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Chapter 11: Economies, Politics and Government

11.8 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 2018, 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 11.6 “U.S. Political Ideology”. We see that moderates slightly outnumber conservatives, who in turn outnumber liberals.

Figure 11.6 U.S. Political Ideology

Pie chart showing U.S. political ideology, with 28% liberal, 37% moderate and 31% conservative.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

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.

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

Consider your own point of view on social and economic issues.

Do the parts of your political ideology align with one another (are they both liberal or conservative) or are they mixed (say, fiscally conservative but socially liberal)?

What are the roots of your political ideology?

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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 2021 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans identify as Independents, compared to 29% who identify themselves as Democrats and 28% 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 (Gallup, 2021).

Two U.S. maps, one showing the percentages voting for Biden or Trump in the 2020 election at the county level, and the second showing distribution of the Electoral College votes.

The map on the left shows voting percentages by candidate in the 2020 election. Counties that voted predominantly for Biden are in blue and those that voted predominantly for Trump are in red. The purple areas represent counties that had a fairly even split between the two candidates. America is less ‘blue state’ or ‘red state,’ and more purple as people who support either candidate are in every state. However, this nuance is lost with the use of the electoral vote, which, in all but two states, awards all of the votes to the candidate who receives at least 50.1% of the votes cast, as shown on the map on the right. For instance, Joe Biden won 50.6% of votes in Michigan in 2020, yet received all 16 electoral votes from the state. Similarly, all 29 electoral votes in Florida went to Donald Trump even though he won just 51% of votes. StarBoyX – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons and Kingofthedead – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

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- or right-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 European nations typically have parliamentary systems and thus a greater number of political parties, a party may feel freer to advocate more polarized political views (Muddle, 2007).

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Think Like a Sociologist

Take some time and explore the web pages of the two major political parties found in the United States.

Democratic Party Website

Republican Party Website

Do you agree completely with all principles of either party?

How are the positions of two parties similar? How are they different?

Based on your research, do you agree or disagree with the statement that there’s not a “dime’s worth of difference,” between the two parties? Why?

Considering what you have explored and the class reading, why do you feel that politics have become so polarized in recent years?

Other political party web pages to explore:

The Green Party

The Libertarian Party

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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 third parties in the U.S. have many supporters across the country, and won over 3 million votes altogether in the 2020 election, their influence on national policy has been minimal, although they sometimes have more influence at the local level. 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.

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Watch and Reflect

In the U.S., representatives to state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives are determined by the voters within each voting district. The districts get redrawn every ten years according to the census so that each district has roughly the same population. One tactic used that exacerbates the imbalance in our system is to create districts that favor one party over another. This is known as gerrymandering. Watch this video to see how this is done:

Recognizing that gerrymandering violates basic tenets of electoral allocation, several solutions have been adopted. For example, in Michigan the council in charge of drawing district lines is non-partisan and consists of independent citizens. Another approach has been to use ranked choice voting, such as occurs in Maine.

What is your reaction to the video on gerrymandering? Is this practice acceptable or should it be changed?

Do you think the approaches in Michigan and Maine provide good solutions?

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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 or calling 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 2020, about 66.8% of eligible voters came out to the polls. As shown below in Figure 11.7 “Reported Voting Rates, 1980 – 2020”, this percentage fluctuates with about a 10% range, but has been fairly consistent over the past 40 years.

Figure 11.7 Reported Voting Rates, 1980-2020

Graph showing Reported Voting Rates of eligible voteres in the U.S., 1980-2020, which fluctuate from a low of 58.4% to a high of 67.7%. The rate in 2020 was 66.8%.

Data Sources: File, Thom. “Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 10 May 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2017/05/voting_in_america.html. “2020 Presidential Election Voting and Registration Tables Now Available.” United States Census Bureau, 29 April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/2020-presidential-election-voting-and-registration-tables-now-available.html.

In comparison, countries such as New Zealand and Sweden see significantly higher rates of voter turnout in their general elections. For instance, in the 2020 New Zealand general election, 81.5% 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 (Electoral Commission New Zealand; Votes for Women, 2017).

In U.S. midterm elections, voter turnout rates are even lower. For instance, 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.

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Think Like a Sociologist

Since the 2010 midterm election in the U.S., 25 states have enacted new voting restrictions, making it more difficult for citizens to cast their ballots. Such restrictions include tougher identification requirements, shorter time windows for mail-in ballots and other restrictions on early or absentee voting, and more barriers to restoring voting rights for people with past criminal convictions (Brennan Center for Justice, 2019).

Why do you think some state-level politicians are actively working to restrict access to voting?

What tactics used in Sweden and New Zealand might work and be adopted in the U.S. to increase voter participation and ensure access for all citizens?

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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 . As Figure 11.8 “Public Trust in the 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, the Great Recession the attempted impeachments of President Trump, uneven and cruel immigration policies, botched handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the like.

Figure 11.8 Public trust in the U.S. Government

Graph showing Public trust in the U.S. Government, with a high of 77% who trust the government in 1962 to a low of 19% in 2012 and 2016. The graph shows a gradual decline, with some ups and downs. In 2021, the rate was 24%.

Source: Pew Research Center. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2021.” 17 May 2021. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/05/17/public-trust-in-government-1958-2021/

In addition to this overall downward trend in public trust in the government, there is fluctuation found depending who is in office. As would be expected, when the President is a Republican, there is greater trust in government amongst people who affiliate with the Republican party and less trust from Democrats, and vice versa. In 2021, with Democrat Joe Biden in office, 36% of Democrats and Democrat leaning independents trust in the government, while only 9% of Republicans and Republican leaners hold this same sentiment (Pew Research Center, 2021).

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Think Like a Sociologist

Consider your own knowledge about and involvement in the U.S. political system.

Do you know who the politicians are that represent you at the local, state and federal levels?

If you were eligible, did you vote in the last election? Do you participate in politics in other ways? Why or why not?

Why do you think participation in our elections, and political life in general, is so low?

Click here to find your U.S. Representative: Find Your Representative

Click here to find your U.S. Senators: Find Your Senators

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In addition to these general trends in political participation, It is also true that voter turnout varies greatly across groups in the U.S.. 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:

  • high levels of resources, including time, money, and communication skills;
  • psychological engagement in politics, including a strong interest in politics and a sense of trust in the political process; and
  • 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, level of educational attainment and 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 11.3 “Sex, Age, Education, Income, Race-Ethnicity and Percentage Voting, 2020”).

Table 11.3 “Sex, Age, Education, Income, Race-Ethnicity and Percentage Voting in the 2020 U.S. General Election

Percent Who Voted in 2020, by Sex

Male

65.0%

Female

68.4%

Percent Who Voted in 2020, by Age

18-24 years old

51.4%

25-34 years old

60.3%

35-44 years old

65.1%

45-54 years old

69.0%

55-64 years old

72.7%

65-74 years old

76.0%

75+ years old

72.3%

Percent Who Voted in 2020, by Educational Level

Less than 9th Grade

37.6%

9th-12th Grade, No High School Diploma

41.5%

High School Graduate

55.5%

Some College or Associate’s Degree

69.9%

Bachelor’s Degree

77.9%

Advanced Degree

83.0%

Percent Who Voted in 2020, by Income Level

Annual Family Income Below $20,000

34.3%

Annual Family Income $20,000 – 49,999

62.8%

Annual Family Income $50,000 – 99,999

74.3%

Annual Family Income $100,000 and more

82.8%

Percent Who Voted in 2020, by Race-Ethnicity

White American

70.9%

African American

62.6%

Asian American

59.7%

Latinx American

53.7%

Source: Data from U.S. Census Bureau. April 2021. “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2020.” Release Number P20 tables. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-585.html.

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.

Image of people at a protest with a man holding a banner that reads, "Vote like your life depends on it!"

Voting rates differ by race and ethnicity. In particular, African Americans and White Americans and more likely to vote than Asian Americans and Latinx Americans. McKinskey – Editorial Use – Rawpixel

Race and ethnicity also influence voting. In particular, Asian and Latinx Americans vote less often than African Americans and White Americans among the citizen population. In 2020, among those eligible to vote, roughly 62.2% of African Americans and 70.9% of White Americans voted, compared to only 59.7% of Asian Americans and 53.7% of Latinx Americans (Census Bureau, 2020).

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.

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Think Like a Sociologist

Felony disenfranchisement refers to a policy of depriving convicted felons of the right to vote. In some states, such as Michigan, the right to vote is denied while a person is in prison but is reinstated afterwards. In 11 states, though, a person convicted of certain felonies permanently loses their right to vote, even after serving their sentence and being released from probation. As of 2020, 5.2 million Americans, or 2.3% of the voting population, cannot vote. Due to inequalities associated with mass incarceration, as discussed in Chapter 6, the result of felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts African Americans and Latinx Americans, where approximately 6.2% of African American and 2% of Latinx potential voters are affected (Uggen, et. al., 2020). Not surprisingly, removing such a large block of potential voters has consequences; the 2000 presidential election hung in the balance with the state of Florida ultimately deciding the final result. At the time, over 600,000 Floridians could not vote due to felony convictions (Uggen, et. al., 2020). The 6.1 million people who could not vote in the 2016 election may have similarly affected the outcome of that presidential election.

Should convicted felons who have served their time and been released from jail/prison be given voting rights nationally?

Should felons currently serving time in jail or prison have a voice in politics? Why or why not?

For more information, go to The Sentencing Project: Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Cue to a Felony Conviction.

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Test Yourself

 



Section 11.8 References

Alexander, S. A. (2008). Socialists emerging as Democrats, Republicans lose voter confidence. American Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/48507.

Burns, N., K. L. Schlozman and S. Verba. (2001). The private roots of public action: Gender, equality, and political participation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Contacting U.S. Senators.  (2021, March 1).  U.S. Senate: Contacting U.S. Senators. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm.

Democrats. (2021, October 29). Democratic National Committee.  Retrieved from https://democrats.org/.

Disch, L. J. (2002). The tyranny of the two-party system. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 

Ellis, A., M. Gratschew, J. H. Pammett and E. Thiessen. (Eds.). (2006). Engaging the electorate: Initiatives to promote voter turnout from around the world. Stockholm, Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. (2009). Voter turnout. Retrieved from http://www.idea.int/vt/index.cfm

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

Find your representative. (n.d.). U.S. House of Representatives.  Retrieved from https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative.

Gallup. (2021). Party affiliation. Gallup.com. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx

Gerrymandering explained.  (2018, April 26).  YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JF4jvJNvCqY.

Home.  (n.d.).  Green Party.  Retrieved from https://www.gp.org/.

Home.  (2022, January 16).  Libertarian Party.  Retrieved from https://www.lp.org/.

Lemón, K. and M. Gratschew. (2006). Educating the voter about the electoral process: The Swedish election authority. In A. Ellis, M. Gratschew, J. H. Pammett, & E. Thiessen (Eds.), Engaging the electorate: Initiatives to promote voter turnout from around the world (pp. 32–34). Stockholm, Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 

Li, M., D. I. Weiner, M. Ortegon, A. Garber, M. Waldman and E. Goitein. (2022, January 12).  Home.  Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from https://www.brennancenter.org/

Muddle, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 

Pew Research Center. (17 May 2021).  Public Trust in Government: 1958-2021.  Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/05/17/public-trust-in-government-1958-2021/.

Ranked-choice voting in Maine.  (2018, August 15).  YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/vp1APVk7SQk.

Republican National Committee.  (n.d.).  GOP. Retrieved from https://gop.com/.

Richard, J. (2010). One cheer for the two-party system. OpEdNews. Retrieved from http://www.opednews.com/articles/One-Cheer-for-the-Two-Part-by-Jerome-Richard-100527-100148.html

Thiessen, E. (2006). Making the electoral process as easy as possible: Elections New Zealand. In A. Ellis, M. Gratschew, J. H. Pammett, & E. Thiessen (Eds.), Engaging the electorate: Initiatives to promote voter turnout from around the world (pp. 28–30). Stockholm, Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Uggen, Chris, Ryan Larson, Sarah Shannon and Arleth Pulido-Nava.  (2020).  Locked out 2020: Estimates of people denied voting rights due to a felony conviction. The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/locked-out-2020-estimates-of-people-denied-voting-rights-due-to-a-felony-conviction/

United States Census Bureau.  (April 2021).  Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2020.  Release Number P20 tables.  Retrieved from:  https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-585.html.

United States Census Bureau.  (2021, April 29).  2020 Presidential Election Voting and Registration Tables Now Available. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/2020-presidential-election-voting-and-registration-tables-now-available.html.

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