Political socialization is the process by which people learn and form opinions about government and politics. This process typically begins at home, where children overhear their parents talking about political issues, concerns, and politicians. Most people can probably recall a time when they heard their parents or other adults praising or ranting about a politician. The things that are said, both good and bad, influence how young minds perceive government and politics.
Political socialization continues at school, where children and young adults learn how the government is structured and operates. By middle school, teachers typically encourage class discussion about government happenings and current events. By high school, students with high political awareness can probably name the Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and other important contemporary political figures.
The media and entertainment industry are also involved in political socialization. Media coverage of government and politics, whether objective or biased, can sway people's feelings about an issue. Entertainers, whether informed or ignorant, can have far-reaching influence among their fans. Other factors that affect political socialization are gender, ethnic background, socio-economic status, and religion.
A society's collective values, opinions, and attitudes about how government should function contribute to the political culture. While the American political culture emphasizes democracy, freedom, equality, and responsibility, other values are emphasized by other nations.
How people are socialized and the political culture in which they live affect the decisions they make. Successful political socialization gets people interested and active in politics because they know their vote counts, whereas poor socialization leads to apathy and inaction. When people vote and participate in government and politics, they promote government "by the people" and strengthen the government's ability to function "for the people."
When a problem or need arises in a community, it is natural for the citizens to take the issue to community leaders in hopes of finding an acceptable solution. The same is true at all levels of government—people expect the government to enact policies that address their issues.
Several steps must be taken before a policy is passed. These steps, collectively known as the Policy-Making Cycle, start with people raising public awareness of an issue. Environmental health, education, corporate ethics, and tax rates are issues that regularly receive attention because they affect so many people.
The second step occurs when linkage institutions become aware of the concerns expressed by the people. Linkage institutions, which include the media, special interest groups, and political parties, create a bridge between the public and the government bodies that decide what becomes policy and what does not. Linkage institutions take the various concerns of the public, give them specific form and shape, and present concrete platforms of ideas for the policy-making institutions to consider. These platforms are called the policy agenda: the desires and needs of the people, which will become part of the national dialogue and debate.
The policy agenda is long and dynamic because as circumstances change, so do major public issues. For example, when schools are overcrowded, people want the government to fund additional schools, or if unemployment is high, people expect the government to stimulate job growth.
The third step in the policy-making cycle is deciding which issues on the policy agenda most urgently need to be addressed. These decisions are made by the policy-making institutions, which include Congress, the courts, and the president. Government agencies, collectively referred to as the bureaucracy, are also highly involved in policymaking.
After policy makers decide which issues to address, they enact a plan, and the plan becomes public policy. The words law, regulation, and statute are essentially interchangeable with "public policy." The checks and balances in the United States government typically mean that two or more policy-making institutions are involved in creating and implementing the new policies. For example, if the president and Congress ratify a bill that generates retroactive tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Treasury make sure people receive the refunds. The IRS can set regulations on how the funds are to be refunded, and any challenges by the people concerning the policy can be heard in the Courts.
The last step of the policy-making cycle occurs when the public evaluates the new policy and expresses either their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with it. Even if thousands of people agree that a policy is needed, they will not all agree on the policy itself. If they do not like it, their critique restarts the cycle.
The policy-making cycle yields different kinds of policies based on which governing body issues them or based on the topic they address. For example, there are Supreme Court rulings, Congressional statues, and agency regulations such as the ones determined by Food and Drug Administration. Regardless of which body creates them, they are parameters within which the public must operate.
Copyright 2006 The Regents of the University of California and Monterey Institute for Technology and Education