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Instructor Resource

Barbour and Wright, Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics 8e
SAGE Publishing, 2017

Instructor Resource
Chapter 11: Public Opinion

CHAPTER SUMMARY

Chapter 11 examines the ways in which public opinion about politics influences policy and argues that
public opinion is important for the proper functioning of democracy.

The Role of Public Opinion in a Democracy


 American political culture contains two views of citizenship, an idealized view and a self-interested
view. These two views seem to be at odds, and Americans are ambivalent about the role public
opinion should play in politics.
 The founders of the American polity developed constitutional rules to hold the power of citizens in
check, but over time consensus has been built around the expectation that citizens should play a
stronger role in government.
 Politicians and the media act as if they think the public is very powerful indeed. Politicians usually
try to play it safe by responding to what the public wants, or what they think it will want in the
future, while the media often cover public opinion as if it were a story in itself, and not just the
public’s reaction to a story.

Citizen Values
 From there the chapter discusses criteria for being an ideal democratic citizen (political knowledge
and interest, tolerance, and participation) and examines whether Americans are model democratic
citizens.
 Americans have a stake in ensuring that “the people” are as close to being public-spirited ideal
democratic citizens as they can be. However, each citizen is concerned for his or her own interests,
and therefore most do not fit the model of the theoretical ideal. Those who do achieve that status
through political education, the practice of toleration, and political participation.

What Influences Our Opinions About Politics?


 The chapter then explains political socialization, addressing specifically the family, schools, peers,
and political and social events, and analyzes sources of division in public opinion, including
education, ideology, age, gender, race, religion, and geographical region.
 Political socialization helps to fuel and maintain the political system by transferring fundamental
democratic values from one generation to the next.

Measuring and Tracking Public Opinion


 The chapter then looks at how public opinion is measured, starting with the development of modern
public opinion polls, the problems with early polls, and how scientific polling has improved today.
Then the chapter examines a wide array of polls, including national polls, campaign polls, and
pseudo-polls.
 Citizens, politicians and their staffs, the media, and professional polling organizations are all
interested in the business of measuring and tracking public opinion. Citizens rely on polls to
Instructor Resource
Barbour and Wright, Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics 8e
SAGE Publishing, 2017

monitor elections and get a sense of where other Americans stand on particular issues.
 To win elections, politicians must know what citizens think and what they want from their officials.
The media also want current and accurate information on which to base their reporting.

The Citizens and Public Opinion


 The chapter closes by looking at whether the electorate can rationally participate in a democracy if
they don’t measure up to the criteria laid out for the ideal democratic citizen.
 While some citizens may seem apolitical and disinterested, many use rational information shortcuts
to make their voting decisions. Policymakers have responded by staying generally responsive to
public preferences.

CHAPTER OBJECTIVES

After reading and reviewing the chapter, the student should be able to:

 Explain the role of public opinion in a democracy.


 Evaluate how well American citizens measure up to notions of an “ideal democratic citizen.”
 Identify key factors that influence our individual and collective political opinions.
 Describe different techniques used to gauge public opinion.
 Give examples of ways in which public opinion enhances or diminishes the relationship between
citizens and government.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Are the criteria for being an ideal democratic citizen fair, or do we expect too much from people?
How do American citizens compare to the ideal democratic citizen? Does it matter if we are not
ideal citizens?

2. What are some agents of political socialization? Which agents are most important, and which are
least important? Why?

3. Discuss differences in public opinion based on various demographics. How does age affect our
opinions? Gender? Religion? Race? Why do you think these differences in opinion continue to
exist?

4. How informed about politics does the American public appear to be? What are some shortcuts to
political knowledge? Do you think these shortcuts allow a person to be adequately informed?

5. Why might polls be accurate? Why might they be inaccurate? In general, how reliable are polls?
Given the reliability of polls, do you think their influence on our political process is reasonable?
(Use the controversy concerning the 2016 election polls as an example).

6. The textbook’s authors presented three different characterizations of the U.S. citizenry. One is that
U.S. citizens are apolitical and self-interested. The second is that most Americans are politically
aware, at least enough to get by and promote their own best interests; your text called these folks
“the rational electorate.” A third point of view insists that a significant number of individuals are
Instructor Resource
Barbour and Wright, Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics 8e
SAGE Publishing, 2017

even “ideal citizens” who are extremely knowledgeable about both current events and the workings
of our political system. Which point of view do you agree with (if any)? Why?

7. How many students belong to the same political party as their parents? As most of their friends? As
most of their classmates? How many students do not know which political party they belong to?

DISCUSSION IDEAS/EXERCISES & PROJECTS

1. Discuss the competing views of citizenship discussed in the text: the apathetic, uninformed citizen;
the ideal democratic citizen; and the rational electorate. Discuss the criteria for each type of citizen
and which type students are. Discuss the analogy between the rational electorate and the average
person watching a football game. Neither one knows all the rules, but each knows enough about the
process to tell who is winning the game. Is this type of citizenship good enough? Why or why not?

2. Discuss why public opinion is important in a democracy. Think about the different views of types of
democracy as well as the different views of representative democracy (elite, pluralist, and
participatory), and the role of public opinion in each view. You also might want to discuss the
dilemma that politicians face over whether to follow public opinion. On the one hand, the public
believes they should have an indirect (and, in some cases, direct) voice in policymaking, but they
often get upset if politicians are simply following public opinion polls.

3. Examine the history of polling. Begin with the straw polls of the 1920s, the Literary Digest poll in
1936, and the incorrect prediction in 1948. Discuss the problems with these polls, and explain the
ways in which polling has become more scientific.

4. Discuss the agents of political socialization. How are we socialized? What do we learn, and when?
How do people determine their ideology and their opinions of other ideologies? Political party?
Opinions on issues? Opinions on political efficacy? Do students feel their families, their race, their
gender, and other factors discussed in the text have affected their political socialization? Why or
why not?

5. Discuss how public opinion differs based on demographics such as age, gender, race, religion,
education, and geographical region. Consider questions such as “Why do differences exist in these
groups?” and “How do these differences influence the way in which Democrats and Republicans
run campaigns?”

6. Explain what the Gallup Poll Organization is, and provide a brief historical overview of the
organization. Show students the site at www.gallup.com, and review some current poll results by
clicking on the links provided. Why are public opinion polls so helpful? Does the advent of the
internet challenge the accuracy of these polls? Why or why not?

CLASS ACTIVITIES

1. Divide the class into groups of three to five students. Have each group develop a questionnaire on a
subject of its choice (you may want to approve the subject). Then, pair the groups and have one
group take the survey of the other (and vice versa). Afterward, discuss as a class the difficulties that
the groups had in constructing their surveys, and have the paired groups critique each other’s
Instructor Resource
Barbour and Wright, Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics 8e
SAGE Publishing, 2017

survey.

2. Have students find, in periodicals or on web sites, three different polls on the same issue (e.g.,
Social Security, abortion, same-sex marriage). Are the results of the three polls similar? If not, have
students give brief presentations on what they found and why, if any, different results might exist.
Have them think about such things as the type of poll (e.g., Internet, scientific), the time period in
which the poll was conducted, and the wording of the questions.

3. Have students rate themselves on a ten-point ideology scale with 1 being an extremely liberal
person and 10 being an extremely conservative person. Then have students log on to the Political
Compass quiz at www.politicalcompass.org. Did the students rate themselves the way they thought
they would? Are there any trends in the class? Are most people liberal or conservative? What did
students think of the test?

4. Create a dataset for the class using the most recent National Election Studies, which can be found at
www.electionstudies.org. Include any questions that ask respondents for their positions on issues as
well as demographic variables, such as race, religion, gender, age, and education. Have each student
pick an issue and analyze crosstabs of the responses to the issue and the demographics. Students
could then either write a brief paper on their results or make a presentation to the class. This
exercise will require teaching the students to use a statistical package such as SPSS or Stata.

5. Take a survey of students regarding a current political topic, such as whether they approve of the
current president or whether they like where they live. Then look at the Gallup.com site and
compare the opinions of the class with the poll results on the site. Do students in the class have the
“typical American” point of view on the selected topic? If not, what factors led to a different result?

TOPICS IN AMERICAN GOVERNMENT DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Influence of Political Opinion

1. Family, friends, religion, and the media all influence our political opinions. What has had the most
influence on your political views?

2. The news media can influence political views in the way that they choose to frame an issue or an
event. In the 2016 election, many people criticized the news media. How do you think the media
influenced the views of voters in the 2016 election?

3. Are public leaders responsive to public opinion? Should public leaders be responsive to public
opinion?