The Nature of Public Opinion


One useful way to look at ideologies is to place them on a spectrum that visually compares them based on what they prioritize. Liberal ideologies are traditionally put on the left and conservative ideologies on the right. (This placement dates from the French Revolution and is why liberals are called left-wing and conservatives are called right-wing.) The ideologies at the ends of the spectrum are the most extreme; those in the middle are moderate. Thus, people who identify with left- and right-wing ideologies identify with beliefs to the left and right ends of the spectrum, while moderates balance the beliefs at the extremes of the spectrum.

In the United States, ideologies at the right side of the spectrum prioritize government control over personal freedoms. They range from fascism to authoritarianism to conservatism. Ideologies on the left side of the spectrum prioritize equality and range from communism to socialism to liberalism (Figure). Moderate ideologies fall in the middle and try to balance the two extremes.

A political spectrum shows the political stance from the left wing to the right wing. Starting in the left wing, which is labeled “equality in society,” the spectrum moves right from “communism” to “socialism” to “liberal.” The middle of the spectrum is labeled “center.” Moving toward the right wing, it starts at “conservative” to “authoritarianism” to “fascism.” The right wing is labeled “control of society.”
People who espouse left-wing ideologies in the United States identify with beliefs on the left side of the spectrum that prioritize equality, whereas those on the right side of the spectrum emphasize control.

Fascism promotes total control of the country by the ruling party or political leader. This form of government will run the economy, the military, society, and culture, and often tries to control the private lives of its citizens. Authoritarian leaders control the politics, military, and government of a country, and often the economy as well.

Conservative governments attempt to hold tight to the traditions of a nation by balancing individual rights with the good of the community. Traditional conservatism supports the authority of the monarchy and the church, believing government provides the rule of law and maintains a society that is safe and organized. Modern conservatism differs from traditional conservatism in assuming elected government will guard individual liberties and provide laws. Modern conservatives also prefer a smaller government that stays out of the economy, allowing the market and business to determine prices, wages, and supply.

Classical liberalism believes in individual liberties and rights. It is based on the idea of free will, that people are born equal with the right to make decisions without government intervention. It views government with suspicion, since history includes many examples of monarchs and leaders who limited citizens’ rights. Today, modern liberalism focuses on equality and supports government intervention in society and the economy if it promotes equality. Liberals expect government to provide basic social and educational programs to help everyone have a chance to succeed.

Under socialism, the government uses its authority to promote social and economic equality within the country. Socialists believe government should provide everyone with expanded services and public programs, such as health care, subsidized housing and groceries, childhood education, and inexpensive college tuition. Socialism sees the government as a way to ensure all citizens receive both equal opportunities and equal outcomes. Citizens with more wealth are expected to contribute more to the state’s revenue through higher taxes that pay for services provided to all. Socialist countries are also likely to have higher minimum wages than non-socialist countries.

In theory, communism promotes common ownership of all property, means of production, and materials. This means that the government, or states, should own the property, farms, manufacturing, and businesses. By controlling these aspects of the economy, Communist governments can prevent the exploitation of workers while creating an equal society. Extreme inequality of income, in which some citizens earn millions of dollars a year and other citizens merely hundreds, is prevented by instituting wage controls or by abandoning currency altogether. Communism presents a problem, however, because the practice differs from the theory. The theory assumes the move to communism is supported and led by the proletariat, or the workers and citizens of a country.Frederick Engels. 1847. The Principles of Communism. Trans. Paul Sweezy. (February 17, 2016). Human rights violations by governments of actual Communist countries make it appear the movement has been driven not by the people, but by leadership.

We can characterize economic variations on these ideologies by adding another dimension to the ideological spectrum above—whether we prefer that government control the state economy or stay out of it. The extremes are a command economy, such as existed in the former Soviet Russia, and a laissez-faire (“leave it alone”) economy, such as in the United States prior to the 1929 market crash, when banks and corporations were largely unregulated. Communism prioritizes control of both politics and economy, while libertarianism is its near-opposite. Libertarians believe in individual rights and limited government intervention in private life and personal economic decisions. Government exists to maintain freedom and life, so its main function is to ensure domestic peace and national defense. Libertarians also believe the national government should maintain a military in case of international threats, but that it should not engage in setting minimum wages or ruling in private matters, like same-sex marriage or the right to abortion.Libertarian Party. 2014. “Libertarian Party Platform.” June. (February 17, 2016).

The point where a person’s ideology falls on the spectrum gives us some insight to his or her opinions. Though people can sometimes be liberal on one issue and conservative on another, a citizen to the left of liberalism, near socialism, would likely be happy with the passage of the Raise the Wage Act of 2015, which would eventually increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour. A citizen falling near conservatism would believe the Patriot Act is reasonable, because it allows the FBI and other government agencies to collect data on citizens’ phone calls and social media communications to monitor potential terrorism (Figure). A citizen to the right of the spectrum is more likely to favor cutting social services like unemployment and Medicaid.

A series of bar graphs showing differences in public opinion. The first graph asks “which statement comes closer to your view of the patriot act?”. Those who responded that they viewed it as “a necessary tool that helps government find terrorists” aligned to the following parties: 57% of republicans, 35% of democrats, and 37% of independents. Those who responded that “it goes too far and threatens to civil liberties” aligned as follows: 22% of republicans, 40% of democrats, and 42% of independents. The heading for the remaining graphs asks “Would you increase, decrease, or keep spending the same for…?”. When asked about health care, 58% of democrats would increase, and 35% would keep it the same; for republicans, 16% would increase, 40% would keep it the same, and 44% would decrease; for independents, 34% would increase, 43% would keep it the same, and 23% would decrease. When asked about unemployment assistance, 9% of republicans would increase, 35% of republicans would keep it the same, and 56% would decrease; for democrats, 41% would increase, 46% would keep it the same, and 13% would decrease; for independents, 20% would increase, 48% would keep it the same, and 32% would decrease. When asked about aid to needy in the U.S., 9% of republicans would increase, 42% would keep it the same, and 49% would decrease; for democrats, 39% would increase, 52% would keep it the same, and 9% would decrease; for independents, 28% would increase, 47% would keep it the same, 25% would decrease. When asked about the minimum wage, 50% of republicans would increase, 48% would keep it the same, and 2% would decrease; for democrats, 91% would increase, and 9% would keep it the same; for independents, 68% would increase, and 30% would keep it the same. When asked about environmental protection, 12% of republicans would increase, 48% would keep it the same, and 40% would decrease; for democrats, 52% would increase, 40% would keep it the same, and 8% would decrease; for independents, 31% would increase, 48% would keep it the same, and 21% would decrease. When asked about scientific research, 22% of republicans would increase, 46% would keep it the same, and 32% would decrease; for democrats, 47% would increase, 43% would keep it the same, and 10% would decrease; and for independents, 38% would increase, 41% would keep it the same., and 21% would decrease. At the bottom of the chart, a source is cited: ““Patriot Act”: Pew Research Center. “Public Remains Divided Over the Patriot Act.” February 15, 2011. “Affordable Care Act”: Pew Research Center. “ACA Remains Deeply Partisan; Public Divided Over Future of Law.” February 22, 2015. Source “Spending”: “Spending Cuts Divide Parties.” Pew Research Center. February 2013. “In U.S., 71% Back Raising Minimum Wage.” Gallup, Inc. “Support for raising U.S. Federal Minimum Wage to $9 per Hour.” March 2013.”
Public opinion on a given issue may differ dramatically depending on the political ideology or party of those polled.
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Where do your beliefs come from? The Pew Research Center offers a typology quiz to help you find out. Ask a friend or family member to answer a few questions with you and compare results. What do you think about government regulation? The military? The economy? Now compare your results. Are you both liberal? Conservative? Moderate?