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Chapter 11: Politics, Government and Economies

11.4 Politics in the United States

The discussion of theories of power and society began to examine the U.S. political system. Let’s continue this examination by looking at additional features of U.S. politics. Two central components of modern political systems are (a) the views that people hold of social, economic, and political issues and (b) the political organizations that try to elect candidates to represent those views. We call these components political ideology and political parties, respectively.

Political Ideology

is a complex concept that is often summarized by asking people whether they are liberal or conservative. In 2016, the General Social Survey questioned respondents about their political ideology, and responses to this question are grouped into three categories—liberal, moderate, and conservative—and displayed in Figure 11.2 “Political Ideology”. We see that moderates slightly outnumber conservatives, who in turn outnumber liberals.

Figure 11.2 Political Ideology

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Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2016.

This is a common measure of political ideology, but social scientists often advise using a series of questions to measure political ideology, which consists of views on at least two sorts of issues, social and economic. Social issues concern attitudes on such things as abortion and other controversial behaviors and government spending on various social problems. Economic issues, on the other hand, concern such things as taxes and the distribution of income and wealth. People can hold either liberal or conservative attitudes on both types of issues, but they can also hold mixed attitudes: liberal on social issues and conservative on economic ones, or conservative on social issues and liberal on economic ones. Educated, wealthy people, for example, may want lower taxes (generally considered a conservative view) but also may favor abortion rights and oppose the death penalty (both considered liberal positions). In contrast, less educated, working-class people may favor higher taxes for the rich (a liberal view, perhaps) but oppose abortion rights and favor the death penalty.

Political Parties

People’s political ideologies often lead them to align with a , or an organization that supports particular political positions and tries to elect candidates to office to represent those positions. The two major political parties in the United States are, of course, the Democratic and Republican parties. However, in the 2017 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans identify as Independents, compared to 29% who identify themselves as Democrats and 27% who identify themselves as Republicans. The number of Americans who consider themselves Independents, then, almost equals the number who consider themselves either Democrats or Republicans (Jones, 2018).

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The number of Americans who call themselves political Independents almost equals the number who consider themselves either a Democrat or a Republican. DonkeyHotey – Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – Icons – CC BY 2.0.

An important question for U.S. democracy is how much the Democratic and Republican parties differ on the major issues of the day. The Democratic Party is generally regarded as more liberal, while the Republican Party is regarded as more conservative, and voting records of their members in Congress generally reflect this difference. However, some critics of the U.S. political system think that in the long run there is not a “dime’s worth of difference,” to quote an old saying, between the two parties, as they both ultimately work to preserve corporate interests and capitalism itself (Alexander, 2008). In their view, the Democratic Party is part of the problem, as it tries only to reform the system instead of bringing about the far-reaching changes said to be needed to achieve true equality for all. These criticisms notwithstanding, it is true that neither of the major U.S. parties is as left-leaning as some of the major ones in Western Europe. The two-party system in the United States may encourage middle-of-the road positions, as each party is afraid that straying too far from the middle will cost it votes. In contrast, because many European nations have a greater number of political parties, a party may feel freer to advocate more polarized political views (Muddle, 2007).

Some scholars see this encouragement of middle-of-the-road positions (and thus political stability) as a benefit of the U.S. two-party system, while other scholars view it as a disadvantage because it limits the airing of views that might help a nation by challenging the status quo (Richard, 2010). One thing is clear: in the U.S. two-party model, it is very difficult for a third party to make significant inroads, because the United States lacks a proportional representation system, found in many other democracies, in which parties win seats proportional to their share of the vote (Disch, 2002). Instead, the United States has a winner-takes-all system in which seats go to the candidates with the most votes. Even though the Green Party has millions of supporters across the country, for example, its influence on national policy has been minimal, although it has had more influence in a few local elections. Whether or not the Democratic and Republican parties are that different, U.S. citizens certainly base their party preference in part on their own political ideology.

Political Participation

Perhaps the most important feature of representative democracies is that people vote for officials to represent their views, interests, and needs. For a democracy to flourish, political theorists say, it is essential that “regular” people participate in the political process. The most common type of political participation, of course, is voting; other political activities include campaigning for a candidate, giving money to a candidate or political party, and writing letters to political officials. Despite the importance of these activities in a democratic society, not very many people take part in them. Voting is less common among Americans in comparison to many other nations, as the United States ranks lower than most of the world’s democracies in voter turnout (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2009).  For instance, in 2016, about 61.4% of eligible voters came out to the polls. As shown below in Figure 11.3 “Reported Voting Rates, 1980 – 2016”, this percentage fluctuates, but has been fairly consistent over the past 40 years.  In comparison, countries such as New Zealand and Sweden see significantly higher rates of voter turnout in their general elections. For instance, in the 2017 New Zealand general election, 79.01% of the voting age population cast votes, and in the 2018 Riksdag election (which elects members of the Swedish Parliament), Sweden saw 87.2% of voters come to the polls (Statistiska Centralbyrån, 2018; Votes for Women, 2017).

Figure 11.3 Reported Voting Rates, 1980-2016

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Source: Data from File, Thom. “Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 10 May 2017. Retrieved from www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2017/05/voting_in_america.html

In U.S. midterm elections, voter turnout rates are even lower. In the 2018 midterm election, 113 million, or 49% of the voting-age population voted. So, why does the United States not see higher rates of voter turnout? There are numerous explanations available to answer this question.

One explanation relates to differences in practices that make it easier or more difficult to register and vote, which can greatly influence voter turnout (Ellis, Gratschew, Pammett, & Thiessen, 2006). In countries with high voter turnout, practices such as (a) allowing same-day voter registration versus requiring registration a month or more before an election, (b) having multiple voting days versus a single voting day, (c) having the election on a weekend or rest day versus a weekday or workday, (d) having alternative voting procedures (e.g., mail-in voting), and (e) having more polling places increases voter turnout. Nations differ in the extent to which they adopt and use practices that promote registration and voting, and they also differ in the degree to which they use voter information and advertising campaigns and other efforts to encourage voting. In general, these practices and efforts are more often found in other democracies than in the United States.

For example, New Zealand has a well-staffed and well-funded agency, the Electoral Enrolment Centre (EEC), that regularly engages in intensive publicity campaigns to encourage New Zealanders to register to vote. The EEC systematically evaluates the effectiveness of its publicity efforts to ensure that they are as effective as possible, and it makes changes as needed for future efforts. To encourage registration among young people and members of certain ethnic groups that traditionally have low voter registration rates, the EEC visits their households with the hope that personal contact will be more effective in encouraging them to register. The EEC also provides provisional registration for 17-year-olds, who fill out a form with information that is automatically transferred to the official registration list when they turn 18, the New Zealand voting age. The result of such efforts combines with compulsory registration, even though no one has ever been prosecuted for not registering, to produce a voter registration rate of about 95%, one of the highest rates of any democracy (Thiessen, 2006).

In Sweden, a national agency called the Election Authority (translated from its Swedish name, Valmyndigheten) produces information campaigns before each election to educate eligible voters about the candidates and issues at stake. Advertisements and other information are transmitted through television, radio, and Internet outlets and also sent via email. A special effort is made to distribute materials at locations where large groups of people routinely gather, such as businesses, shopping areas, and bus and train stations. Special effort is also made to reach groups with traditionally lower voting rates, including young people, immigrants, and people with disabilities (Lemón & Gratschew, 2006). Elections in Sweden occur on the third Sunday of September; because fewer people work on Sunday, it is thought that Sunday voting increases voter turnout.

Although many factors explain why voter turnout varies among the democracies of the world, many scholars think that the practices and efforts just listed help raise voter turnout. Given this, the United States may be able to increase its own turnout by adopting and/or increasing its use of similar practices and efforts.

Not only is U.S. voter turnout relatively low in the international sphere, but it has also declined since the 1960s. One factor that explains these related trends is , prompted by a lack of faith that voting makes any difference and that the government can be helpful. This lack of faith is often called political alienation. As Figure 11.4 “Public Trust in U.S. Government” dramatically shows, lack of faith in the government has dropped drastically since the 1960s, thanks in part, no doubt, to the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s, the Watergate scandal of 1970s, the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980’s, the attempted impeachment of President Clinton in the 1990’s, the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000’s, economic recession in the last 2000’s, obstruction in Congress over the past several decades, and the like.

Figure 11.4 Public trust in U.S. Government

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Source: Bell, Peter. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 25 Apr. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2017/12/14/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/

It is also true that voter turnout varies greatly among Americans. In general, several sets of factors make citizens more likely to vote and otherwise participate in the political process (Burns, Schlozman, & Verba, 2001). These factors, or correlates of political participation, include (a) high levels of resources, including time, money, and communication skills; (b) psychological engagement in politics, including a strong interest in politics and a sense of trust in the political process; and (c) involvement in interpersonal networks of voluntary and other organizations that recruit individuals into political activity. Thus, people who are, for example, wealthier, more interested in politics, and more involved in interpersonal networks are more likely to vote and take part in other political activities than those who are poorer, less interested in politics, and less involved in interpersonal networks. Reflecting these factors, age and high socioeconomic status are especially important predictors of voting and other forms of political participation, as citizens who are older, wealthier, and more educated tend to have more resources, to be more interested in politics and more trustful of the political process, and to be more involved in interpersonal networks. As a result, they are much more likely to vote than people who are younger and less educated (see Table 11.1 “Age, Education, Income, Race-Ethnicity and Percentage Voting, 2016”).

Table 11.1 “Age, Education, Income, Race-Ethnicity and Percentage Voting, 2016”

Composition of American Voters by Age, 2016 General Election

18-29 years old

15.7%

30-44 years old

22.5%

45-64 years old

37.6%

65+ years old

24.2%

Composition of American Voters by Educational Level, 2016 General Election

Less than High School Diploma

5.1%

High School Graduate

24.6%

Some College or Associate’s Degree

30.8%

Bachelor’s Degree or higher

39.6%

Composition of American Voters by Income Level, 2016 General Election

Annual Family Income Below $20,000

5.1%

Annual Family Income $20,000 – 49,999

18.3%

Annual Family Income $50,000 – 99,999

29.7%

Annual Family Income $100,000 and above

31.5%

Income Not Reported

15.4%

Composition of American Voters by Race-Ethnicity, 2016 General Election

White, Non-Hispanic

73.3%

Black, Non-Hispanic

11.9%

Hispanic/Latino

9.2%

Other

5.5%

Source: Data from U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 1980–2016. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/P20-582.pdf

The lower voting rates for young people might surprise many readers: because many college students are politically active, it seems obvious that they should vote at high levels. That might be true for some college students, but the bulk of college students are normally not politically active, because they are too busy with their studies, extracurricular activities, and/or work, and because they lack sufficient interest in politics to be active. It is also true that there are many more people aged 18 to 24, the traditional ages for college attendance, than there are actual college students. In view of these facts, the lower voting rates for young people are not that surprising after all.

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Voting rates differ by race and ethnicity. In particular, Asians and Latinos are less likely to vote than African Americans and non-Latino whites. Bread for the World – Latino family – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As shown in Table 11.1 “Age, Education, Income, Race-Ethnicity and Percentage Voting, 2016,” Race and ethnicity also influence voting. In particular, Asians and Latinos vote less often than African Americans and whites among the citizen population. In 2016, among those eligible to vote, roughly 59.6% of African Americans and 65.3% of non-Latino whites voted, compared to only 47.6% of Latinos and 49.3% of other races (File, 2017).

The impact of age, race/ethnicity, education, and other variables on voting rates provides yet another example of the sociological perspective. As should be evident, they show that these aspects of our social backgrounds affect a very important political behavior, voting, even if we are not conscious of this effect.

Sociology Making a Difference

Felony Disenfranchisement

As the text discusses, one of the fundamental principles of a democracy is a right to vote. Political scholars consider voting and other forms of political participation as important activities in their own right but also as effective means to help integrate people into a society and to give them a sense of civic responsibility. Some scholars thus mourn a decline they perceive in civic engagement, as they feel that this decline is undermining social integration and civic responsibility.

For these reasons, the disenfranchisement (deprival of voting rights) of convicted felons has attracted much attention in recent years, as most states have laws that take away the right to vote if someone has been convicted of a felony: 48 states prohibit felons from voting while they are incarcerated, with only Maine and Vermont permitting voting while someone is behind bars. Felony disenfranchisement often continues once someone is released from prison, as 23 states prohibit voting while an offender is still on parole; in some states, convicted felons may only vote once released from parole and all fines, fees or restitution payments are made. In 12 states, felons lose voting rights indefinitely for certain crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, treason etc. Three states, Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa prohibit those with past felony convictions constitutionally, allowing reprieve only by the authority of the governor granting voting rights. According to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for sentencing reform, about 5.3 million Americans cannot vote because they have felony convictions. Because felons are disproportionately likely to be poor and African American or Latino, felony disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on the African American and Latino communities. An estimated 13% of African American men cannot vote for this reason.

Two pioneering scholars on felony disenfranchisement are sociologists Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, who documented the impact of felony disenfranchisement on actual election outcomes. They found that felony disenfranchisement affected the results of seven U.S. Senate elections and led to a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in the early 1980s and then again in the mid-1990s. They also found that felony disenfranchisement almost certainly affected the outcome of a presidential election. In 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the presidential election in Florida, and thus of the whole nation, by only 537 votes. An estimated 600,000 felons were not allowed to vote in Florida in 2000. They were disproportionately African American and would thus have been very likely to vote for Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, if they had been allowed to vote. Felony disenfranchisement thus affected the outcome of the 2000 presidential election and the course of U.S. domestic and foreign policy in the ensuing years. (Manza & Uggen, 2008; The Sentencing Project, 2010)

 

Key Terms

Political ideology – a set of views, usually centered on social and economic issues, that guides your political thinking.

Political party — an organization that supports particular political positions and tries to elect candidates to office to represent those positions.

Voter apathy — a lack of faith that voting makes any difference and that government can be helpful (often called political alienation).

 

Continue to 11.5 War and Terrorism

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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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