Political Beliefs and Behaviour

  • Processes by which citizens learn about politics
  • Political participation (including voting behaviour)
  • Public opinion
  • Beliefs that citizens hold about their government and its leaders
  • Political culture (the variety of factors that predispose citizens to differ from one another in terms of their political perceptions, values, attitudes, and activities)
  • The influence of public opinion on political leaders

‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ - Abraham Lincoln

The United States of America was the product of a revolution. The Revolution was based on the belief that, ‘Taxation without representation is tyranny.’ Thus, the people who lead the revolution believed that they have the right to a democratic form of government. This government was supposed to consist of only those representatives who were elected by the American citizens themselves. These representatives were expected to represent the political opinion and ideologies of those voters that got them elected.

As long as these representatives remained responsible to their electorate, they remained in power. The power thus theoretically remained with the people. In a democratic government, it is the people who ultimately decide the kind of representative they deserve. They were also entrusted with the right to withdraw their consent and thus, prevent them from getting reelected the next time. The oldest constitutional democracy in America possess an enriching legacy of the political culture characterized by active political participation and informed political opinion. The agents of political socialization playing an important role in shaping and creating the political culture that influences the American citizens into being an active political agent belonging to a dynamic democratic society. Thus, one needs to the study about the various elements that have helped shape diverse political opinions, political participation and political culture of the America citizens.

Political Culture:

The term, ‘Political Culture’ can be referred to the widely shared beliefs, values, norms, including standard assumptions about the manner in which the government functions. They all together define the relationship that exists between citizens and government and among the citizens themselves. However, one encounters great difficulty in an attempt to analyze different components of Political culture. As a political scientist, W. Lance Bennett notes, “They are rather like the lenses in a pair of glasses: they are not the things we see when we look at the world; they are the things we see with” (Bennett, 1980).

The study of ‘political culture’ can be traced as early as in the works of Aristotle. Tocqueville’s through his study of American Democratic system has made a theoretical attempt to frame the understanding of political culture. His work questioned the factors that helped maintain democracy within the nation. According to him, the possession and guarantee of various civil rights and liberties of the citizen by the United States proved influential in creating a democratic, participatory political culture among the nation’s citizens. Further, the capitalist, liberal, democratic values that characterized the society have played an influential role in the continued existence of a democratic political system in American Society.

In 1963, Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba produced a significant study on political culture. According to them, “The political culture of a nation is the particular distribution of patterns of orientation towards political objects among the members of the society” (Almond and Verba, 1963). In their work, ‘The Civic culture,' they have studies the shared attitudes and beliefs among people belonging to five-nation including United Kingdom, United States, Italy, Germany, and Mexico. Through this study, Almond and Verba then try to classify and identified three broad types of political culture: parochial, subject and participant.

Parochial political culture has been observed in societies of Mexico, “political specialization is minimal’. Here, within the society, there is no clear differentiation or specialized political roles (Pavone, 2014). The citizens characterized by this political culture are mostly unaware or uninformed about their government or the role it plays in their lives. There is also lack of any political participation in these societies. The interaction between the citizen and government in this political-cultural is much similar to one that existed within traditional tribal societies.

Under subject political culture, differentiation or specialized political roles exist within this community. However, the subject political culture is also characterized by a detached, passive approach by the individual towards the government. The subject political culture was observed in the societies of Germany and Italy. Another classification of political culture is the participant political culture. Here, the culture is characterized by growing interaction between the various politically specialized institutions and its citizens. Here, the citizens are informed and aware of the role of government as well as there exists a high level of political participation among the citizens. They observed such political culture in the societies of UK and United States.

These three different classifications were summarized by Almond and Verba in the following manner, “A participant is assumed to be aware of and informed about the political system in both its governmental and political aspects. A subject tends to be cognitively oriented primarily to the output side of government: the executive, bureaucracy, and judiciary. The parochial tends to be unaware, or only dimly aware, of the political system in all its aspects” (Almond, 1963, p.79). However, they also believed that such coherent classification doesn’t exist in reality. Within some societies, there also exists a combination of two classified political culture.

Also, political culture is neither monolithic nor is it stagnant. It consists of distinct subcultures characteristics differences such as race, ethnicity, social, economic position within the society, their regional affiliations, etc. Thus, the political culture that characterized the American communities, the shared attitudes among its citizens about government, political processes, and leaders is not a homogenous whole nor can be understood as motionless; rather, it’s constantly evolving.

However, taking into consideration some commonly shared belief and attitude, the American political culture can be characterized in according to the nation’s commitment to values and principles of democracy, equality, free enterprise, and individualism. Concepts like liberty, nationalism, and individualism are also some of the unique characteristics of American political culture. These norms, values, and principles that help shaped the unique culture of American society also have been significantly shaped and influenced by various historical events that created a significant impact on the American society and its citizens. The origins of the unique political culture that frames the society can be our political culture can be traced to the American Revolution that created the Nation. Other historical events such as the Industrial Revolution, World Wars I and II, and recent terror strike of September 11, 2011, etc. had significantly altered the political culture of the society. Also, various political economic and social introduced by its successive government like President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, reforms proposed by President Regan, etc.

However, since it is argued that participation political culture classifies the community and the citizens of the United States, there should also exist certain institutions, values, and norms that helped create and further maintain such level of active political participation. Hence, there is a need to study the process through which the citizens of a society manage to acquire an understanding and acceptance of the political culture of their nation. This process is called political socialization.

Agents of Political Socialization:

The term “political socialization” refers to the process by which people learn their roles as citizens and develop an understanding of government and politics. Through the process of political socialization, the political culture within the distinct society gets strengthened as well as transferred from generation to generation. The agents of political socialization can be further divided into the- primary and the secondary agents of political socialization.

The primary agents of political socialization include all those associations and institution that individual is initially exposed to. That includes the family, school, peer group, etc. Through these agents, the individual's initial values, norms, and principles are formed. They provide the individual with the conceptual understanding and norms through which it tries to understand the world. Later, different other secondary agents including religious institutions, the socio-economic position that individually belongs to as well as mass media also plays a significant role in creating and passing a particular understanding of what encompasses political culture from one generation to another. In the recent period, the mass media has emerged to play important, influential agent that has helped in the formation of political culture.

Political Opinions:

There doesn’t exist a single coherent definition of public opinion. Also, a significant differentiation that can be drawn between political culture and political opinions is that the former is the attitude that individual posses about its government and the manner in which it functions while the latter is formed through the political position that a person occupies. Hence, opinions are related to, but conceptually its understanding isn’t to the manner in which attitudes are understood. While, attitude can be referred to as the persistent or general orientations that an individual exhibit toward people, groups, community or institutions. They helped in shaping and influencing ones political opinion. An example can be given within American society, people who hold favorable attitudes towards the idea of racial equality tend to support public policies and reforms that at limiting racial discrimination in various social services like housing, education, employment, etc.

Public opinion thus can be defined as the sum of individual opinions. It is the aggregation of preferences exhibited by people belonging to all the segments of society. However, the term can be understood to mean different things depending on the way the term ‘public’ is understood within a particular community, understanding of which section of society dominates the formation of political opinions, etc. In a democratic society defines by majoritarian electoral politics, it is the opinion of the majority which needs to study, and this plays a significant role in guiding government’s decision-making process. In a heterogeneous society where divergent political views exist it could also adversely affect the manner in which the government and its various agencies functions.

The significant role that political opinion within an American society can be understood through the study of the influential role that media plays in the society. An example can be given of that of the public opinion polls and exit polls collected by its that media that has characterized every American election. In America societies since the early 1960’s, the exit polls have been used in predicting its winners. These polls play an influential role in shaping the manner in which various news organizations frame their stories and communicate information to the public. Polls also scored guides decision makers about election outcomes and policy debates. However, these results may not always be accurate, as was the case with the exit polls in the 2000 presidential election. Even a similar situation can be observed in the recent 2006 elections where the victory of Donald Trump came as a surprise to the traditional media which has already predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the elections.

Political Participation:

Political participation involves a range of activities like voting, attending a rally, it also involves some extreme illegal acts on the part of the citizens like violating public properties, sending a letter to a representative as during the Watergate scandal. As long the activity involves ordinary people expressing their opinions by contributing to the political process, it can be assumed to form a part of the process of political participation.

Some of the most common forms of political participation involve activities like- voting, protest whether or not it is a constitutional right, public consultations, attending to the jury duty, etc. There are other events that are also a part of public participation in activities involving writing a petition to a public official, blogging about a political issue, donating money to a cause, volunteering for a campaign, joining an activist or interest group, holding a position as a civil servant, occupying a building in an act of protest or committing a terrorist act etc. It refers to the active participation of individual citizens in the process of decision-making.

American Presidential Elections of 2016:

The American Presidential election of 2016 that resulted in the victory of Donald Trump has changed our political understanding and the manner in which the nation now perceive America and its citizens have undergone a dramatic shift. The media have predicted that Hillary Clinton would win, even the exit polls were in her favor but, the final results made us question how effective is its function in shaping a citizens views and opinions. Rather, the new social media like Google and Facebook instead predicted the victory of Trump. Is it the anonymity and the cloth of invisibility afforded through these sights that allow people to express their real political opinions rather than the politically correct ones that are in correspondence to the modern moralistic beliefs propagated by the mass media and newspaper houses. The agents of socialization are changing and hence the manner in which one studies political culture, opinion and participation need to undergo a similar change.

References:

Books: Almond, G.A., 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, By... and Sidney Verba. Princeton University. Bennett, W.L., 1980. Public opinion in American politics.

Website: Pavone, 2014. Blocks–Orientation, I.B., Political Culture and Democratic Homeostasis. https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/tpavone/files/almond_verba-_the_civic_culture_critical_review_0.pdf

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