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Class, Socialization, And Politics

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Class, Socialization, and Politics

Elections are at the core of the American political system. They are the way we choose our government, the source of government authority, and a means by which the people can influence public policy. For most Americans, voting is the only form of political participation. Essential questions to ask concerning these issues are: Who votes and why? What influences people to become voters? And what influences how they vote? It is important to approach these issues from a sociological standpoint addressing such matters as socialization and social stratification.

Socialization is a gradual process that takes place as we grow up. It is the process that aids in developing attitudes and opinions that allow us get along within a society. These beliefs affect the political views we hold later in life. Through social agencies such as family, schools, peers, and media we become aware of social rules and develop a social identity. (Introduction to Sociology Pg. 96) A product of this development is political socialization, which is the process of learning political attitudes and behaviors. The idea of political socialization helps in providing the answers to the questions concerning who votes. It aids in explaining how and why people participate in politics. The strongest agent in political socialization is the family. What this means is that most children adopt beliefs similar to those held by their parents. Therefore most people will believe in and vote for issues that are important to members of their family's. The extent to which an individual is involved in the political process is shaped by his or her family's level of involvement. For example, a child is less likely to vote if they are raised by parents who don't regularly go to the polls on Election Day. Children of course, don't always copy their parents' political learning's, but are often heavily influenced by them. As a result, most people end up favoring the political party that their parents generally identify with. Social Characteristics also affect how an individual will participate in politics. Whether a person is young or old, black or white, rich or poor, northerner or southerner will have a heavy impact on his or her political opinions and behavior.

Class may be just as important in shaping people's political opinions and behaviors. The term social class refers to one of the systems of structured inequalities that exist among different groups within a society. It is the most important concept for analyzing social stratification in a modern society. (Introduction to Sociology Pg. 222) Within this class system are three broad overlapping categories: a working class, a middle class, and an upper class. People are placed within these categories based on their occupation, income, and wealth. The working class receives the lowest income and fills blue-collar jobs in factories and farms, as well as white-collar positions like clerical and secretarial jobs in offices. The middle class consists of professionals like teachers, engineers, small business people, and skilled workers. The upper class, often called the elite or ruling class is composed of those who run our major economic and political institutions and receive the highest earnings for doing so.

Class as reflected in education, income, and occupation, does influence people's attitudes on a variety of issues. People in the working class tend to be liberal in wanting greater economic equality and more programs dealing with social welfare. This liberalism on economic issues contrasts strongly with their ideas on civil liberties. Members of the middle class tend to be more conservative in their economic views and more liberal on issues such as free speech and respect for civil rights. Therefore, class attitudes on political questions are both liberal and conservative.

The problem with figuring out how these various characteristics that divide the population influences a person's political behavior is that they often overlap. To say that blacks are less likely to vote than whites may be true, but this infers that race alone is the key issue. Furthermore, poorer people, those with less education, and those who feel that they have a less significant affect on their government also are less likely to vote. All of these categories include the majority of blacks. So, even though the statement that blacks vote less than white is true, it may conceal as much as it reveals. The issue of whether blacks with a higher income or education level also vote less must be taken into concern. The fact is that they don't. Voter turnouts among blacks who belong to the middle and upper classes are much higher which suggests that race is not as important in voter turnout as class.

Class differences in voting can reflect differences in economic security. People with lower incomes face greater challenges when paying bills and finding jobs that have high enough wages to support their needs. This may lead them to view politics as a luxury they can't afford to get too involved in. When considering political socialization, the class system may also have an effect on an individual's attitude towards politics. Children of working class parents of poor education are more regularly brought up to believe that they can have little influence on politics. As a result they end up being both more resentful and more passive towards politics. Contrary to this, children of middle and upper class parents are brought up to have a much higher regard for politics and are taught to value and participate in the political process. They are more positively encouraged to believe that the political system will respond favorably to their involvement.

The difficulty of answering the question of why people don't vote should be clear. Turnout varies depending on education, race, gender, and age, and it changes over time. History has shown that nonvoters most often come from the less educated, nonwhite, rural, southern, poor, blue-collar, or youth of the American population. Conversely, voters most often come from the white, middle-aged, college-educated, urban or suburban, affluent, white-collar groups. Generally people with the biggest stake in society are the ones most likely to go to the polls.

In a recent study conducted by myself, I interviewed numerous people in and around Philadelphia concerning the issue of social influences on voting. I targeted people I felt would be representative of both voters and non-voters. I asked questions that I felt would help give insight into each individual's political position.

Natasha Mell-Taylor is a twenty-year-old white female from the Northern New Jersey town of Maplewood

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