Public Opinion: How is it formed?

A large group of people in front of Supreme Court building holding signs. Some signs have messages such as as We love Obamacare and others with Obamacare: Freedom not included.

On April 15 (or “tax day”), 2010, members of the Tea Party movement rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in favor of smaller government and against the Affordable Care Act (left). Two years later, supporters of the law (right) demonstrated in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. (Credit left: modification of work by “Fibonacci Blue”/Flickr; Credit right: modification of work by LaDawna Howard)

Learning Objectives

  • Define public opinion and political socialization.
  • Explain the process and role of political socialization in the U.S. political system.
  • Compare the ways in which citizens learn political information.
  • Explain how beliefs and ideology affect the formation of public opinion.
  • Discuss shared beliefs, values, and political culture.

The collection of public opinion through polling and interviews is a part of the American political system. Politicians want to know what the public thinks. Campaign managers want to know how citizens will vote. Media members seek to write stories about what Americans want and about critical issues facing the nation. Every day, polls take the pulse of the people and report the results. Why do we care what people think?

What Is Public Opinion?

Public opinion is a collection of attitudes and beliefs about political issues and topics. For example, each day, a number of polling organizations call Americans at random to ask whether they approve or disapprove of the way the president is guiding the country.[1]

These individual opinions are collected for analysis and interpretation by public policy makers. This analysis examines how the public feels or thinks, so politicians can use the information to make decisions that are responsive to public concerns.  With a system of elected representation, the connection between majority public opinion and governmental action by those elected is a guiding assumption of democratic theory.  While many will dispute how exact the linkage is or should be, few will deny that “consent of the governed” implies a responsive relationship to public opinion.[2]

But where do people’s opinions come from? Most citizens base their political opinions on their beliefs[3] and their attitudes, both of which begin to form in childhood. Beliefs are closely held ideas that support our values and expectations about life and politics. For example, the idea that we are all entitled to equality, liberty, freedom, and privacy is a belief most people in the United States share. We may acquire this belief by growing up in the United States or by having come from a country that did not afford these valued principles to its citizens.

Our attitudes are also affected by our personal beliefs and represent the preferences we form based on our life experiences and values. A person who has suffered racism or bigotry may have a skeptical attitude toward the actions of authority figures.

Over time, our beliefs and our attitudes about people, events, and ideas will become a set of norms, or accepted ideas, about what we may feel should happen in our society or what is right for the government to do in a situation. In this way, attitudes and beliefs form the foundation for opinions.


The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of a shared political culture are values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs.

GOVT 2305 Government Agents of Socialization Chart

Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is good and important.

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided. Consider the value that the United States places upon egalitarianism or the belief that everyone should be treated equally by the government regardless of other factors such as age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc.  The United States also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individualism and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value.  Americans tend to value democratic principles or the belief that the people are in control of the government and the government should protect our liberty/freedoms whether political, social or economic.  Additionally, most Americans think capitalism or a market based economy is the best economic system.

Chart showing elements of shared political culture including liberty, democratic principles, egalitarianism, individualism, and capitalism.

Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It is easy to value good health, but it is hard to quit smoking. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. Rewards may involve informal social interaction, sanctions, and punishments also requiring governmental action. For example, when people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission informally, or by enacting formal governmental sanctions of disapproval and nonsupport. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. From a criminal justice perspective, properly used social control is also inexpensive crime control. Utilizing social control pushes most people to conform to societal rules, regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.

When people go against a society’s values, they are punished either informally or through formal governmental enforced action. A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers.[4] Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.

Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture.

Political Socialization

At the same time that our political beliefs and attitudes are forming during childhood, we are also being socialized; that is, we are learning from many information sources about the society and community in which we live and about its political system. Political socialization is the entire complex process by which we are trained to understand our country’s political system and form our political views about how it should operate; and, like most forms of socialization, it starts when we are very young. We may first become aware of politics by watching a parent or guardian vote, for instance, or by hearing presidents and candidates speak on television or the Internet, or seeing adults honor the American flag at an event. As socialization continues, we are introduced to basic political information in school. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance and learn about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the two major political parties, the three branches of government, and the economic system.

In the United States, one benefit of socialization is that our political system enjoys diffuse support, which is support characterized by a high level of stability in politics, acceptance of the government as legitimate, and a common goal of preserving the system.[5]

Photo A shows former prime minister of Greenland Hans Enoksen and a child putting a slip of paper in a wooden box. Photo B shows an officer in a navy uniform giving a small American flag to a child.

Political socialization begins early. Hans Enoksen, former prime minister of Greenland, receives a helping hand at the polls from five-year-old Pipaluk Petersen (a). Intelligence Specialist Second Class Tashawbaba McHerrin (b) hands a U.S. flag to a child visiting the USS Enterprise during Fleet Week in Port Everglades, Florida. (Credit a: modification of work by Leiff Josefsen; Credit b: modification of work by Matthew Keane, U.S. Navy)

By the time we complete formal schooling, we have usually acquired the political knowledge necessary to form political views and be contributing members of the political system.[6] However, political socialization does not end with formal schooling and is really a life-long process.

Our own personal political ideology, made up of the attitudes and beliefs that help shape our opinions on political theory and policy, is rooted in who we are as individuals. Our political beliefs may change as we grow older and are introduced to new circumstances or new information. While some changes in political beliefs may be subtle and gradual, sometimes we experience events that profoundly affect us and our political beliefs.[7] For example, family members of 9/11 victims became more Republican and more political following the terrorist attacks.[8]

Socialization Agents

An agent of political socialization is a source of political information which influences citizen understanding of how to act in their political system or make decisions on political matters. These agents’ information may influence their political actions. For example, the information may help a citizen decide how to vote, where to donate money, or how to protest decisions made by the government.

The most prominent early agents of socialization are family, friends, and formal schooling. Other life-long influential agents of socialization include social groups, such as religious institutions, interest groups of which individuals are members, unions, popular culture such as movies and television along with the news mass media. The mass media, a major agent of political socialization for adults, will be covered in a separate chapter.[9]

Chart shows the percentage intergenerational resemblance in partisan orientation in 1992. People who identify as strong democrat reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 31% reported both of their parents as democrats, 6% reported both of their parents as republicans, and 10% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Weak democrats reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 27% reported both parents as democrat, 6% reported both their parents as republicans, and 14% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Independent democrats reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 14% reported both parents as democrats, 6% reported both parents as republicans, and 18% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Pure independents reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 7% reported both parents as democrats. 7% reported both parents as republicans. 17% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Independent republicans reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 7% reported both parents as democrats, 16% reported both parents as republicans. 16% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Weak republicans reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 8% reported both parents as democrats, 32% reported both parents as republicans, 14% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. Strong republicans reported their parents’ political orientation as follows: 6% reported both parents as democrats, 27% report both parents as republicans, and 9% reported no consistent partisanship among parents. At the bottom of the chart, a source is cited:

A parent’s political orientation often affects the political orientation of his or her child.

We are also socialized outside our homes and schools. When citizens attend religious ceremonies, as 70 percent of Americans in a recent survey claimed, they are socialized to adopt beliefs that affect their politics.[10] Religious leaders often teach on matters of life, death, punishment, and obligation, which translate into views on political issues such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and military involvement abroad.

Political socialization is not a new concept. It was acknowledged even in the days of ancient Greece that democracy could not flourish without capable people taking action and the cultivation and spread of knowledge.

Consider the Original

Excerpt from BOOK II CHAPTER VI Beginning of the Peloponnesian War—First Invasion of Attica—Funeral Oration of Pericles from THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR By Thucydides 431 BC as translated by Richard Crawley for Project Gutenberg…

“[…] wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all […]” –Pericles[11]

Friends and peers too have a socializing effect on citizens. Communication networks are based on trust and common interests, so when we receive information from friends and neighbors, we often readily accept it because we trust them.[12] Information transmitted through social media is also likely to have a socializing effect. Friends “like” articles and information, sharing their political beliefs and information with one another.

Media—newspapers, television, radio, and the Internet—also socialize citizens through the information they provide. For a long time, the media served as gatekeepers of our information, creating reality by choosing what to present. If the media did not cover an issue or event, it was as if it did not exist. With the rise of the Internet and social media, however, traditional media have become less powerful agents of this kind of socialization.

Socialization and Ideology

A political ideology is a consistent set of political beliefs and attitudes shared by a group about what government should do: its purposes and scope. The socialization process leaves citizens with attitudes and beliefs that create a personal ideology. Ideologies depend on attitudes and beliefs, and on the way we prioritize each belief over the others. Most citizens hold a great number of beliefs and attitudes about government action. Many think government should provide for the common defense, in the form of a national military. They also argue that government should provide services to its citizens in the form of free education, unemployment benefits, and assistance for the poor.

When asked how to divide the national budget, Americans reveal priorities that divide public opinion. Should we have a smaller military and larger social benefits, or a larger military budget and limited social benefits? This is the guns versus butter debate, which assumes that governments have a finite amount of money and must choose whether to spend a larger part on the military or on social programs. The choice forces citizens into two opposing groups.

Ideologies and the Ideological Spectrum

An extremely common way to look at political ideologies is to place them on a left to right spectrum or axis that visually compares them based on what they prioritize. This left to right placement dates from the time of the French Revolution, where those seeking the most change in the nation’s political and societal arrangements sat on the left side of the legislative assembly. Those seeking to preserve or conserve the existing political and social system sat on the right side. Today, many political analysts and the popular mass media frequently characterize the two most predominant U.S. political ideological groups, liberal and conservative, using this left to right continuum.

This left to right spectrum does have some limitations in differentiating between governmental roles in regulating social behavior and economic intervention, but it can be generally useful in dividing those who both seek change in the existing economic and social systems and those who both seek to preserve and maintain the existing economic and social systems.

It is important to recognize the two political ideologies of liberalism and conservatism do not represent the entire spectrum of U.S. political ideologies. They are, however, predominant enough that conservatives find their major home in the Republican Party while liberals primarily associate with the Democrat Party.

Chart illustrating left wing and right wing viewpoints. instructor-resource-oer-political-ideologies-chart-version-3

Predominant U.S. Ideologies: Liberal and Conservative


Modern Liberals generally support a more interventionist and active role for the federal/national government in regulating and stimulating the nation’s economy. They support government spending on social welfare programs aimed at providing a strong social safety net with the goal of achieving greater equality of economic outcomes. That is, they see a significant role for the national government in providing public goods and services. Liberals often express concerns over fairness of the criminal justice and law enforcement systems and the potential adverse impact on some ethnic and racial groups. Liberalism supports an individual’s right to make decisions without what are seen as traditional constraints on social behavior, including constraints on marriage (same-sex marriage) and abortion. Frequently, the media uses the term Progressives to describe Liberals, and the two terms may be considered interchangeable.[13]


Modern Conservatives support a more limited role for the national government supporting less government spending and more fiscal restraint. While committed to providing a social safety net, Conservatives advocate a smaller commitment to social welfare programs by the national government or for what are know as public sector goods and services. They favor state government flexibility in determining the scope of this safety net, and they prefer limited government intervention in the economy, allowing the free market to determine prices, wages, and supply of goods. Conservatives perceive the role of government is to facilitate equality of opportunity with minimal responsibility of guaranteeing equality of outcome. In addition, Conservatives have a strong commitment to maintaining order through a safe and organized society based upon the rule of law. Conservative governmental policy generally supports upholding traditional social constraints (the social order) on individual behavior including marriage and abortion.[14][15]


Many political analysts recognize that these two political ideologies do not fully represent the range of political beliefs of the American public. Frequently, an in-between category known as Moderates, as been used to describe those who do not fall into the major categories. Moderates are assumed to share some beliefs from Liberalism and Conservatism. Sometimes they are called Centrists. Many people, in response to political polling, describe themselves as moderates, but the category lacks a consistency of content.[16][17]

Other U.S. Ideologies (Social Issue Variation): Libertarianism and Populism

There is a growing recognition that many American differentiate between social and economic based issues when evolving a personal political ideology.[18]

While some seek change on both economic and social behavior issues, some may seek change only on economic issues.[19] Thus, a simple left to right focus on change as indicated by the chart above, may fail to capture the range of current U.S. political ideologies.[20] Therefore, a fuller understanding of the U.S. ideological spectrum is helped by two additional ideologies, Libertarianism and Populism. The diagram below adds these two additional ideologies recognizing that individuals can have views on the desirability of governmental laws in either or both arenas–social and economic.[21]


Libertarians support limited government intervention in private life and the economy. Government exists to maintain and maximize individual freedom for both personal life behavior choices and individual economic decision-making. For Libertarians, government’s main functions are very limited with an emphasis on ensuring domestic peace and national defense with few public goods. For Libertarians, government should not engage in major social welfare programs or programs aimed at promoting economic equality. Libertarians may have considerable compatibility with Conservatives on fiscal issues and frequently find themselves at home in the Republican Party. They may be seen as constitutional conservatives, generally believing the U.S. Constitution significantly restricts the powers of the national government. They often share similar views with Liberals opposing governmental restraint on social behavior, including marriage, abortion, or marijuana use.[22]


Populism supports the rights of the people and control of government by the people. A distrust of elites, especially the business or economic elite, is usually part of a populist viewpoint. The definition of Populism varies widely, but the basic view of a Populist typically aligns with Conservatives on social issues and with Liberals on fiscal/monetary issues–or economic equality issues.[23] Populists generally support a significant governmental role in providing greater economic equality through social welfare programs, often favoring economic regulation of business. Populists are sometimes called social conservatives because they have similar views on issues such as abortion and marriage.

Chart illustrating four quadrants on a graph of liberalism, populism, libertarianism, and conservatism. govt-2305-government-basic-ideology-chart

World-Wide Ideologies (Economic Issue Variation): Socialism and Communism


Socialism (Democratic) supports strong governmental policy to promote both social and economic equality within a country. Socialists believe government should provide public goods and publicly financed services, often to the exclusion of private goods and services. Socialist countries frequently have basic industries run directly by the government, but they differ on the degree of reliance on the public sector and public goods–seeing governmental programs as a way to ensure all citizens obtain equal economic outcomes. Compared to the American version of Liberalism, the level of governmental intervention in society and the economy is a higher priority for modern Socialists. At least one recent U.S. politician, Senator Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. European social Democracies like Sweden or Denmark are characterized by significant adoption of socialist political ideology, while preserving some civil liberties and civil rights.[24]


Communism promotes common ownership of all property, means of production, and materials. This means that the government, or states, should own the property, farms, manufacturing, and businesses. Essentially, there would be no private goods–only public goods. Communism presents a problem, however, because the practice differs from the theory. The presumption of communist theory, as espoused by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, includes advocacy for common ownership of property, society based solely on public goods, and government supported and led by workers of the country.[25] In reality, human rights violations by actual communist countries, such as Cuba and the former Soviet Union, demonstrate that such governments are not formed with the consent of the people but are imposed upon the citizens of the country. That is, communist governments are generally totalitarian and non-democratic with limited civil liberties and civil rights. They differ, therefore, very little from other authoritarian regimes with governmental control over virtually all aspects of society.

World-Wide Ideologies (Authoritarian Based): Fascism and Statism


Fascism promotes total control of the country by the ruling party or political leader. This form of government will run the economy, the military, society, and culture, and often tries to control the private lives of its citizens. Authoritarian leaders control the politics, military, and government of a country, and often the economy as well, either through direct ownership or state planning and regulation. Such governments are non-democratic and citizens have neither rights nor civil liberties.[26]


Statism promotes extensive intervention by the government in both economic and social spheres. Individuals supporting the state as the ultimate arbiter of what is correct, what (or who) is valuable, and what level of government control is acceptable are Statists. For Statists, nothing exists outside the state.

Political Ideologies: United States and World-Wide

The U.S. versions of Liberalism and Conservatism, even with the addition of Libertarianism and Populism, do not represent the totality of worldwide political ideologies commonly adopted or represent how such ideological terms are used in other countries. In fact, people may sometimes be a mix of ideological positions depending on the exact issues under discussion. The chart below provides a short summary of some of the major ideologies operating both in the United States and in other countries.

Chart defining various ideological labels also mentioned in the terms to remember section and created by Deborah Hoag and Richard Fonte, Austin Community College.

Chart created by Deborah Hoag and Richard Fonte, Austin Community College.

link to learningWhere do your beliefs come from? The Pew Research Center offers a typology quiz to help you find out. Ask a friend or family member to answer a few questions with you and compare results. What do you think about government regulation? The military? The economy? Now compare your results. Are you both liberal? Conservative? Moderate?

Questions to Consider

  1. Where do your beliefs originate?

  2. Which agents of socialization will have the strongest impact on an individual?

Terms to Remember

agent of political socialization–a person or entity that teaches and influences others about politics through use of information

beliefs–the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true

capitalism–economic system, a market based economy, free markets

communism/communist–a political and economic system ideology where government promotes common ownership of all property, means of production, and materials to prevent the exploitation of workers; in practice, most communist governments use force to maintain control

conservatism/conservative–a political ideology that prioritizes individual liberties, preferring a smaller government that stays out of the economy

democratic principles–belief that people should be in control of government

egalitarianism— the belief that everyone should be treated equally by the government

fascism/fascist–a political system of total control by the ruling party or political leader over the economy, the military, society, and culture and often the private lives of citizens

ideal culture–the standards society would like to embrace and live up to

ideology–beliefs and values shared by members of a group

individualism–independence of the individual, each individual has value regardless of any factor of birth or circumstance

liberalism/liberal– a political ideology based on belief in government intervention to support increased economic equality and less control of personal belief and behavior

libertarianism/libertarian–a political ideology which supports individual rights and limited government intervention in private life and personal economic decisions

liberties–freedoms possessed because an individual is a human being with reasoning capabilities; life, liberty and property; basic freedoms

moderate/centrist–assumed to share some beliefs from Liberalism and Conservatism

partisanship–strong support, or even blind allegiance, for a particular political party

political ideology–a consistent set of political beliefs and attitudes shared by a group about what government should do: its purposes and scope

political socialization–the process of learning the norms and practices of a political system through others and societal institutions

populism/populist–a political ideology which supports the rights of the people and control of government by the people

public opinion–a collection of opinions of an individual or a group of individuals on a topic, person, or event

real culture–the way society actually is

socialism/socialist–a political and economic system in which government uses its authority to promote social and economic equality

statism/statist–the state is the highest arbiter of the scope of government intervention and law

values–a culture’s standard for discerning or determining what is good and just in society

  1. Gallup. 2015. "Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval." Gallup. June 6, 2015. (February 17, 2016); Rasmussen Reports. 2015. "Daily Presidential Tracking Poll." Rasmussen Reports June 6, 2015. (February 17, 2016); Roper Center. 2015. "Obama Presidential Approval." Roper Center. June 6, 2015. (February 17, 2016).
  2. Declaration of Independence; at and
  3. V. O. Key, Jr. 1966. The Responsible Electorate. Harvard University: Belknap Press.
  4. Singh v. Baidwan (2016)
  5. David Easton. 1965. A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: John Wiley.
  6. John Zaller. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Stephen Rainey, Major Agents of Political Socialization, April 2014, Prezi.
  8. Eitan Hersh. 2013. "Long-Term Effect of September 11 on the Political Behavior of Victims’ Families and Neighbors." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (52): 20959–63.
  9. Eitan Hersh. 2013. "Long-Term Effect of September 11 on the Political Behavior of Victims’ Families and Neighbors." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (52): 20959–63.
  10. Michael Lipka, 2013, "What Surveys Say about Workshop Attendance--and Why Some Stay Home" Pew Research Center, September 13, 2013 at
  12. Arthur Lupia and Mathew D. McCubbins. 1998. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? New York: Cambridge University Press. John Barry Ryan. 2011. “Social Networks as a Shortcut to Correct Voting.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (4): 753–766.
  13. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  14. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  15. Gallup, "Conservatives hand on the ideology lead by a thread," January 11, 2016. Poll
  16. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  17. Michael Lind, May 24, 2014, "R.I.P. Social Conservatism" Salon
  18. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  19. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  20. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute
  21. William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie, 1984, Beyond Liberal and Conservative, Cato Institute and Richard Fonte, original and adapted content, Austin Community College
  22. Libertarian Party. 2014. "Libertarian Party Platform." June. (February 17, 2016)
  23. Michael Lind, May 24, 2014, "R.I.P. Social Conservatism" Salon
  24. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House
  25. Manifesto Of the Communist Party By Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Public Domain Copy at Project Gutenberg,
  26. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House