Political Science For Dummies
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No study of political science is complete without looking at political socialization. Political socialization is the process of how people acquire their political values. The political values people possess in turn will shape their political behavior within the state. Political socialization teaches children political values and norms that will later impact their political behavior.

The objective of political socialization is the same for every government: to create a populace that is well socialized and supports the current form of government. For this reason, many governments directly intervene in the socialization process. This can be done through educational structures and even religion.

Goals of political socialization

Studies have shown that successful political socialization has to create loyalty to the political system in the following areas:
  • Loyalty to the state This is the most important because, without it, states will collapse at some point. If a majority of the people opposes the existence of the state they live in, there’s no future for the state.

Recent examples include Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, both states that collapsed because a majority of the people opposed the state itself. Loyalty toward the state is created through nationalism and patriotism. The goal is to instill pride into a people through patriotic activities, such as singing the national anthem before sports events and pledging allegiance to the flag of a country.

  • Loyalty to the political structure: Loyalty toward the state is important but not sufficient for the survival of a government. Besides supporting the country, the populace also has to support the current government structures and the ideas they’re based on.

In the U.S., the government is based on democracy and capitalism. For this reason, the government has to artificially create loyalty toward these two. In civic education classes, mandatory in most states, children are taught about the virtues of democracy and how great capitalism works for the well-being of most Americans. At the same time, the evils of authoritarianism and communism are imprinted into children’s minds. Polls show that a vast majority of all Americans support and are very proud of their form of democracy, while a smaller majority also supports various forms of capitalism.

  • Loyalty toward the current government: Loyalty toward the current government in power is a necessity. A populace has to be socialized to accept their favorite candidate losing and still supporting the new government elected. Even though a favorite candidate may have lost, people still have to consider the new government legitimate. If they don’t, they could turn against government and political violence can result.

When Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016, many American were shocked and dismayed. However, nobody took up arms and initiated political violence to overthrow the newly elected Trump administration. This signals that Americans are well socialized into accepting losing elections and living with a president they didn’t support. In other countries, such as Kenya, this wouldn’t have happened. The losing side would have initiated political violence, and civil war would have broken out.

Agents of political socialization

How do citizens of a nation become socialized? In other words, what and who are the institutions that transmit political values to people? Agents of political socialization refer to the various institutions and people that will have an impact on a person’s learning of values and norms of political behavior. The following sections explore these questions.

Trusting family

The family is still the most important agent of political socialization today. Parents are who children see the most in early life, and this allows for parents to imprint children politically. Even if governments attempt to indoctrinate children through school or youth organizations, as the Soviet Union did, they fail. While schools preached socialist messages in the Soviet Union, the Russian grandmas back home would tell children stories about the czars and teach them about religion. Lenin considered Russian grandmas among the most dangerous group of people during the Russian Revolution.

Therefore, families do matter, and parents influence political behavior. A majority of all people perceive politics as their parents did and also base their voting behavior on their parents’ voting behavior. Even a like or dislike for government can be transferred as can trust and distrust. It’s important to point out that most parents act as an unconscious agent of political socialization. All this means is that parents don’t consciously attempt to indoctrinate their children, but children overhear parents discussing political issues and model their political behavior on their parents’ political behavior.

Studies have shown that young men who grow up in single-parent households tend to be more authoritarian than other males. The reason is that they must often assume the role of the man in the household early on in life, which changes their behavior. On the other hand, if children are allowed to have a say in family decision-making, they tend to be more democratic later in life.

Going to school

During school years is when the government can attempt to influence political socialization. Often, governments will make a conscious attempt to indoctrinate children and create citizens loyal to their country and government. This is accomplished through a curriculum that emphasizes history and civic education classes in such a way as to instill nationalism, pride in the country, and patriotism in children.

children saluting flag ©Odua Images/Shutterstock.com

Creating a political culture curriculum has an added benefit. In many countries, subcultures exist, such as ethnic minorities, and many immigrants may have arrived recently. They still practice their native cultures. Through government-guided education, they can learn a unifying language and a common history. In other words, the educational structure can make sure they’ll become good citizens.

Studies have shown that government attempts to socialize children can have the most impact in middle school. Before middle school, children are too young to understand complex political concepts such as separation of power in the U.S. or scientific communism in the Soviet Union. One of the few things young children understand is the concept of authority and loyalty to one person. So early on, loyalty to a political leader can be taught. This in turn enhances legitimate authority in a nation. Many American schools teach the idea that the police have legitimate authority over people, and for this reason, young children are more likely than teenagers to support police.

At the high-school level, conscious political socialization is too late. By the time students enter high school, their political values have been fully formed. Even if the government attempts to indoctrinate at this time, it’s too late. Political opinions can rarely change at this age. Therefore, political socialization needs to happen at the middle-school level.

Finding friends

Friends can be very influential in socializing a person politically. Especially in cases where a young person is apolitical, a friend, who is very much interested in politics, can make a difference. The friend may drag the youngster along to political rallies and constantly talk politics. This will make a difference. Another example involves peer groups. If a person moves to a new neighborhood, say, a country club suburban area, he may change his political beliefs to fit into a new peer group.

Going to church

Religion can become an important agent of socialization. If a person is deeply religious and her religion takes many political stances, the person will adopt these issue stances as a part of her political values. For example, the Catholic Church opposes abortion, and many devout Catholics do so for that reason.

Listening to the media

Today, the media is becoming more important in political socialization. More and more American children grow up in one-parent households, and after school, they’re alone at home watching television or engaging in social media. The absence of family has given the media an opening to socialize children. It’s not just news programs, rarely watched by children, that can impact a child’s belief systems, but just about any show on television that portrays certain behavior, a certain lifestyle, or analyzes events in a certain way.

In most societies, the government regulates parts of the media and thereby controls the flow of information to the public. In authoritarian and totalitarian societies, the government assumes direct control over the media and allows only certain information to be dispersed to the public. This allows the government to politically socialize people and manipulate their political values.

Belonging to a minority group

Most societies contain minority ethnic groups. In the U.S., for example, African Americans constitute a minority and have developed certain political traits. For example, African Americans tend to be more liberal than American whites and are more likely to vote for the Democratic Party. They’re also more likely to perceive police as racially biased. These ideas are socialized into young black children and will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Today, more than 90 percent of all African Americans vote consistently for the Democratic Party in the United States.

Living through major political and economic crises

A certain catastrophic event can change people’s political values and their political behavior. For example, the Great Depression changed American values and, in turn, voting behavior. Before the Great Depression, most American believed in small government and voted Republican. The Great Depression changed all of this. Suddenly, people favored government intervention in the economy through a welfare state and began to vote Democratic. This lasted until the late 1960s, when the war in Vietnam and race relations changed Americans again.

Changing later on in life

Although most people won’t change their political attitudes and behavior during their lifetime, a few do. There are two ways that can happen. First, there is adult socialization. This can be brought about by economic changes in a person’s life. A person can grow up poor and a staunch Democrat. However, later in life, he grows wealthy, moves to a nice neighborhood, and is now surrounded by conservative peers. This can change his political attitudes. He becomes conservative, especially on economic issues.

The second way a person can change his political attitudes is through a process called elite socialization. This can happen if a person makes it into an elite group, such as a business group or a political group. A good example are new members of the U.S. Senate. They start out rebellious, wanting to change things around in the Senate. They may want to change the rules of conduct or propose radical policies. Over time, they figure out that unless they change their political attitudes and behavior, they’ll be very unsuccessful Senators never passing any bills. This can cost them reelection. To be a successful Senator, they’ll have to work through the system and adapt. As soon as they do, elite socialization has happened, and it has changed their political attitudes and behavior.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Marcus A. Stadelmann, PhD, is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and History at the University of Texas at Tyler. Along with teaching at universities in California, Utah, and Texas, Dr. Stadelmann has published and given presentations in the fields of American politics and international relations.

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