How Public Opinion Is Formed

Americans have a tremendous amount of information about politics available to them. The mass media — television and its expanding cable and satellite outlets in particular — provide a daily stream of news and analysis. During an election year, the stream becomes a torrent. The availability of information does not necessarily mean that it is absorbed and used, however. Americans may be politically engaged, but research shows that many are unfamiliar with how their government works and what candidates stand for, and many are ignorant about the basic facts of public policy. This lack of knowledge does not prevent Americans from expressing their opinions. Rarely does someone say, "I can't comment on that; I don't have enough information." How then is public opinion formed? 

Personal interest

Personal interest has a straightforward effect on public opinion. Individuals respond to a problem based on how the outcome will affect them. This is rather obvious on pocketbook issues: cutting the capital gains tax or increasing co-payments under Medicare can have an immediate and direct impact on people's lives. Self-interest does not apply to all areas of political debate. If you do not have school-age children, the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act may be irrelevant to you. Since the attacks of September 11, on the other hand, every American has an opinion on the war on terrorism and how effectively the federal government is dealing with the threats to the country; opinions on the war in Iraq certainly were not limited to Americans in the armed services or those who have a family member serving. 


A more encompassing way of looking at public opinion is through the concept of a schema, a term political scientists have borrowed from psychology. A schema is a set of beliefs that people use to examine a specific subject. It is a mature outlook that draws on life experiences and, in a sense, is the sum total of the influences of socialization, background, and ideological convictions. Political affiliation is an example of a schema. People who identify themselves as Roosevelt Democrats tend to support a large role for government in society and favor legislation to assist the poor. Free-market Republicans, on the other hand, tend to view government interference in commerce as a dangerous loss of freedom, one that distorts markets and, therefore, makes society poorer by reducing economic efficiency. 

Effective leadership

Politicians are often accused of following the polls too closely, altering their positions to reflect shifts in public opinion. Effective leaders, in contrast, help build a consensus on policies that they believe are in the best interest of the country. The role as an opinion-maker is almost always assumed by the president. George H. W. Bush, for example, was not very successful with his economic policy, especially when compared to Ronald Reagan; however, he did an excellent job capturing both American and international public opinion following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The exact opposite can be said of his son. While George W. Bush had broad-based public support in the United States and around the world in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he was unable to hold onto that support through the war in Iraq.