220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 4: Political Nature of the Masses
Lecture 1: Nature of Public Opinion

April 17



  • Change in date of Midterm examination
    • Now scheduled for Monday, April 24
      • That conflict with both Easter Sunday and Passover
      • So the date will be changed to Monday, May 1
    • Go to the web page for last year's exam and sample answers
    • Be alert for the identifications:
      • explain the meaning
      • discuss the relevance to American government and politics

Nature of Public Opinion
  • What's the state of public opinion on the income tax, due today?
    • Most American think that the taxes are "too high"
    • Compared with what?
      • Taxes in the US are lower than in almost every other country
      • Taxes in the US today are lower than they have been in the past.
  • Thanks to survey research techniques, we now know a good deal about public opinion.
  • Your text talks about the shape and stability of public opinion
    • Shape
      • Normal
        • Symmetrical and unimodal--"Bell-shaped"
      • Skewed
        • Asymmetrical and unimodal
      • Bimodal
        • Symmetrical and bimodal
    • Stability of distribution
      • Stable distribution: Your text shows that the public in 1964 and in 1996 had a similar unimodal distribution of ideological orientations.
      • Changing distribution: Attitudes toward integrated schools.
      • Trend: Increase in opposition toward the Vietnam War over time

Studying public opinion: using the CROSSTABS program

  • This is a program for analyzing public opinion and congressional voting.
    • It can analyze public opinions by cross-classifying one variable by another.
    • Consider attitude toward abortion, religion, and religiosity
  • The 1999 beta version of CROSSTABS is available at http://www.hmco.com/college/xtabs
    • Username: data
    • Password: analysis
  • The tables below are for the 1992 election data:

Public opinion and American politics

  • The majoritarian model says that government should do what a majority of the people want.
  • There are many examples of the errorful nature of public opinion:
    • How much the national government spends on foreign aid.
    • Among western countries, which one has the lowest tax rate.
    • Among western countries, which has the most unequal distribution of income.
    • Among western countries, which is the most religious.
  • My point is not to make the American public look stupid, but to raise questions about the driving basis of the majoritarian model of democracy.
  • Public opinion is susceptible to simplistic solutions to complex problems, and politicians can often take advantage of the public's incomplete understanding of the situation.

Political values in public opinion can be usefully analyzed according to social groups.

  • Although the political socialization process is unique to each individual, there are commonalities among people with similar social backgrounds.
  • Responses to questions about order (allowing a communist to teach) and equality (redistributing wealth) analyzed in the text for a national sample according to education, income, region, "old" ethnicity (European origin), "new" ethnicity (race), and religion (both type of faith and religiosity):
    • People with HIGH EDUCATION choose freedom over both order and equality more often than those with low education.
    • People with HIGH INCOME are more opposed to government policies of income redistribution than those of low income.
    • REGIONAL differences, once quite important in American politics, have declined in importance on thse issues.
    • Old ethnicity (EUROPEAN ORIGIN) has also declined as a determinant of public opinion.
    • RACE has emerged as a more critical variable, distinguishing whites from blacks, Hispanics and Asians, especially on redistribution of wealth to promote equality.