Report – Changing Public Opinion political report Politics in Action THE LIMITS OF PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF HEALTH CARE REFORM The Affordable Care Act (ACA

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political report 


The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” was a historic change in America’s health care system. No other public policy issue has been debated so long or in as much detail over the last decade. Yet surveys have consistently found that the public’s knowledge of the law has been sketchy. Soon after Obamacare went into effect, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking poll found that over 40 percent wrongly believed that Obamacare (1) had established a govern-ment panel to make decisions about end-of-life care and (2) allowed undocumented immigrants to receive financial help from the government to buy health insurance. Another 20 percent said they were unsure whether Obamacare included provisions for end-of-life care and for insurance for undocumented immigrants.1 In January 2018, the Kaiser tracking poll checked to see if people were aware of the recent changes that had been made to Obamacare by President Trump and the Republican Congress. When asked whether Obamacare was still in effect or had been repealed, only 68 percent correctly answered that it was still the law of the land. And when asked specifically about the mandate to have health insurance or pay a fine, just 36 percent knew that President Trump had signed a law that repealed this crucial aspect of the Affordable Care Act.2

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Public opinion polling has become a major growth industry in recent years. The media seem to love to report on the latest polls. If there is nothing new in their findings, jour-nalists can always fall back on one sure pattern: the lack of public attention to matters of public policy. Whether it’s health care reform, policies to address global warming, or the question of immigration reform, the safest prediction that a public opinion analyst can make is that many people will be unaware of the major elements of the legislative debate going on in Washington. In a democracy, the people are expected to guide public policy. But do people pay enough attention to public affairs to fulfill their duty as citizens? As we shall see in this chapter, there is much reason to be concerned about how little the American public knows about policy issues; however, a case can also be made that most people know enough for democracy to work reasonably well. Like public opinion itself, evalu-ating the state of public knowledge of public policy is complex.

THE AMERICAN PEOPLE 6.1 Identify demographic trends and their likely impact on American politics. Politicians and columnists commonly intone the words “the American people” and then claim their views as those of the citizenry. Yet it would be hard to find a state-ment about the American people—who they are and what they believe—that is either entirely right or entirely wrong. The American people are wondrously diverse. There are over 300 million Americans, forming a mosaic of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. America was founded on the principle of tolerating diversity and individualism, and it remains one of the most diverse countries in the world. Most Americans view this diversity as among the most appealing aspects of their society. The study of American public opinion aims to understand the distribution of the population’s beliefs about politics and policy issues. Because there are many groups and a great variety of opinions in the United States, this is an especially complex task. This is not to say that public opinion would be easy to study even if America were a more homogeneous society; as you will see, measuring public opinion involves pains-taking interviewing procedures and careful wording of questions. One way of looking at the American public is through demography—the science of human populations. The most valuable tool for understanding demographic changes in America is the Census. The U.S. Constitution requires that the government conduct an “actual enumeration” of the population every 10 years. The first Census was conducted in 1790; in 2020, the twenty-fourth Census will be conducted. The Census Bureau tries to conduct the most accurate count of the population possible. The information determines how more than $400 billion of federal fund-ing is allocated every year for infrastructure and services such as hospitals, schools, and job training centers. With so much at stake, every question on the main Census questionnaire is carefully scrutinized. For the 2020 Census, the Justice Department requested, for the first time since the 1950 Census, that respondents should be asked about their citizenship status. The Trump administration asserted that this would facilitate enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the Justice Department needed a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities in order to properly assess any violations of voting rights. Critics charged that this request was a veiled attempt to discourage non-citizens from filling out the Census form and being counted. They further pointed out that if unauthorized immigrants refused to fill out the form for fear of being deported, areas that are dominated by Democrats would be undercounted and Republicans would benefit. In the end, the Census Bureau opted to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census. Changes in the U.S. population, which Census figures reflect, also impact our culture and political system in numerous ways, as will be examined in the next few sections.

The Immigrant Society

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. As John F. Kennedy said, America is “not merely a nation but a nation of nations.”3 All Americans except Native Americans are descended from immigrants or are immigrants themselves. Today, fed-eral law allows for about 1 million new immigrants a year, and in recent years about 500,000 illegal immigrants a year have also entered the United States. Combined, this is equivalent to adding roughly the population of Phoenix every year. The Census Bureau reported in 2018 that 13.7 percent of the nation’s population were born outside the United States, and estimated that this percentage would rise to 18 percent by 2050 if the current rate of immigration continued. There have been three great waves of immigration to the United States:

• In the first wave, in the early and mid-nineteenth century, immigrants were mainly northwestern Europeans (English, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians).

• In the second wave, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many im-migrants were southern and eastern Europeans (Italians, Jews, Poles, Russians, and others). Most came through Ellis Island in New York (now a popular museum).

• In the most recent wave, which began in the 1960s, immigrants have been domi-nated by Hispanics, particularly from Cuba, Central America, and Mexico, and Asians from Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

For the first century of U.S. history, America had an open door policy for anyone who wanted to come to fill up its vast unexplored territory. The first restrictions that were imposed on immigration, in 1875, limited criminals and prostitutes from staying in the United States, and soon lunatics and people with serious diseases were banned also. The first geographically based restrictions were imposed in 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. In 1924, as concern grew about the flood of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, establishing official quotas for immigrants based on national ori-gins. These quotas were based on the number of people from each particular country living in the United States at the time of the 1890 Census. By tying the quotas to a time when most Americans were from northwestern Europe, this law greatly cut down on the flow of immigrants from elsewhere.

It wasn’t until the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that these

quotas were abolished. This 1965 law made family integration the prevailing goal for U.S. immigration policy. As historian Steven Gillon argues, this law produced an unanticipated chain of immigration under the auspices of family unification. For example, he writes, An engineering student from India could come to the United States to study, find a job after graduating, get labor certification, and become a legal resident alien. His new status would then entitle him to bring over his wife, and six years later, after being naturalized, his brothers and sisters. They in turn could begin the pro-cess all over again by sponsoring their wives, husbands, children, and siblings.4 Today, some politicians believe that America’s competitiveness in the globalized economy would be better served by reducing the emphasis on family unification in our immigration policy and reallocating a substantial percentage of immigrant visas to people with special talents. Should immigration be based more on skills than on blood ties? You can consider your position on this issue when you read “You Are the Policymaker,” which follows next.

You Are the Policymaker


In today’s interconnected world, migration from one country to another is easier than ever before, and countries that attract immigrants with valuable skills can improve their economic status. Thus, a country’s immigration policy, which sets criteria for admitting people from abroad for permanent residence, can be a valuable economic tool—if a country so chooses. Some people think the United States needs to put economic factors further up on its list of priorities for immigrants. Immigrants to the United States can be roughly classified into three categories: (1) family

sponsored, (2) employment sponsored, and (3) refugees and political asylum seekers. In the figure below you can see the distribution of American immigrants in a typical recent year—2016.

In Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, political scientist Darrell M. West argues that

America needs to reorient its immigration policy toward enhancing economic development and attracting more of the world’s best-educated people. He criticizes immigration policy in the United States as being based too much on whom one knows and not enough on what one knows. West points out that other countries, such as Canada and Australia, allocate a much larger

percentage of their entry visas to people with special skills who can make substantial contributions to their new country’s economic development. He proposes changing U.S. policy to narrow the definition of which family members are eligible for immigration under the auspices of family reunification, eliminating aunts, uncles, cousins, and other distant relatives. This simple change would allow the number of visas granted for employment purposes to be doubled. Of course, whenever there is a substantial change in policy, there are losers as well as winners.

West’s proposed change would certainly lead to a more educated crop of immigrants. But immigration rates from lands with relatively low rates of higher education would likely be cut. Hence, representatives in Congress who have many constituents who trace their roots to such countries would likely be opposed to such a change from the status quo. In 2015, the Pew Research Center American Trends Panel survey asked a representative sample of Americans whether the government should give higher priority to those who are highly educated and skilled or those who have family in the United States. The results varied substantially according to party affiliation, with 65 percent of Republicans prioritizing the highly educated and skilled as compared to just 47 percent among Democrats, with Independents in between at 59 percent. In 2018, President Trump clearly sided with the proposal to place more emphasis on job skills,

arguing in his State of the Union speech that “it is time to begin moving toward a merit-based immigration system—one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country.” He later specifically proposed limiting family-based migration to just spouses and minor children.


Would you support the proposal to reallocate a substantial number of entry visas from those who have family ties in the United States to those who have special skills? Why or why not?

In addition to debating how to manage legal immigration, the United States has

also faced tough political questions regarding how to stem the tide of illegal immigra-tion. The Migration Policy Institute currently estimates that there are about 11 million unauthorized persons residing in the United States, the majority of whom are from Mexico.5 Although presidents and congressional leaders have repeatedly pledged to address the problems of unauthorized immigration, no significant reform has been enacted since the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act. This law requires that employers docu-ment the citizenship of their employees. Whether people are born in Canton, Ohio, or Canton, China, they must prove that they are either U.S. citizens or legal immigrants in order to work. Civil and criminal penalties can be assessed against employers who knowingly employ undocumented immigrants. However, it has proved difficult for authorities to establish that employers have knowingly accepted false social security cards and other forged identity documents, and, as a result, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act has not significantly slowed illegal immigration. In the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to build a “great wall on our southern border” to keep out future illegal immigrants. As president, Trump asked Congress for $18 billion in funding for a border wall in his 2019 fiscal year budget. Yet another controversial immigration issue involves the question of what to do about children who have grown up in the United States after being brought il-legally to America by their parents. For many years, advocates for these young im-migrants tried to get Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would have offered permanent residency to individuals who had arrived illegally as children (often known as “Dreamers”). When this legislation stalled, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that enabled about 700,000 unauthorized young immigrants to continue to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation. Most Republicans strongly criticized this action, arguing that President Obama had exceeded his legal authority. President Trump formally ordered an end to the DACA program in 2018 and called upon Congress to deal with this issue once and for all. Until Congress acts, these young immigrants face much uncertainty.

melting pot A term often used to characterize the United States, with its history of im-migration and mixing of cultures, ideas, and peoples.

minority majority The situation, likely beginning in the mid-twenty-first century, in which non-Hispanic whites will represent a minority of the U.S. population and minority groups together will represent a majority.

The American Melting Pot With its long history of immigration, the United States has often been called a melting pot, in which cultures, ideas, and peoples blend into one. As the third wave of immigration continues, policymakers have begun to speak of a new minority majority, meaning that America will eventually cease to have a non-Hispanic white majority. As of 2015, the Census Bureau reported an all-time low in the percentage of non-Hispanic white Americans—just 62 percent of the popu-lation. Hispanics made up the largest minority group, accounting for 18 percent of the U.S. population, with African Americans making up 12 percent, Asian Americans 6 percent, and Native Americans 1 percent. In recent years, minority populations have been growing at a much faster rate than the white non-Hispanic population. As you can see in Figure 6.1, the Census Bureau estimates that by the middle of the twenty-first century, non-Hispanic whites will represent less than half of the population. The projected increases are based on two trends that are likely to continue for decades to come. First, immigration into the United States will probably continue to be concentrated among Hispanics and Asian Americans. Second, birth rates have been consistently higher among minorities. For most of American history, African Americans were the largest minority group in the country. Most African Americans are descended from reluctant immigrants—Africans brought to America by force as slaves. A legacy of centuries of racism and discrimination is that a relatively high proportion of African Americans are economically disadvantaged—in 2017, according to Census Bureau data, 22 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line compared to 9 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Although this economic disadvantage persists, African Americans have been

exercising more political power, and the number of African Americans serving in an elected office has increased by over 600 percent since 1970.6 African Americans have been elected as mayors of many of the country’s biggest cities, includ-ing Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Under George W. Bush, two African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, served as secretary of state. And the biggest African American political breakthrough of all occurred when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.


Based on current birth and immigration rates, the Census Bureau estimates that the demographics of the United States should change as shown in the accompanying graph. As of 2015, the Census estimated that minority groups should be in the majority for the nation as a whole sometime between 2040 and 2045. Of course, should rates of birth and immigration change, so would these estimates. According to multiple studies, should President Trump’s proposals for immigration reform be implemented, the date when a minority majority will be in place would be pushed back three to five years.7

In the 1970 Census, just 4.5 percent of Americans said they were Hispanics. Since then, the Hispanic population has increased tremendously, with immigration account-ing for the majority of their growth in the population up through the 1990s. By the time of the 2000 Census, the Hispanic population outnumbered the African American population for the first time. Since 2000, the continued growth of the Hispanic popula-tion has been attributed primarily to high birth rates rather than immigration. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that only 38 percent were now foreign born, 34 per-cent were children of immigrants, and the remaining 28 percent were third generation or higher. Notably, they found that the strength of Hispanic identity declines the lon-ger one’s family has resided in the United States.8 Like African Americans, Hispanics are concentrated in cities. Hispanics are rap-idly gaining political power in the Southwest, and cities such as San Antonio and Los Angeles have elected mayors of Hispanic heritage. As of 2016, the state legislatures of Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Texas had at least 10 percent Hispanic representation.9 Whereas many Hispanics have come to America to escape poverty, the recent influx of Asians has involved a substantial number of professional workers looking for greater opportunity. Indeed, the new Asian immigrants are the most highly skilled immigrant group in American history,10 and Asian Americans have often been called the superachievers of the emerging minority majority. Significantly, more than half of Asian Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree, almost twice the national average.11 As a result, their median family income has already surpassed that of non-Hispanic whites. Although still a very small minority group, Asian Americans have had some notable political successes. For example, in 1996 Gary Locke (a Chinese American) was elected governor of Washington, and in 2001 Norman Mineta (a Japanese American) was appointed secretary of transportation. Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, both of whom are the children of immigrants from India, have recently served as governors of South Carolina and Louisiana, respec-tively, and Haley went on to be appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Americans live in an increasingly multicultural and multilingual society. Yet,

political culture An overall set of values widely shared within a society.

regardless of ethnic background, Americans have a common political culture—an overall set of values widely shared within the society. For example, there is much agreement across ethnic groups about such basic American values as the principle of treating all equally. Debra Schildkraut’s recent study of immigrants finds that the lon-ger one’s family has had to integrate into American society, the greater the likelihood that one will identify oneself primarily as American. Integration is a simple matter of time for most immigrants. Schildkraut therefore concludes that “there is not much va-lidity to concerns that American national identity is disintegrating or that the newest Americans are more likely than anyone else to reject their own American identity or American institutions.”12 However, not all observers view this most recent wave of immigration without concern. Ellis Cose, a prominent journalist, has written that “racial animosity has proven to be both an enduring American phenomenon and an invaluable political tool.” Because America has entered a period of rapid ethnic change, Cose predicts that immigration “will be a magnet for conflict and hostility.”13 For Robert Putnam, the concern takes a different form, as he finds that “diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically defined group hostility” but, rather, that “inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life” and to distrust their neighbors.14 Putnam thus recommends a renewed emphasis on the motto on our on dollar bill—e pluribus unum (out of many, one) to deal with the challenge created by the growing diversity within American communities. The emergence of the minority majority is just one of several major demographic changes that are altering the face of American politics. In addition, the population has been moving and aging.

The Regional Shift For most of American history, the most populous states were concentrated north of the Mason–Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River. However, much of America’s population growth since World War II has been centered in the West and South. Demographic changes are associated with political changes. States gain or lose

congressional representation as their population changes, and thus power shifts as well. This reapportionment process occurs once a decade, after each Census, when the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are reallocated to reflect each state’s proportion of the population. If the Census finds that a state has 5 percent of the popu-lation, then it receives 5 percent of the seats in the House for the next 10 years. Thus, as the percentage of Americans residing in Texas grew with the movement to the Sun Belt, its representation in the House increased from 22 for the 1962–1972 elections to 35 for the 2012–2020 elections. During this same time period, in contrast, New York lost over one-third of its delegation. According to current estimates of population changes, after the 2020 Census results are in, states in the Sunbelt will gain another 7 seats whereas the so-called Rustbelt states in the Midwest will lose 7 seats.

The Graying of America

Florida, currently the nation’s fourth most populous state, has grown in large part as a result of its attractiveness to senior citizens. Nationwide, citizens over 65 are the fastest-growing age group in America. Not only are people living longer as a result of medical advances, but in addition the fertility rate has dropped substantially—from 3.6 children per woman in 1960 to about 2.1 today.

The aging of the population has enormous implications for Social Security. Social

Security is structured as a pay-as-you-go system, which means that today’s workers pay the benefits for today’s retirees. In 1960, there were 5.7 workers per retiree; today there are 3. By 2040, there will be only about 2 workers per retiree. This ratio will put tremendous pressure on the Social Security system. The current group of older Americans and those soon to follow can lay claim to trillions of dollars guaranteed by Social Security. People who have been promised benefits naturally expect to col-lect them, especially benefits for which they have made monthly contributions. Thus, both political parties have long treated Social Security benefits as sacrosanct. Major proposed changes to the Social Security system typically promise to leave the system unchanged for anyone at or near retirement age.


6.2 Explain how the agents of socialization influence the development of political attitudes.

Central to the formation of public opinion is political socialization, or “the process through which an individual acquires his or her particular political orientations—his or her knowledge, feelings, and evaluations regarding his or her political world.”15 As people become more socialized with age, their political orientations grow firmer. Thus, governments typically aim their socialization efforts largely at the young.

The Process of Political Socialization

Only a small portion of Americans’ political learning is formal. Civics or government classes in high school teach citizens some of the nuts and bolts of government—how many senators each state has, what presidents do, and so on. But such formal social-ization is only the tip of the iceberg. Americans do most of their political learning without teachers or classes. Informal learning is really much more important than formal, in-class learning about politics. Most of this informal socialization is almost accidental. Few parents sit down with their children and say, “Johnny, let us tell you why we’re Republicans.” Instead, the informal socialization process might be best described by words like pick up and absorb. The family, the media, and the schools all serve as important agents of political socialization. We will look at each in turn.

THE FAMILY The family’s role in socialization is central because of its monopoly on two crucial resources in the early years: time and emotional commitment. If your parents are interested in politics, chances are you will be also, as your regular inter-actions with them will expose you to the world of politics as you are growing up. Furthermore, children often pick up their political leanings from the attitudes of their parents. Most students in an American government class like to think of themselves as independent thinkers, especially when it comes to politics. Yet one can predict how the majority of young people will vote simply by knowing the party identification of their parents.16 Recent research has demonstrated that one of the reasons for the long-lasting im-pact of parental influence on political attitudes is simply genetics. In one study, Alford, Funk, and Hibbing compared the political opinions of identical twins and nonidentical twins.17 If the political similarity between parents and children is due just to environ-mental factors, then the identical twins should agree on political issues to about the same extent the nonidentical twins do, as in both cases the twins are raised in the same environment. However, if genetics is an important factor, then identical twins, who are genetically the same, should agree with one another more often than nonidentical twins, who are not. On all the political questions Alford and his coauthors examined, there was substantially more agreement between the identical twins—clearly demonstrating that genetics plays an important role in shaping political attitudes.

THE MASS MEDIA The mass media are the “new parent,” according to many ob-servers. Average grade-school youngsters spend more time each week watching tele-vision than they spend at school. And television displaces parents as the chief source of information as children get older. Unfortunately, today’s generation of young adults is significantly less likely to watch television news and read newspapers than their elders. Many studies have at-tributed the relative lack of political knowledge of today’s youth to their media con-sumption or, more appropriately, to their lack of it.18 In 1965, Gallup found virtually no difference between age groups in frequency of following politics through the media. In recent years, however, a considerable age gap has opened up, with older people paying the most attention to the news and young adults the least. In 2017, CNN had the young-est audience in cable news, with a median age of 60, compared to 65 for MSNBC and 66 for Fox News.19 If you have ever turned on the TV news and wondered why so many of the commercials seem to be for various prescription drugs, now you know why.

SCHOOL Political socialization is as important to a government as it is to an individ-ual. Governments, including our own, often use schools to promote national loyalty and support for their basic values. In most American schools, the day begins with the Pledge of Allegiance. As part of promoting support for the basic values of the system, American children have long been successfully educated about the virtues of free en-terprise and democracy. Most American schools are public schools, financed by the government. Their textbooks are often chosen by the local and state boards, and teachers are certified by the state government. Schooling is perhaps the most obvious intrusion of the government into Americans’ socialization. And education does exert a profound influence on a variety of political attitudes and behavior. Better-educated citizens are more likely to vote in elections, they exhibit more knowledge about politics and public policy, and they are more tolerant of oppos-ing (even radical) opinions. The payoffs of schooling thus extend beyond better jobs and better pay. Educated citizens also more closely approximate the model of a democratic citizen. A formal civics course may not make much difference, but the whole context of education does. As Albert Einstein once said, “Schools need not preach political doctrine to defend democracy. If they shape men [and women] capable of critical thought and trained in social attitudes, that is all that is necessary.”20

Political Learning over a Lifetime Political learning does not, of course, end when one reaches 18 or even when one graduates from college. Politics is a lifelong activity. Because America is an aging

society, it is important to consider the effects of growing older on political learning and behavior. Aging increases political participation as well as strength of party attachment.

Young adults lack experience with politics. Because political behavior is to some degree learned behavior, there is some learning yet to do. Political participation rises steadily with age until the infirmities of old age make it harder to participate, as can be seen in Figure 6.2. Similarly, strength of party identification increases as people of-ten develop a pattern of usually voting for one party or the other. Politics, like most other things, is thus a learned behavior. Americans learn to

vote, to pick a political party, and to evaluate political events in the world around them. One of the products of all this learning is what is known as public opinion.

MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION AND POLITICAL INFORMATION 6.3 Describe public opinion research and modern methods of polling.

The study of American public opinion aims to understand the population’s beliefs about politics and policy issues. Because there are many groups and a great variety of opinions in the United States, this is an especially complex task. This is not to say that

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