Have you ever stopped to think about WHY you have the political beliefs and values you do? Where did they come from? Are they simply your own ideas or have you been influenced by others in your thinking? Political scientists call the process by which individuals acquire their political beliefs and attitudes "political socialization." What people think and how they come to think it is of critical importance to the stability and health of popular government. The beliefs and values of the people are the basis for a society's political culture and that culture defines the parameters of political life and governmental action.
America's political culture is deeply rooted in this nation's revolutionary roots. The pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is the bedrock of American political belief. As the Declaration further states, Americans generally believe that the purpose of government is to "secure these rights" and that the government derives its "just powers from the consent" of the people.
America's individualism, however, means that there is a wide variety of opinions on almost every political issue and every public policy problem. There are, however, identifiable core beliefs that help define American political culture. These beliefs include, as noted, a strong emphasis on individual liberty, support for equality (especially political equality), a belief in majority rule and faith in the Constitution and the form of government it establishes. Most Americans are also very patriotic and optimistic about America's purpose and future.
Civic Duty and Political Participation
One of the most important components of American political culture is the almost unanimously held sense of duty and obligation to be informed and to participate in politics, especially through voting. However, given their high expectations of the political system, the people are easily disappointed when the government does not perform effectively or politicians do not deliver on their promises. Such disappointments go a long way toward explaining why overwhelming majorities believe they should vote, but most people do not turn out on election day.1 Voting behavior and participation are discussed in more detail in "Voting in America."
Where We Get Our Political Values
Most Americans acquire their political values early in life and those values remain fairly stable through adulthood. The most dominant influences on childhood political socialization are the family, schools, churches and the media. Of these, the family generally exerts the most significant and long-lasting influence on political attitudes, beliefs and behavior. The older a child grows, however, especially as they move into adulthood, the influences of the family become relatively less important. Even in adulthood, however, childhood experiences within a family unit can have a profound effect on political views and decisions. For example, there is a "high degree of correspondence" between the political party an individual prefers and the party that his or her parents preferred, especially if both parents preferred the same party.2
Children acquire a wide range of attitudes and beliefs early in life, such as respect for authority, a sense of duty to obey the law and to participate in the political process. These beliefs, if carried into adulthood, tend to produce citizens that are supportive and active in the political system. However, as children grow older, their idealized views of government and politicians become more realistic and cynical. At least in part to counter the cynicism and low participation rates among many adults, most elementary, high school and even college students in America are required to take courses in "civics," American history and American government. It is generally accepted by policy makers, educators and administrators that substantial efforts should be made to train children and adolescents to be effective, informed citizens even as the political system (and perhaps the media) gives them reason to be pessimistic about politics.
1. William H. Flannigan and Nancy H. Zingale. Political Behavior of the American Electorate, 7th Edition. (CQ Press, 1991), 177-8.
2. Angus Campbell, et al. "The Impact and Development of Party Identification, "in Classics in Voting Behavior, Richard G. Niemi and Herbert Weisberg, eds. (CQ Press, 1992), 231-2.