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

The collection of public opinion through polling and interviews is a part of American political culture. 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. 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 popular views about something, perhaps a person, a local or national event, or a new idea. For example, each day, a number of polling companies call Americans at random to ask whether they approve or disapprove of the way the president is guiding the economy.[1]

When situations arise internationally, polling companies survey whether citizens support U.S. intervention in places like Syria or Ukraine. These individual opinions are collected together to be analyzed and interpreted for politicians and the media. The analysis examines how the public feels or thinks, so politicians can use the information to make decisions about their future legislative votes, campaign messages, or propaganda.

But where do people’s opinions come from? Most citizens base their political opinions on their beliefs[2] 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.

Political Socialization

At the same time that our 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 how we are to behave in it. Political socialization is the process by which we are trained to understand and join a country’s political world, 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.

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 school, we have usually acquired the information necessary to form political views and be contributing members of the political system.[3]

Our 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 ideology may change subtly as we grow older and are introduced to new circumstances or new information, but our underlying beliefs and attitudes are unlikely to change very much, unless we experience events that profoundly affect us. For example, family members of 9/11 victims became more Republican and more political following the terrorist attacks.[4]

Similarly, young adults who attended political protest rallies in the 1960s and 1970s were more likely to participate in politics in general than their peers who had not protested.[5]

Today, polling agencies have noticed that citizens’ beliefs have become far more polarized, or widely opposed, over the last decade.[6]

To track this polarization, Pew Research conducted a study of Republican and Democratic respondents over a twenty-five-year span. Every few years, Pew would poll respondents, asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements. These statements are referred to as “value questions” or “value statements,” because they measure what the respondent values. Examples of statements include “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” “Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person,” and “Society should ensure all have equal opportunity to succeed.” After comparing such answers for twenty-five years, Pew Research found that Republican and Democratic respondents are increasingly answering these questions very differently. This is especially true for questions about the government and politics. In 1987, 58 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that the government controlled too much of our daily lives. In 2012, 47 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement. This is an example of polarization, in which members of one party see government from a very different perspective than the members of the other party.[7]

Chart shows the widening partisan differences in political values between 1987 and 2012. In the center of the chart is a vertical axis line. On the right side of the line are the years 1987 through 2012 marked with ticks. On the left side of the line are percentages, labeled

Over the years, Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart in their beliefs about the role of government. In 1987, Republican and Democratic answers to forty-eight values questions differed by an average of only 10 percent, but that difference has grown to 18 percent over the last twenty-five years.

According to some scholars, shifts led partisanship to become more polarized than in previous decades, as more citizens began thinking of themselves as conservative or liberal rather than moderate.[8]

Socialization Agents

An agent of political socialization is a source of political information intended to help citizens understand how to act in their political system and how to make decisions on political matters. 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 agents of socialization are family and school. Other influential agents are social groups, such as religious institutions and friends, and the media. Political socialization is not unique to the United States. Many nations have realized the benefits of socializing their populations. China, for example, stresses nationalism in schools as a way to increase national unity.[9]

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.[10]

These traits keep a country steady, even during times of political or social upheaval. But diffuse support does not happen quickly, nor does it occur without the help of agents of political socialization.

For many children, family is the first introduction to politics. Children may hear adult conversations at home and piece together the political messages their parents support. They often know how their parents or grandparents plan to vote, which in turn can socialize them into political behavior such as political party membership.[11]

Children who accompany their parents on Election Day in November are exposed to the act of voting and the concept of civic duty, which is the performance of actions that benefit the country or community. Families active in community projects or politics make children aware of community needs and politics.

Introducing children to these activities has an impact on their future behavior. Both early and recent findings suggest that children adopt some of the political beliefs and attitudes of their parents.[12]

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.

While family provides an informal political education, schools offer a more formal and increasingly important one. We are also socialized outside our homes and schools. When citizens attend religious ceremonies, as 70 percent of Americans in a recent survey claimed,[13] they are socialized to adopt beliefs that affect their politics. Religion 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.

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.[14]

Information transmitted through social media like Facebook 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.

Another way the media socializes audiences is through framing, or choosing the way information is presented. Framing can affect the way an event or story is perceived. Candidates described with negative adjectives, for instance, may do poorly on Election Day.[15]

Image A is of a large crowd of people. Some of the people are holding signs. Image B is of a crowd of people. In the foreground three people stand on a car. A fourth person holds a traffic cone against the car’s windshield. In the background is a crowd of people along a road.

Images of protestors from the Baltimore “uprising” (a) and from the Baltimore “riots” (b) of April 25, 2015. (credit a: modification of work by Pete Santilli Live Stream/YouTube; credit b: modification of work by “Newzulu”/YouTube)

Socialization and Ideology

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.

Divisions like these appear throughout public opinion. Assume we have four different people named Garcia, Chin, Smith, and Dupree. Garcia may believe that the United States should provide a free education for every citizen all the way through college, whereas Chin may believe education should be free only through high school. Smith might believe children should be covered by health insurance at the government’s expense, whereas Dupree believes all citizens should be covered. In the end, the way we prioritize our beliefs and what we decide is most important to us determines whether we are on the liberal or conservative end of the political spectrum, or somewhere in between.

Ideologies and the Ideological Spectrum

One useful way to look at ideologies is to place them on a spectrum that visually compares them based on what they prioritize. Liberal ideologies are traditionally put on the left and conservative ideologies on the right. (This placement dates from the French Revolution and is why liberals are called left-wing and conservatives are called right-wing.)

govt-2305-student-resource-ideology-chart

Liberalism supports the right to make decisions without what are seen as traditional constraints on social behavior. Liberalism supports intervention in society and the economy, ideally in the promotion of equality. Liberals expect government to provide social and educational programs to help everyone have a chance to succeed. Modern liberals may prefer larger government role in society, with more government control over spending/fiscal issues and less social constraint on individual behavior.

Conservatism supports a belief in the rule of law and maintaining a safe and organized society.  Ideally, conservatives assume government will protect individual liberties.  Conservative governments attempt to hold tight to the traditions of a nation by balancing individual rights with the good of the community. Modern conservatives may prefer a smaller government that limits control of the economy, allowing the market and business to determine prices, wages, and supply. Conservatives traditionally support less government spending/more fiscal restraint and more traditional religious social values.

Libertarianism supports individual rights and limited government intervention in private life and personal economic decisions. Government exists to maintain freedom and life, so its main function is to ensure domestic peace and national defense. Libertarians also believe the national government should maintain a military in case of international threats, but that it should not engage in setting minimum wages or ruling in private matters, like same-sex marriage or the right to abortion.[16]

Populism, in theory, supports the rights of the people and control of government by the people. The definition of populism varies widely, however, the basic view of a populist typically aligns with conservatism on social issues and liberalism on fiscal/monetary issues. A distrust of elites is usually also part of populist views on the proper scope of government.

Socialism, in theory, supports government authority to promote social and economic equality within the country. Socialists believe government should provide everyone with practically everything–expanded services and public programs including health care, housing and groceries, childhood education, and inexpensive college tuition. Socialism sees the government as a way to ensure all citizens receive equal outcomes.

Communism, in theory, 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. Inequality of income, in which some citizens earn millions of dollars a year and other citizens merely hundreds, is prevented by instituting wage controls or by abandoning currency altogether. Communism presents a problem, however, because the practice differs from the theory. The theory assumes the move to communism is supported and led by the proletariat, or the workers and citizens of a country.[17] Human rights violations by governments of actual Communist countries make it appear the movement has been driven not by the people, but by leadership.

Fascism, in theory, 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.

People can sometimes be a mix of ideological positions depending on the exact issue under discussion.

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?

Public Opinion: 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

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

fascism–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

ideology–beliefs and values shared by members of a group

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

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

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

populism–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

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


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