Social Background and Political Values

The position an individual takes on an issue often reflects his or her place in society. Studies that identify interviewees by income and education, religion, race or ethnicity, region, and gender show that people who have the same social background usually share the same political ideas.

Income and education

Low-income Americans tend to endorse a stronger economic role for the federal government than do wealthier Americans, particularly by supporting programs such as welfare and increases in the minimum wage. This difference is to be expected because wealthier Americans are the ones who mostly pay for such programs, and they naturally want to hold down their tax burden. Nevertheless, even low-income Americans are less likely to consider redistribution of wealth a valid governmental task than are adults socialized in other industrialized countries (such as European nations). Americans generally favor a limited government and emphasize the ability of everyone to succeed through hard work. This belief in individual responsibility may overcome a worker's self-interest in endorsing large social programs.

Race and ethnicity

Polls taken before and after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial showed that an overwhelming majority of African Americans believed that the former football star was innocent, while whites felt he was guilty by a similar majority. These results reflect deep differences between the two groups in their perceptions of the judicial system and the role of the police in society.

Self-interest also plays a significant role in attitudes on racial policies. Racial and ethnic minorities tend to favor affirmative action programs, designed to equalize income, education, professional opportunity, and the receipt of government contracts. Because such policies make it easier for members of minority groups, such as African Americans and Hispanics, to get good jobs and become affluent, group members naturally support them at a high rate. Supporters defend affirmative action as a way to eliminate ongoing racial discrimination, make up for historical discrimination, and/or increase diversity in businesses and institutions. Americans of European, Asian, or Middle Eastern descent, by contrast, are much more likely to see such programs as reverse discrimination that punishes them for their ethnic backgrounds. A similar pattern is seen in political party affiliation. Beginning with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, African Americans switched their allegiance from the Republicans, the "party of Lincoln," to the Democrats.

Religion

The concept of the separation of church and state does not prevent religion from acting as a force in American politics. Strongly held beliefs affect the stand individuals take on issues such as public school prayer and state aid to private or parochial schools. Religion can also determine attitudes on abortion and gay and lesbian rights, irrespective of other factors. It is important to recognize, however, that the major religious groups in the United States — Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, as well as the growing Islamic group — have their own liberal and conservative wings that frequently oppose each other on political issues.

Region

The region of the country a person lives in can affect political attitudes. The Southern states tend to support a strong defense policy, a preference reinforced by the presence of many military installations in the region. The South's traditional conservatism was recognized in Richard Nixon's so-called Southern strategy, which began the process of strengthening the Republican party in the region. Moreover, issues that are vital in one particular region generate little interest in others — agricultural price supports in the Midwest or water rights and access to public lands in the West, for example. Questions about Social Security and Medicare have an added importance in the Sunbelt states with their high percentage of older adults.

Gender

Gender gap, a term that refers to the varying political opinions men and women hold, is a recent addition to the American political lexicon. Unmarried women hold political views distinct from those of men and married women, views that lead them to support the Democratic party at a disproportionate rate. Studies indicate that more women than men approve of gun control, want stronger environmental laws, oppose the death penalty, and support spending on social programs. These "compassion" issues are usually identified with the Democratic party. It is interesting to note that, on abortion, there is very little difference between men's and women's opinions.

Events may also have a place in how people look at politics. In the last 35 years, the country has experienced two divisive wars, widespread fraud in the banking and securities industries, and scandals such as Watergate, Iran-Contra, the impeachment of a president, and the ongoing threat of international terrorism. An unusually high number of members of the House and Senate decided not to run for reelection in the early 1990s because they were frustrated with gridlock in Congress (the inability to move legislation through). There is a perception that these developments turned people off from politics. Although voter turnout for the presidential elections has been declining over a long period, it showed a healthy jump in 1992, apparently because Ross Perot's independent presidential bid turned out many Americans who otherwise do not vote for major-party candidates. While it declined in the next two presidential elections, turnout showed another healthy jump in 2004. Other measures of political participation, such as following and working for a campaign, have remained relatively stable.