If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ideology and policymaking: lesson overview

Public policy reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the citizens who choose to participate in politics at that time, and so policies change over the years as citizens' attitudes and beliefs change.

Key terms

policy moodA measure of the public's preferences toward policy choices.
position issueAn issue that divides voters, such as gun control or the death penalty.
valence issueAn issue most voters will agree with, such as economic prosperity or caring for the elderly.

Ideology and policymaking

What policy issues concern you today? The environment, immigration, the national debt? It's likely that the issues that most concern you now are quite different from the ones that worried your parents or grandparents, who may have stressed out over nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, or civil rights.
The public policy agenda changes over time. Some issues recede from the spotlight and others rise to take their place. For example, 20 years ago no one worried about the effects of social media on privacy or elections; today, it's a major issue.
Chart showing the percentage of US adults who answered that the economy, health care, terrorism, jobs, or the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress. The chart shows that between 2008 and 2019, the public came to prioritize the economy and health care more, while prioritizing jobs and the budget deficit less.
A chart showing the percentage of US adults who said that an issue should be a top concern for the president and Congress. Source: Pew Research Center
In addition, the public's opinions about how best to solve policy problems can shift. In some eras, the American public is more likely to favor government solutions to social problems, and in others, it's more inclined to turn to private industry for answers. Widespread cultural norms and values may also vary, calling for more or less government intervention to regulate morality. Political scientists call these economic and cultural attitudes policy mood.
Political parties adopt solutions toward policy issues as part of their platforms, but these, too, change in response to shifts in public attitudes. As parties conduct research and observe opinion polls, they adjust their proposed policy solutions to best reflect the needs of their desired constituents.
Underlying all of these swings in policy agenda is the public's tendency to lose faith in the president's approach. Political scientist James A. Stimson has found that presidents lose support for their ideological positions the longer they're in office, with two-term presidents suffering the lowest ideological support in their seventh year in office. In other words, the longer a president is on the job, the more the public desires a new approach—thus favoring the ideology of the opposite party. As Stimson puts it, "a president elected in a wave of liberalism can expect to leave office in eight years with a more conservative than average mood; and, equally, a president elected by conservatism can expect to leave liberal public opinion as his or her legacy of time in office."1

Review questions

Why do public opinions about important issues fluctuate over time?
Why do you think that the president's ideology becomes less and less popular the longer they're in office?
What's the difference between a valence issue and a position issue? If most voters agree on valence issues, what aspects of valence issues divide liberals and conservatives?

Want to join the conversation?