Political Culture and Public Opinion
Public opinion consists of the views held by the population of a state that influence those in power. In a democratic state, politicians must listen to public opinion if they wish to keep their jobs. Dissatisfied constituents can vote out those who ignore their views. But regimes with other types of governments also need to pay attention to public opinion. If the public overwhelmingly opposes the government, the regime could be in serious danger of revolution or collapse.
Assessing Public Opinion
We learn about public opinion through polling, which asks people their views and then compiles the results. Politicians and pundits in many countries rely on public opinion polls, and the media frequently reports on polls. Sampling a subset of the population allows pollsters, or the people who create and take the polls, to get a sense of overarching concerns and interests within a large population. Rather than polling every citizen, an expensive and time-consuming process, polls use samples. Pollsters hope that the opinions of the sample accurately reflect the population as a whole. Just as one does not need to taste every bite of stew to know that it needs more salt, one need not poll every person to learn public opinion.
Good and Bad Samples
To make sure that their poll results are accurate, pollsters seek good samples. The most obvious way to get a good sample is to include lots of people. But including more people does not guarantee that the poll will be accurate. Instead, a sample must be representative—that is, the sample must have the same basic characteristics as the population. If the population has a 15 percent poverty rate, for example, the sample should have a roughly equal portion of poor people. Pollsters have a number of techniques to ensure a representative sample, and they rely on statistical methods to measure the probability that a poll is accurate.
Pollsters rely heavily on probability and randomness to increase the chance of getting a good sample. In a probability sample, each person in the population has a known chance of being chosen as part of the sample. When pollsters assign each person an equal chance of being selected, they are using random selection.
Sampling error results from bad samples. A poll that falls prey to sampling error will inaccurately measure public opinion. A common source of sampling error is a skewed sample, one that does not match the population. Some popular types of polling—asking people as they walk down the street, for example, or online polls—produce very skewed samples and are therefore unreliable.
Influences on Public Opinion
Many factors affect public opinion:
- Politicians: Many officials actively campaign to generate support among the public. They give speeches and interviews, stage rallies, and listen to constituents.
- Media: The news media covers all major political events extensively. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the media creates important political events by choosing to cover them so much. Because the vast majority of people get their political information from the media, it has a huge impact.
- Socioeconomic status: Most political and economic events affect people unevenly, so one’s social and economic status naturally affects one’s views. Wealthy people are more likely than poor people to support a budget that cuts taxes on capital gains, for example, because they would benefit more from the tax cut.
- Major events: Any significant event—a war, an economic downturn, or a diplomatic success, for example—can influence people’s views.
Example: In the United States, whenever a foreign crisis arises, support for the president shoots up dramatically. Political scientists call this increase in popularity the rally ’round the flag effect. The effect might not always last a long time, but in the short run, the president’s popularity goes up.
- Opinion leaders: Political scientists call a person whose views on an issue can affect the views of others an opinion leader. Often, opinion leaders are prominent members of the community and pay more attention to politics than most people.
Example: The Internet has created a new type of opinion leader called a blogger (short for web logger). Many people read the same political blogs every day and are strongly influenced by what they read. Politicians have begun to court bloggers, going so far as to invite them to conventions and to grant them interviews in an attempt to win the opinion leaders over to their side.
Elitism Versus Pluralism
How much does public opinion really matter? There are two views regarding the importance of public opinion:
- Elitism: Society is run by a few people at the top, including important politicians and businesspeople, so public opinion matters very little. What the masses think does not matter, and leaders can shape public opinion to suit their purposes.
- Pluralism: There are many different centers of power, so public opinion matters a great deal. Leaders may have more power than the masses, but they must heed mass opinion if they wish to remain in office.