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E-Political Socialization, the Press and Politics

The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China


Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German

This book examines the state of print and electronic media in the United States of America, Europe, and China. The latest mass communication advances demonstrate that we live in an increasingly media-centric world. The chapters include theoretical and empirical studies that shed light on the meaning of this development. The trajectory of people’s move to electronic communication is a global phenomenon affecting their daily life. Does this trend aid or impede democracy? Is there an emerging digital divide contributing to an increasing gap between the rich and poor people and nations? The four parts of this book explore various aspects of political socialization and its relationship with different media, including print, broadcasting, and the Internet.
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2 Political Socialization Defined: Setting the Context

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Chapter 2

Political Socialization Defined: Setting the Context

Daniel B. German

Professor (Emeritus) of Political Socialization, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, USA


Political socialization is the process by which orientations toward the political system are developed from one generation to another. These orientations include: 1) political knowledge; 2) opinions about specific political issues, deeper attitudes, and beliefs or values; and 3) behavior such as voting. All of the orientations shape an individual, depending on where the process takes place (e.g., in India, the United States, or South Africa). Other influences affecting the unfolding development of political orientations are agents of socialization, including family, media, region, education, ethnic or racial group, and gender. The process begins early in life and continues throughout the life cycle. Out of this process, a political culture which shapes the functioning of a particular political system is formed.


The systematic study of what we call scientifically today “political socialization” clearly began with Plato. In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote the Republic. In this book, he advocated education and training from early childhood on to develop guardians of the city state Athens. They must be devoted to the city and capable of overcoming temptations and witchcraft. These guardians must be strong; but unlike the disciplined and strong rulers of Sparta, they must not use their strength for purposes of tyranny and plunder. Plato advocated the creation of different roles for the city state. A farmer should be a farmer. A soldier should be a solider. An artisan should be an artisan. They each have a specific role and must be brought up (“socialized”) to fulfill a particular function. The soldier must not be surrounded by music or engaged in reading poetry, but instead must be trained in the art of warfare. One might clothe the farmer in glorious robes, but he will cease to be a farmer. Or one might let the potter drink and feast, but then they will cease to be potters. This means that a particular society (whether it is ancient Greece or Russia in the millennium) is the product of upbringing and education.

Knowledge is a product of the socialization process. The level of knowledge in a society has important implications for the development of what type of political system exists. A democratic government requires literacy for its citizens. Democracy could not have developed in ancient Greece without literacy because citizens had to read laws posted outside an assembly area and support or oppose them by direct vote. A critical feature of authoritarian (dictatorships, monarchies, warlords) political systems is to keep the mass of citizens semi-literate to illiterate. Many people in the world (even in the 21st century) do not receive enough ← 17 | 18 → education to be considered literate. How could you engage in politics if you do not understand what is going on? Studies of different types of political systems clearly demonstrate that a high level of educational achievement is associated with non-authoritarian political processes and vice versa. Literacy, however, while being an essential ingredient of free and open democratic political systems, is often not sufficient to the existence of democracy. The Third Reich under Adolf Hitler was as authoritarian as a political process can get, yet Germany at that time had nearly universal literacy. The same was true for the Soviet Union under the totalitarian rule of Joseph Stalin.

Combined with knowledge, a certain set of attitudes and values determines what kind of political system exists. The beliefs and values of a society are referred to as culture. Each nation has a political culture, which refers to its political values or political ways of doing things. In America, there is an acceptance by many (not all) of a kind of democratic creed composed of majority rule with minority rights, rule of law, free speech, and free and open elections. Thus, there is a consensus on the rules of the game played in American politics. In many other nations, this democratic creed is not a part of the typical way of doing things. Transparency International lists many nations in the world which are awash in corruption. There is a “take whatever you can get, by whatever means you can use to get it” philosophy. Fairness is not valued. In Russia, today as throughout its history, people value strong-man rule. Russians are socialized to prefer a strong leader due to a history of invasion, whether from the Mongols to the East or Europeans from the West. If a strong leader (whether Czar or Premier) subverts the election process, eliminates media opposition, and otherwise exerts an iron-handed rule, it is fine with the Russian people. In 2006, Russia was listed as 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 =low corruption), so it ranks high on corruption.

The US fell prey to corruption during the early 2000s. For example, lobbyist Jack Abramoff bribed members of Congress to pass legislation favorable to his business interests. However, in the 2006 elections, voters threw out of office the party primarily responsible for accepting bribes. Eliminating corruption was listed in polls as one of the primary reason voters gave for overturning the party in power in Congress. Americans consequently showed that they do not accept corruption in political parties and, instead, value a free and open process.

Knowledge, attitudes, and values are connected to political behavior. Studies show that an attitude of efficacy (which is the extent to which one feels that his/her involvement is politically effective or not) is highly associated with political participation. High efficacy is associated with education in democratic political systems; along with trust in the system, it is essential to popular involvement in political processes. If these attitudes fall to a very low level, it is dubious whether a democratic system could function; it might fall prey to an authoritarian or totalitarian alternative, which occurred in the history of Germany, France, Chile, Argentina, Thailand and other nations. ← 18 | 19 →

The Agents of Socialization

There are several factors which have an impact on political socialization. These include education, family, media/computer technology, gender, region, religious orientations, as well as life cycle and generations.


Education is a very strong predictor of a nation’s political culture. Wealth and investment in literacy was a primary ingredient of ancient Athens’ embrace of democracy. In examining the level of educational achievement worldwide, a relationship exists between the type of political system and many related sociopolitical variables. A popular mass-based educational system is associated with democratic political systems. Low educational achievement is related to authoritarian political systems. Many African, Asian, and Latin American nations do not have high levels of school attendance and rate very low in democratic assessments. On political rights measures, as an example of an undemocratic nation, Bangladesh rates poorly. It has state security laws that give undue power to the government. Demonstrations and street protests are met with excessive police force. Violence against women (including death and rape) are among other violations of civil rights. Freedom House, on a scale of 1.0 to 7.0, rates Bangladesh as a 4.0, which makes it only a partly free nation. The education system in Bangladesh has an abysmal record. A majority of children have never been to school.

By contrast, New Zealand, which was rated high in democratic processes, is rated as 1.0 (free) by the Freedom House; New Zealand has a strong record of guaranteed civil and political rights for all. Educational achievement is universal and compulsory to age 16 and free in state school until age 19. However, New Zealand has problems with its indigenous Maori population, not dissimilar to Australia’s aborigine citizens. Education, employment, income, health, housing, and treatment in the criminal justice system lag in comparison with the mainstream population. The Maori are about 15% of New Zealand’s population.

Following World War II, there was a great expansion in academic education in Western Europe. For example, in Germany, very few young people went to the academic track gymnasia and on to higher education. Many young people went to technical training schools and were in the workplace by age 16. Level of educational achievements in European nations was closely related to being chosen for political leadership, business ownership, officers in the military, and even being in the clergy. Broadening the education base through comprehensive schools for the masses and free attendance at the university (dependent upon admission) in Germany means more people are involved in all upper power and business echelons in society.

Studies show that students’ involvement in other aspects of the educational environment is strongly related to participation in politics. Extracurricular activities ← 19 | 20 → (ranging from student government, school newspaper, athletics, and even cheerleading) are predictors of later life political activity.


The nature of family life can have a profound effect on later political activity. A highly disciplined, rigidly patriarchal family structure can result in adherence to authoritarian political structure later in life. Studies show that a more authoritarian personality emerges. The authoritarian personality is intolerant of a diversity of ideas and experimentation with new concepts. It tends to be submissive to authority, obeying without question. Authoritarians tend to be intolerant of ethnic and social minorities. They are more militaristic than non-authoritarian personalities. Needless to say, the authoritarian personality is not conducive to the development of democracy. Asian and African families tend to be very strict with male-oriented decision making. It is said with at least some validity that communism in the People’s Republic of China is more compatible with the traditional Chinese Confucian culture with strict rule in everything from family life to government administration.

The effects of family influence (which is probably the paramount agent in the political socialization process throughout the world) can be clearly seen in political party affiliation studies in the US. Studies show that if both parents are of the same political party, chances are great that the children will also belong to that party. Other factors contribute to the successful passing of the party affiliation from parents to child. If politics is a salient topic at home and the offspring know what the parents think, there is more of a chance that not only political partly affiliation will be passed on, but also positions on highly visible issues. The occurrence of a politicized home atmosphere is declining possibly in America more so than anywhere else. With both parents working, parents simply don’t spend as much time with their children as they used to. Of great importance is the fact that households are not what they used to be. It is increasingly the case that all family members have their own television sets and they do not spend time with each other. Computers have added to the separation since children have their own personal computers. Television and computer consumption have both increased in American homes; therefore, family members spend more time using electronic communications systems instead of talking with each other. This pattern is affecting the transfer of political orientations from parent to child, resulting in an increase in independent party affiliation.

Family life is undoubtedly more close-knit in developing nations. But, politics may not be very salient in nations where there is not much of a tradition of popular political involvement. ← 20 | 21 →

Media/Computer Technology

Undoubtedly the media (particularly television and the general trend toward the use of information technology such as the Internet, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication) are not only transforming families, but people and nations in an emerging global world.

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam argues that a key ingredient of democracy is social capital. Social capital is the existence of a connectedness that citizens have to each other; it enables them to engage in social activities, including involvement in political associations. Drawing on the theory of Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, 1835), who felt that a rich associational life in America sustained civic self-government, Putnam is concerned that too much use of media is resulting in an individual disconnectedness, much to the determent of democracy. He noticed that as television consumption goes up, associational involvement goes down. In fact, according to A.C. Neilson surveys, television use is increasing in America. Amazingly, while computer/Internet use is dramatically increasing, US households are watching more television.

The number of Internet users in America is increasing at a phenomenal rate. Under a quarter of households had Internet access in 1997. By 2006, this figure jumped to over two-thirds. As these figures rise, face-to-face social involvement declines. This, according to Putnam, is a tragedy for democracy, which thrives on a face-to face associational behavior. Certainly, the world of electronic communications is transforming the world as we have known it. Young people in America are now almost 100% using the personal computer and are consuming more and more television as well, thus changing the socialization process in ways which really need to be closely monitored.

In the developing world, the media are being harnessed to increase awareness and comprehension of democracy. In South Africa, for example, websites, newspapers, newsletters, television, and cyber cafes are being used to create a democratic community. While information technology is used to draw people in developing nations into political participation, it may be individualizing people in the developed nations into a virtual world and drawing them away from real-world participation. However, voter turnout in the US went up from around 50% in the 2004 presidential election to 60%, indicating perhaps that the increased emersion in information technology may not necessarily have dampened popular participation.

There are enormous variations in media relations between government and citizens throughout the world, ranging from government-owned and -censored to privately-owned, but -censored and, finally, to mostly or entirely privately-owned and free. Which of these circumstances exists in a country has enormous implications for the socialization process.

In totalitarian systems, media are an arm of the political party and serve as a means of propaganda. Under this system, the government owns the media and ← 21 | 22 → allows no criticism of government policy. In the socialization process from the earliest years on, there is no development of the idea of toleration of media-supported dissent typical of a democracy. Beginning in 2002, the organization Reporters Without Frontiers has evaluated press freedoms in most of the nations throughout the world. Totalitarian nations fared very poorly, with North Korea being the consistently worst ranked nation. There is no press freedom in North Korea. Criticism is banned and, if it occurs, the dissenters are sent to prison. Foreign media is kept out. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il personally controls the press. “Uniformity” could be the word which best applies to the North Korean media. Dissenters sometimes are executed in public in North Korea to teach the people a lesson. There is no criticism of Kim Jong-il. During recent years of famine and starvation, especially for North Korean children, there was no mention of this disaster.

All of the worst-rated nations by Reporters Without Frontiers are located in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, with one exception: Cuba. All of the totalitarian nations (North Korea, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Laos, and Vietnam) are at the bottom of the list. Next to North Korea is Turkmenistan (Asian), Eritrea (African), followed by Cuba (Latin American), Myanmar (Asian), People’s Republic of China (Asian), Iran (Middle Eastern), Saudi Arabia (Middle Eastern), and Ethiopia (Africa). The President of Turkmenistan (as an example of a very poor media environment) is willing to use violence, including torture to death, to quash journalistic dissent. In Eritrea, one might be secretly imprisoned. With a press milieu like this, there is obviously no chance for socialization toward the values of a free and open democratic political system.

The best press freedom nations are Northern European: Finland, Ireland, Iceland, and the Netherlands. They all share first place. In these nations, Reporters Without Frontiers found no censorship, government threats, intimidation, or physical action. Other top nations are all West and Central European in 2006, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Norway, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Hungary. The United States in 2006 fell to53rd from 17th in 2002. In part, the US declined because of a trend of the federal courts to deny reporters the right not to reveal their sources. For example, this resulted in New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s imprisonment in 2005. These actions are undertaken in the “war on terror.” Reporters Without Frontiers points out that a Sudanese cameraman, Sami al-Haj working for Al-Jazeera, as another example, has been held since June 2002 at the Guantanamo US military base. Still, the US has a relatively free press.

When it comes to media and political socialization, it is important to examine the varied patterns of Internet use throughout the world. Younger generations are increasingly turning to the Internet for political information. There are dramatic variations in Internet access from one continent to another and within continents. The Internet is believed to be a possible boon to democracy since it gives access to information necessary to understand the political world and it could enable users to ← 22 | 23 → establish a website to obtain support for a political cause. The problem is that a worldwide digital divide may create an unequal playing field for those connected to the Internet and those not so advantaged. Internet World Stats shows that, indeed, Africa is particularly disadvantaged in this regard with less than 5% having access, compared to over two-thirds in North America and over 50% in European Union (EU) nations. Even within Europe, EU candidate nations only have a little above one-fifth of their population connected to the Internet. Within Africa, there are variations ranging from 10% access in South Africa (not high, albeit one of the most technologically advanced nations in Africa) to only 3% in Nigeria and less than 1% in Niger. In Asia, access is barely above 10%, with great diversity ranging from nearly 70% in Japan and South Korea (which are considered democracies) to below 10% in the People’s Republic of China and almost no access in North Korea (which are communist totalitarian nations). In India, which is considered a democracy, access is only around 5% with great variations, depending on where you live and level of income. In South America, Internet access is about 15% with variations ranging from a high of over 40% in Chile to about 4% in Paraguay. In the Middle East, the overall access level is 10%. Variations of Internet use are great with above 50% access in Israel to about one-third in the United Arab Emirate to only 1% in Yemen. As the world moves into a global information technology age, these variations might seriously diminish the ability of developing nations to keep children and adults abreast with the changing climate of education, business, politics, and life in general. It is worth noting that nations which are totalitarian and have had periods of, or are, authoritarian rule have low popular access to the Internet.


There are dramatic differences worldwide when it comes to the political status of women. Scandinavian nations have the highest percentage of women in legislatures. The figure is the highest in Sweden, where above 40% of parliamentary members are women. However, even in France, one of the birthplaces of popular rule, the figure is only about 11%, which is roughly comparable to the US. Women did not get to vote in France nationally until after World War II. Throughout the world, not only are women infrequently involved in elected office holding, but especially in developing nations, their status is quite poor. In a country like Nigeria, as an example, women face outright second-class status compared to men. Marital rape is not considered a crime in Nigeria. In Russia, where women fared better under communism, women are abused at home, discriminated against in the workplace, and young women often trafficked abroad (to Western Europe and the US) for prostitution.

Women’s opinions on political issues frequently differ extensively compared to men. Women are less approving of collateral damage (inadvertent killing of civilians) in war, less supportive of the death penalty, and more likely to support ← 23 | 24 → social services of all kinds. In this regard, women are said to be more nurturing. Both the differences in office holding and opinions are due to differences in the socialization process. Studies show that women engage less in aggressive sports and are less likely to be risk takers. Women engage more in non-combative social relationships with other women and are more prone to be kept at home. Young men engage much more in extreme sports, including riding motorcycles, sky diving, alpine skiing/snowboarding, football, hunting, and other high-risk endeavors to the point that they die in significantly higher numbers in their 20s than women. Consequently, women grow up less interested in the rough-and-tumble political world which includes warfare. They are much less likely than men to even try to get involved in politics. Women often do not run for political office, much less hold office.


Regional differences in socialization often produce variations in political orientations. Studies on the authoritarian personality conclude that the South in the US has more authoritarians, followed by the Mid-west, compared to the Northeast and West. It is clear that voting patterns relate to these differences, with conservative George W. Bush carrying the South and Mid-west in the 2004 presidential elections. In France, the provinces are notably more conservative than Paris.

Religious Orientations

Religious orientations are related to political opinions and behavior. The Jewish population is the most liberal in America. More orthodox religions, including the Jewish orthodox religion, produce more conservative political thought. The Islamic religion teaches women to play a more traditional role in society, including non-participation in politics.

Life Cycle and Generations

Two very important concepts in political socialization research are life cycle and generation. Life cycle refers to the development of political orientations over time, from birth to death. Studies conclude that political changes occur throughout the life cycle; however, generation can be critical to the development of political orientations that crystallize over time. In other words, one does not necessarily get more conservative over time as much as one becomes conservative or liberal early in life and experiences continuity over time.

Socialization begins in early childhood. Children younger than about age 10 to 11 are egocentric. They do not cognize the political world beyond themselves and their immediate family and perhaps an extended tribe if they are part of one. Young children think in concrete terms as opposed to abstract thought. They personalize political thinking, focusing on the police or president. At about age 10 or 11, ← 24 | 25 → children begin to cognize a broader world, including community and nation. They develop the ability to think beyond a person (such as a president, prime minister, or king) and develop a comprehension of process, such as elections and legislative activities. Children become sociocentric, understanding that they live in a society broader than just their family.

Two psychologists, Joseph Adelson and Robert P. O’Neil, asked children and adolescents aged 11 to 18 what the purpose of a law requiring vaccination would be. The 11-year-olds said that it would be to keep them from getting sick, whereas the 18-year olds stated that it would be to prevent an epidemic in society. When asked whether or not government should be able to take away a person’s property to build a road, the 11-year-olds said “no,” while the 18-year-olds were more likely to say that the individual should sell the property for the benefit of the community.

There is a primacy principle in the socialization process that what is learned early is learned best and structures later learning. Young children develop beliefs without a knowledge dimension. Later, adolescents begin to develop knowledge, but it is felt that there is a primacy principle. That is, early developed beliefs filter and shape knowledge learned later. For example, political party affiliations develop in very young children, but they cannot express what the parties stand for. They thereupon shift through information and accept information that supports their attachment to a prior-held orientation toward a political party.

As children get older, they develop knowledge about the political world. The socialization process appears to be largely over by about age 20 or 25. There would be enormous variations in this development depending on different educational opportunities. Attitudes, values, and beliefs persist and crystallize later in life. However, a period effect can alter political thinking. A dramatic political event (such as war or an economic depression) can cause later resocializtion.

Generation is a powerful political force. Political events occurring during the crucial socialization years of about age 10 or 11 to 20 shape new entrants into a political system. Research indicates that party affiliation and subsequent voter trends are affected by the circumstances existing during the pre-adult years. Children growing up in the American “Roaring 20s” in the US became more Republican in party identification than not and have stayed that way throughout life. Young people socialized during the Great Depression in America became Democrats and still largely vote for the Democrat party. One might speculate that Americans who were socialized from 1930 to 1940 (ages 10 to 20), which were years of economic adversity, were able to take the adversity of World War II more easily than some other generation.

Young people socialized during the Ronald Reagan years have been more Republican in political party affiliation. Those socialized during the Bill Clinton years are more liberal in opinion polls on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion; they are more likely to be affiliated with the Democrat party. ← 25 | 26 →

There would be variations on this process throughout the world. In nations with very little mass education and media penetration, generational socialization might be minimal since family and village would loom large as the major political input. Under these circumstances, new generational thinking could emerge, but it would be much slower over a long period of time unless some truly major event would rapidly have an impact on everyone.


Adelson, J. and R. O’Neil (1966). “Growth of Political Ideas in Adolescence: The Sense of Community,” pp. 295-306 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 4.

Freedom House,

International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA),

Internet World Stats,

Putnam, R. (2000). America’s Declining Social Capital. New York, NY: Simon & Shuster.

United Nations.

Reporters Without (Sans) Frontiers, http//