The aging of the population has enormous implications for Social Security. Social
Security is structured as a pay-as-you-go system, which means that today’s workers pay the benefits for today’s retirees. In 1960, there were 5.7 workers per retiree; today there are 3. By 2040, there will be only about 2 workers per retiree. This ratio will put tremendous pressure on the Social Security system. The current group of older Americans and those soon to follow can lay claim to trillions of dollars guaranteed by Social Security. People who have been promised benefits naturally expect to col-lect them, especially benefits for which they have made monthly contributions. Thus, both political parties have long treated Social Security benefits as sacrosanct. Major proposed changes to the Social Security system typically promise to leave the system unchanged for anyone at or near retirement age.
HOW AMERICANS LEARN ABOUT POLITICS: POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION
6.2 Explain how the agents of socialization influence the development of political attitudes.
Central to the formation of public opinion is political socialization, or “the process through which an individual acquires his or her particular political orientations—his or her knowledge, feelings, and evaluations regarding his or her political world.”15 As people become more socialized with age, their political orientations grow firmer. Thus, governments typically aim their socialization efforts largely at the young.
The Process of Political Socialization
Only a small portion of Americans’ political learning is formal. Civics or government classes in high school teach citizens some of the nuts and bolts of government—how many senators each state has, what presidents do, and so on. But such formal social-ization is only the tip of the iceberg. Americans do most of their political learning without teachers or classes. Informal learning is really much more important than formal, in-class learning about politics. Most of this informal socialization is almost accidental. Few parents sit down with their children and say, “Johnny, let us tell you why we’re Republicans.” Instead, the informal socialization process might be best described by words like pick up and absorb. The family, the media, and the schools all serve as important agents of political socialization. We will look at each in turn.
THE FAMILY The family’s role in socialization is central because of its monopoly on two crucial resources in the early years: time and emotional commitment. If your parents are interested in politics, chances are you will be also, as your regular inter-actions with them will expose you to the world of politics as you are growing up. Furthermore, children often pick up their political leanings from the attitudes of their parents. Most students in an American government class like to think of themselves as independent thinkers, especially when it comes to politics. Yet one can predict how the majority of young people will vote simply by knowing the party identification of their parents.16 Recent research has demonstrated that one of the reasons for the long-lasting im-pact of parental influence on political attitudes is simply genetics. In one study, Alford, Funk, and Hibbing compared the political opinions of identical twins and nonidentical twins.17 If the political similarity between parents and children is due just to environ-mental factors, then the identical twins should agree on political issues to about the same extent the nonidentical twins do, as in both cases the twins are raised in the same environment. However, if genetics is an important factor, then identical twins, who are genetically the same, should agree with one another more often than nonidentical twins, who are not. On all the political questions Alford and his coauthors examined, there was substantially more agreement between the identical twins—clearly demonstrating that genetics plays an important role in shaping political attitudes.
THE MASS MEDIA The mass media are the “new parent,” according to many ob-servers. Average grade-school youngsters spend more time each week watching tele-vision than they spend at school. And television displaces parents as the chief source of information as children get older. Unfortunately, today’s generation of young adults is significantly less likely to watch television news and read newspapers than their elders. Many studies have at-tributed the relative lack of political knowledge of today’s youth to their media con-sumption or, more appropriately, to their lack of it.18 In 1965, Gallup found virtually no difference between age groups in frequency of following politics through the media. In recent years, however, a considerable age gap has opened up, with older people paying the most attention to the news and young adults the least. In 2017, CNN had the young-est audience in cable news, with a median age of 60, compared to 65 for MSNBC and 66 for Fox News.19 If you have ever turned on the TV news and wondered why so many of the commercials seem to be for various prescription drugs, now you know why.
SCHOOL Political socialization is as important to a government as it is to an individ-ual. Governments, including our own, often use schools to promote national loyalty and support for their basic values. In most American schools, the day begins with the Pledge of Allegiance. As part of promoting support for the basic values of the system, American children have long been successfully educated about the virtues of free en-terprise and democracy. Most American schools are public schools, financed by the government. Their textbooks are often chosen by the local and state boards, and teachers are certified by the state government. Schooling is perhaps the most obvious intrusion of the government into Americans’ socialization. And education does exert a profound influence on a variety of political attitudes and behavior. Better-educated citizens are more likely to vote in elections, they exhibit more knowledge about politics and public policy, and they are more tolerant of oppos-ing (even radical) opinions. The payoffs of schooling thus extend beyond better jobs and better pay. Educated citizens also more closely approximate the model of a democratic citizen. A formal civics course may not make much difference, but the whole context of education does. As Albert Einstein once said, “Schools need not preach political doctrine to defend democracy. If they shape men [and women] capable of critical thought and trained in social attitudes, that is all that is necessary.”20
Political Learning over a Lifetime Political learning does not, of course, end when one reaches 18 or even when one graduates from college. Politics is a lifelong activity. Because America is an aging
society, it is important to consider the effects of growing older on political learning and behavior. Aging increases political participation as well as strength of party attachment.
Young adults lack experience with politics. Because political behavior is to some degree learned behavior, there is some learning yet to do. Political participation rises steadily with age until the infirmities of old age make it harder to participate, as can be seen in Figure 6.2. Similarly, strength of party identification increases as people of-ten develop a pattern of usually voting for one party or the other. Politics, like most other things, is thus a learned behavior. Americans learn to
vote, to pick a political party, and to evaluate political events in the world around them. One of the products of all this learning is what is known as public opinion.
MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL INFORMATION 6.3 Describe public opinion research and modern methods of polling.
The study of American public opinion aims to understand the population’s beliefs about politics and policy issues. Because there are many groups and a great variety of opinions in the United States, this is an especially complex task. This is not to say that public opinion would be easy to study even if America were a more homogeneous society; as you will see, measuring public opinion involves painstaking interviewing procedures and careful wording of questions. Before examining the role that public opinion plays in American politics, it is essential to learn about the science of public opinion measurement. How do we re-ally know the approximate answers to questions such as “What percentage of young people favor abortion rights?,” “How many Hispanics supported Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign?,” or “What percentage of the public is looking for a job but cannot find one?” Carefully executed polls can provide these answers, yet there is much skepticism about polls. Many people wonder how accurately public opinion can be measured by interviewing only 1,000 or 1,500 people around the country.21 The next section provides an explanation of how polling works; we hope that it will enable you to become a well-informed consumer of polls.
How Polls Are Conducted
Public opinion polling is a relatively new science. It was first developed by a young man named George Gallup, who initially did some polling for his mother-in-law, a long-shot candidate for secretary of state in Iowa in 1932. With the Democratic landslide of that year, she won a stunning victory, thereby further stimulat-ing Gallup’s interest in politics. From that little acorn the mighty oak of public opinion polling has grown. The firm that Gallup founded spread throughout the democratic world, and in some languages Gallup is actually the word used for an opinion poll.22
sample A relatively small proportion of people who are chosen in a survey so as to be representative of the whole.
It would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to ask every citizen his or her opinion on a whole range of issues. Instead, polls rely on a sample of the population—a relatively small proportion of people who are chosen to represent the whole. Herbert Asher draws an analogy to a blood test to illustrate the principle of sampling.23 Your doctor does not need to drain a gallon of blood from you to deter-mine whether you have mononucleosis, AIDS, or any other disease. Rather, a small sample of blood will reveal its properties.
In public opinion polling, a random sample of about 1,000 to 1,500 people can accurately represent the “universe” of potential voters. The key to the accuracy of opinion polls is the technique of random sampling, which operates on the prin-ciple that everyone should have an equal probability of being selected as part of the sample. Your chance of being asked to be in the poll should therefore be as good as that of anyone else—rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. If the sample is randomly drawn, roughly one out of eight people interviewed will be African American, slightly over half will be women, and so forth, matching the population as a whole.
Remember that the science of polling involves estimation; a sample can repre-sent the population with only a certain degree of confidence. The level of confidence is known as the sampling error, which depends on the size of the sample. The more people who are randomly interviewed for a poll, the more confident one can be of the results. A typical poll of about 1,500 to 2,000 respondents has a sampling error of ;3 percent. What this means is that 95 percent of the time the poll results are within 3 percent of what the entire population thinks. If 40 percent of the sample say they approve of the job the president is doing, one can be pretty certain that the true figure is between 37 and 43 percent. In order to obtain results that will usually be within sampling error, research-ers must follow proper sampling techniques. In perhaps the most infamous survey ever, a 1936 Literary Digest poll underestimated the vote for President Franklin Roosevelt by 19 percent, erroneously predicting a big victory for Republican Alf Landon.