The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 4: Political Socialization and the Media

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Maria J. Albo and Barry D. Friedman

Puppet controlled by hand with left and right signs, freedom in a cage. Public Domain.In every nation, people are subjected to a process that political scientists and sociologists refer to as political socialization. Through this process, children are coaxed into embracing the belief that the political system is legitimate, and the learn how to be participants in the political system. In the United States, children learn to show respect for the American flag and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and their parents and teachers exhort them to recognize the legitimacy of government officials and institutions that make and enforce laws. Mechanisms of political socialization endeavor to reinforce these behaviors and beliefs throughout adulthood. There is significant evidence that the political socialization cues to which affluent children are exposed differ from those to which working class children are exposed: Affluent children are guided to participate and lead, while working class children are geared toward passivity and compliance. Hence, the political socialization process has the additional effect of restraining the social forces that might otherwise disturb the existence of significant economic inequity.

American Patriotism

As Americans we are not really all that different from one another.

Political socialization process is very successful in deeply rooting a sense of universal pride and emotional attachment to the United States .

Universal American values include:

  • belief in political equality
  • the value of individual freedoms
  • the mandate of consent of the governed
  • faith in the free enterprise system

Signs left after the Women's March on Washington in 2017. However, there is evidence that Americans are becoming more polarized. According to the Pew Research Center, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”


Chapter 4: Political Socialization and the Media

I. Stages of political socialization
A. Politicization - child begins to recognize that authority figures other than her parents have to be taken into account
B. Personalization - a child begins to recognize the president of the United States as the personification of government (symbolic "chief of state") and learns to respect his role as the "head of government"
C. Idealization - a child perceives the president as "protective, helpful, trustworthy, intelligent, hardworking, persistent, correct in his judgments, and well qualified as a leader"
D. Institutionalism - child’s idealization is transformed into support for the political system
II. What is political socialization?
A. Political Socialization - the process by which an individual acquires attitudes, beliefs and values relating to the political system of which he is a member and to his own role as citizen within that political system
B. Agents of Socialization - actors involved in the political socialization process
C. Most Common Agents:
1. Family
2. Schools
3. Peer Groups
4. Religious Institutions
5. Communications Media
III. Political socialization and the family
A. Parents are responsible for passing along widely accepted norms and beliefs so that children can become functional members of society
B. Political socialization is often not deliberate as children are generally not "taught" politics
C. Most of our initial perceptions and ideas about political matters come from overhearing adult conversations and observing adult behaviors
IV. Political socialization in schools
A. Influence of the schools is limited
1. Tend to promote a president-centered view of American government
2. While the schools will stress the importance of voting, very little attention is given to the role of an individual in a democracy
a. Structure
b. Institutions
c. Process of local, state, and federal governments
3. Most of that instruction involves compliance with rules and authorities
V. Other Agents of Socialization
A. Religious institutions and organizations regularly seek input into policymaking through direct lobbying efforts by influencing congregants and members
1. Roman Catholic Church has taken a stance on abortion issues
2. The Christian Right is a conservative social movement that began in the 1980's
B. Interest groups or professional associations
1. Join for a wide variety of reasons including affiliation, a sense of purpose, fulfillment of duty, determination to have influence, opportunity to exert leadership, or desire for membership benefits
2. These groups can be very influential over their members, but members will have little input in policy (i.e., politics from the pulpit)
C. The communications media have taken on an increasing role in our lives both socially and politically
1. The average American spends hours each day reading the newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio, and surfing the Internet
D. Rise of 24-hour news stations further increased this influence by allowing for unlimited access to news
1. Individuals who depend on the general news media for their information are most likely to be uninformed about political matters
2. Cable news channels have become dominated by highly partisan, inflammatory commentary
VI. Introduction to Political Participation
A. Political participation is a learned behavior.
B. There are numerous ways that a person can participate in the political process but voting is the most common.
C. Political efficacy: a person’s sense of being able to accomplish something politically
D. Party identification: strong allegiance to a political party
E. In An Economic Theory of 
Democracy (1957), Anthony Downs (1957) argues that voting is a rational act and voters make their decisions based on “utility”; that is, they will vote for the candidate who can best maximize their wealth. 

VII. Opting Out : Political Alienation
A. Political Powerlessness: Individuals with low political efficacy often feel separated from the government and limited in their ability to influence government actions
B. Political Meaninglessness: Individuals who believe there are no predictable patterns to political decision making and no way to influence the political system
C. Political Normlessness: Individuals conclude that government and its officials are violating widely accepted norms leading to a breakdown of the political system
D. Political Isolation: An individual rejects current norms as "unfair and illegitimate," and withdraws from political life
VIII. Communications media and public policy
A. The media has an Agenda-setting function and has the ability to put something on the public policy agenda by bringing attention to a problem.
B. The influence of social media

Supplemental Reading: Chapter 4

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Test Your Knowledge

How well do you understand political socialization, ideologies, and the effects of media? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Agents of socialization



Take the Political Compass Test!

The Political Compass test allows anyone, form anywhere in the world, to understand their political leanings in a non-linear perspective. Most scales that measure political ideology are demonstrated on a linear scale, left to right, from liberal to conservative. The POlitical Compass is different!

Visit The Political Compass page to learn more, and to take the test!

For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 4 References on pages 93-98 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

The Fairness Doctrine by Dan Fletcher.

Political Polarization in the American Public from Pew Research.
How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life.