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Influence of political events on ideology

In addition to family, friends, and institutions, major political events can influence an individual's political ideology.

Key terms

formative ageYoung adulthood, between ages 18 and 24, when many people form long-lasting political attitudes.
party realignmentA sharp change in the issues or voting blocs that a party represents.
period effectsMajor events and social trends that affect the political attitudes of the entire population.

Political events and ideology

In the past few lessons, we've discussed a few of the factors that affect political socialization, the process by which individuals form ideas about government and politics and decide whether and how to get involved. Family, friends, and demographic factors play a large role in political socialization, as do generational and lifecycle effects.
Political events can also strongly influence an individual's ideology, in both the short- and long-terms. Some sociologists believe that most people's political opinions crystallize during their "formative age," from ages 18 to 24. Major political, social, and economic events that occur in the country or world may have a particularly strong effect on people who are in their formative years, and the world view they develop then is likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives. For example, Millennials, many of whom came of age during the Great Recession that began in 2008, show more conservative spending habits than members of older generations—except for the Silent Generation, which also came of age during a time of economic hardship.1
Although individuals may develop a lasting political ideology during the formative age, particularly impactful events can cause shifts in ideology. A study of the families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks found that they became more political and identified more strongly with the Republican Party after the attacks.2
Photograph showing smoke issuing from the World Trade Center towers in New York City following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has strongly influenced the political ideology of Americans who lived through it. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Some political events affect the country so profoundly that they cause a seismic shift in the American electorate and lead to a subsequent party realignment. The Great Depression, for example, ushered in an era of Democratic rule and led African American voters to abandon the Republican Party in its favor.
Individuals are also influenced by broad trends that shape the experience of society as a whole. These are known as period effects. For example, opinions around homosexuality and same-sex marriage became more favorable across all generations in the last 30 years.3
Chart showing the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage across generations between 2005 and 2015. Although younger generations are more favorable towards same-sex marriage, all generations have grown in acceptance.
Broad trends that influence political ideology across society are known as "period effects." The growing percentage of Americans who report that they favor same-sex marriage is one such effect. Image source: Pew Research Center

Review questions

Why do you think the "formative age" is so important to a person's political attitudes? Under what circumstances might someone's attitudes change outside of the formative age?
How are period effects different from generational and lifecycle effects? In what ways do they overlap?
Have you experienced any major events or social trends that have changed how you think about politics? What were they, and how did they change your ideas?

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