs shapes one’s views.

Example: Blue-collar workers in the United States tend to favor liberal economic policies but usually oppose many liberal social policies. For much of the twentieth century, economic issues seemed more important to many blue-collar workers, so they tended to vote for the Democrats. In the last few decades, though, social issues have taken on new importance, and an increasing number of blue-collar workers have voted Republican.

  • Minority status: Members of a minority group sometimes feel like outsiders, and this feeling of isolation and alienation affects their attitudes toward society and government. This is particularly true when the minority group is treated either better or worse than others in society.
  • Media: The power of media is increasing with the spread of 24-hour cable news networks, talk radio, the Internet, and the seeming omnipresence of personal audio and video devices, so the influence of the media on political socialization is no longer confined to the young.
  • Key events: A major political event can shape an entire generation’s attitudes toward its nation and government.

Example: World War II defined the attitudes of many Americans, especially those who served in it. Many veterans became dedicated to living up to the ideals professed in the war. Twenty years later, the Vietnam War would have a similarly important impact, fostering skepticism of foreign military operations. In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal instilled a profound mistrust of government in many people.

The Role of Government

The government plays a role in political socialization in a variety of ways. It determines the policies and curricula, including what books students may read, for public schools. The government also regulates the media, which affects what we see and hear. In the United States, broadcast television programs cannot contain nudity or profane language, and the government also mandates a certain amount of “family-friendly” programming per week. These choices have a subtle effect on viewers: We learn that bad language is inappropriate and that family is an essential part of American life and therefore American political culture. Similarly, governments frequently stage parades and celebrations to commemorate important events and people in history.

Example: Every American state requires students to pass tests in order to graduate from high school. In some states, the tests include citizenship exams, which assess students’ knowledge of government and political culture. To pass the tests, students take courses in these topics, which allows the states to emphasize what they consider important by regulating the curricula. The states sometimes differ greatly in what they teach.

In authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the government often takes active measures to inculcate loyalty, especially in younger people. The Nazis, for example, created the Hitler Youth, which instilled allegiance to Adolf Hitler in young people in Germany during the Third Reich. Similar programs existed in the former Soviet Union.

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