Government » American Politics of Public Opinion » What Does the Public Think?

Summary and Main Ideas


When citizens change their sources of information, their opinions may change. The influence of elites and workplaces, life experiences, and state political culture can all help change our opinions. Economic and social policies are likely to cause controversy if the government has to serve the needs of many different groups or balance rights and liberties, all with limited resources.

What Americans think about their government institutions shifts over time as well. Overall approval for presidents begins high and drops over time, with expected increases and decreases occurring due to domestic and international events. Approval for Congress changes more dramatically with domestic events and partisan behavior. The public has a lower opinion of Congress than of the president, and recent congressional approval levels have hovered between 10 and 20 percent. The Supreme Court has the most stable public approval ratings, possibly due to its less visible nature. But the court’s ratings can be affected by controversial decisions, such as its 2015 decisions on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage.

Practice Questions

  1. Why might one branch’s approval ratings be higher than another’s?
  2. When are social and economic issues more likely to cause polarization in public opinion?

Sample Answer:

2. When the issues balance two controversial concerns, such as a limited budget and personal financial needs, or religious liberty and equality.


heuristics: shortcuts or rules of thumb for decision making

political culture: the prevailing political attitudes and beliefs within a society or region

political elite: a political opinion leader who alerts the public to changes or problems

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