Ever wondered how ideologies, in-group identities, political affiliations, or religions live on, generation after generation? What causes them to survive, often thrive, like living organisms?
How does a new generation acquire the political views that define their outlook and worldview?
The answer is through political socialization.
Political socialization is the process where people acquire a political viewpoint through cultural and social interactions. Examples of political socialization include daily recitations of the pledge of allegiance, watching politicized pop culture, and watching news propaganda that reinforces political viewpoints.
In the words of Herbert Hyman, one of the earliest scholars of the field, political socialization is:
“…the learning of social patterns corresponding to an individual’s societal position as mediated through various agencies of society” (Hyman, 1959)
Political socialization operates through various institutions that influence an individual’s political consciousness. These institutions are called “agents of socialization” and include:
- The family
- The school
- The State.
Examples of Political Socialization
1. Pledges of Allegiance at School
In many countries, school students are required to recite a formal text that affirms their loyalty to the nation-state.
Such a text may be a Pledge of Allegiance as in the United States. Each day, students stand up, put their hands on their hearts and recite this pledge:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It’s interesting that the pledge mentions God, given that the United States is supposedly a secular nation. But this, too, is a version of political socialization. Its existence in the pledge is a nod to the Christian conservatism that has always been the dominant political force in the modern United States.
2. National Anthems
Many national anthems are artefacts of political socialization designed to promote nationalism and patriotism.
In the United States, the national anthem – the Star-Spangled Banner – is often played before major sporting events, and those present, including spectators and athletes, are expected to stand up as a mark of respect to the national anthem.
The repeated performance of such an act, especially at a young age, instils certain political values such as patriotism and nationalism in children.
Thus, the national anthem is used as a tool of political socialization by the state to inculcate a certain political ideology – that of nationalism, or loyalty towards the state.
3. Red and Blue States in the US
US elections are keenly followed by observers across the globe, and it is common knowledge that certain parts of the US traditionally vote for only one party – whether Republican or Democrat.
Such political affiliation has a remarkably long shelf life, with support for a particular party in a region often cutting across generations.
For instance, the western and eastern coast of the United States are typically associated with a more liberal political attitude, that translates to greater support for the Democratic party.
This is usually demonstrated through a clear, progressive stand on several issues such as greater public funding, higher taxation on the wealthy, support for LGBTQIA and women’s reproductive rights issues, more liberal immigration policies, and so on.
Such political values are often transmitted from one generation to the next, thereby ensuring that they live on through political socialization. Thus, there is strong likelihood that someone born in a city such as New York or Los Angeles might find themselves being socialized into a certain set of political values that usually fall on the left of the political spectrum.
On the other hand, states located in the American mid-west and the deep south often vote for Republican candidates.
The political values associated with such states are termed “conservative” and are distinguished by issues such as reduced governmental regulation and greater autonomy for private enterprise, less taxation, and insistence on greater curbs on overseas immigration.
Like in the previous case, such values show a remarkable persistence through time in the specific geographies that they are found.
This is possible only through a process of political socialization, in which one generation inherits the political values of its predecessor through primary agents of socialization such as the family, the school, religion, etc.
4. Military Parades
While military parades are often seen as events to thank veterans for their service, there is often also an element of political pageantry designed to pull people into a political tent.
For example, France is famed for its political parades designed to celebrate republicanism, a political position the nation is famed for. Similarly, North Korea’s parades of tanks (which citizens are obligated to attend), are designed to promote socialism and project an image of strength.
Related: 52 Examples of Ideologies
5. Religious Spaces
Religious spaces, including places of worship, or schools run by religious organizations are powerful spaces of political socialization.
People who are deeply involved with their religion are likely to have political opinions that resonate with the larger religious community to which they belong.
This kind of socialization also ensures that rituals and practices that may seem obsolete in the modern world continue to be practiced and preserved generation after generation.
We can see, for example, the political socialization that occurs in some churches where the pastors promote either conservatism or liberalism from the pulpit.
6. American Pop Culture During the Cold War
During the Cold War, American pop culture, including Hollywood and the music industry, often acted as agents of political socialization, painting the Soviet Union in various hues of evil and ridicule.
For instance, in the iconic Sylvester Stallone film Rocky 4, the protagonist Rocky Balboa is portrayed as the all-American hero, while his opponent, a Soviet boxer, is depicted as possessing barely human attributes.
The soviet’s expressionless face and hatred that recognizes no sporting spirit dehumanizes him as the “Soviet other” on the big screen.
Similarly, another popular film of the 1980s, Rambo 3 features Sylvester Stallone supporting an Afghan Mujahideen army against a Soviet invasion. Take a look back in time at the film’s trailer:
The film even ends with a message of solidarity for the brave Afghan Mujahideen fighting the Soviets (ironically the very Mujahideen the US would spend the first 2 decades of the 21st-century fighting).
Popular songs of the era included hits such as Rasputin by the band Boney M, that poked fun at Russia and its people.
Through such antics, the American pop-cultural machine tried to socialize a generation of Americans into believing in the essential goodness of American. At the same time, it emphasized the diabolic ‘evil’ nature of their opponents.
Related: 27 Top Taboos in America
On the other side of the equation, we can also examine Soviet propaganda tools that were used for political socialization to portray America in a similarly poor light.
7. Colonialism and the White Man’s Burden
Beginning with the late 16th century, and until the beginning of the 20th Century, much of the globe was colonized by Europe.
The moral and legal justification for colonization came through a process of political socialization in which support was gathered for colonialism by emphasizing the benefits of colonialism for the colonized.
Thus, an entire generation of Europeans were socialized into thinking that colonialism was in fact a noble enterprise. They were led to believe that it involved bringing European enlightenment to the uncivilized people of the world.
The English poet and writer Rudyard Kipling famously termed this perceived moral responsibility of Europeans as:
“the white man’s burden” (Hitchens, 2004).
Agents of socialization such as the Church, the state, the media, and the education system contributed to underscoring this rationale both in the colonies and at home.
For instance, through the spread of Christianity to the colonies, and the reshaping of their education systems to impart European-style education in European languages, the colonial states attempted to socialize the colonized into having a positive opinion of the colonial state as a benevolent protector.
Fascism is an extreme example of political socialization, representing a case where political socialization turns into outright indoctrination.
Shaped by forceful propaganda by the state that utilized all the major agents of socialization, including schools, media, the state, and the family, a generation of Germans and Italians were socialized into accepting the political doctrines of the fascist dictators (Koon, 1985).
Related: Fascism Examples
University educated people are more liberal than non-University educated people. It’s believed that left-wing beliefs are dominant in universities.
By going to university, students are exposed to left-wing professors and belief systems that socialize them into progressive viewpoints.
Many people, of course, develop left-leaning views at university through rational thought and reflection. But by being surrounded by predominantly left-leaning people, they become socialized into those viewpoints, too. It’s easier to embrace a political ideology when it’s the socially acceptable mode of behavior.
The concept of political socialization helps us to understand how people first learn to behave politically and what factors shape their political inclinations.
Political socialization is different from indoctrination or propaganda and unlike the latter two, is not necessarily an undesirable process that needs to be resisted.
Nearly all forms of political opinion – whether progressive or conservative – are the result of some kind of socialization or interaction with the various agents of socialization.
Hitchens, C. (2004). Blood, class, and empire: The enduring Anglo-American relationship. Grove Atlantic.
Hyman, H. (1959). Political socialization: A study in the psychology of political behavior. Free Press.
Jarry, J. (2020). The anti-vaccine movement in 2020. Office for Science and Society, McGill University. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/covid-19-pseudoscience/anti-vaccine-movement-2020
Koon, T.H. (1985). Believe, obey, fight: The political socialization of youth in Fascist Italy, 1922-43. University of North Carolina Press. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/243362