chances of winning confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.
A number of communication studies have reported that the media do not tend to influence the masses of people directly. Elihu Katz (1957) describes the process as a two-step flow of communication, using an approach which reflects interactionists emphasis on the social significance of everyday social exchanges. In Katzs view, messages passed through the media first reach a small number of opinion leaders, including teachers, religious authorities, and community activists. These leaders "spread the word" to others over whom they have influence.
Opinion leaders are not necessarily formal leaders of organized groups of people. For example, someone who hears a disturbing report about the dangers of radioactive wastes in a nearby river will probably tell family members and friends. Each of these persons may inform still others and perhaps persuade them to support the position of an environmentalist group working to clean up the river. Of course, in any communications process in which someone plays an intermediate role, the message can be reinterpreted. Opinion leaders can subtly transform a political message to their own ends.
Participation and Apathy
In theory, a representative democracy will function most effectively and fairly if there is an informed and active electorate communicating its views to government leaders. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case in the United States. Virtually all Americans are familiar with the basics of the political process, and most tend to identify to some extent with a political party, but only a small minority (often members of the higher social classes) actually participate in political organizations on a local or national level. Studies reveal that only 8 percent of Americans belong to a political club or organization. Not more than one in five has ever contacted an official of national, state, or local government about a political issue or problem.
The failure of most Americans to become involved in political parties has serious implications for the functioning of our democracy. Within the political system of the United States, the political party serves as an intermediary between people and government. Through competition in regularly scheduled elections, the two-party system provides for challenges to public policies and for an orderly transfer of power. An individual dissatisfied with the state of the nation or a local community can become involved in the political party process in many ways, such as by joining a political club, supporting candidates for public office, or working to change the partys position on controversial issues. If, however, people do not take interest in the decisions of major political parties, public officials in a "representative" democracy will be chosen from two unrepresentative lists of candidates. In the 1980s, it has become clear that many
Americans are turned off by political parties, politicians, and the specter of big government. The most dramatic indication of this growing alienation comes from voting statistics. Voters of all ages and races appear to be less enthusiastic than ever about American elections, even presidential contests. For example, almost 80 percent of eligible American voters went to the polls in the presidential election of 1896. Yet, by the 1984 election, voter turnout had fallen to less than 60 percent of all adults. By contrast, elections during the first half of the 1980s brought out 85 percent or more of the voting-age population in Austria, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Sweden.
Declining political participation allows institutions of government to operate with less of a sense of accountability to society. This issue is most serious for the least powerful individual and groups within the United States. Voter turn out has been particularly low among younger Americans and members of racial and ethnic minorities. In 1984, only 36 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 20 went to the polls. According to a postelection survey, only 55.8 percent of eligible black voters and 32.6 percent of Hispanic reported that they had actually voted. Moreover, the poorwhose focus understandably is on survivalare traditionally under-represented among voters as well. The low turnout found among these groups is explained, at least in part, by their common feeling of powerlessness. Yet such voting statistics encourage political power brokers to continue to ignore the interests of the young, the less affluent, and the nations minorities.
Sociologist Anthony Orum notes that people are more likely to participate actively in political life if they have a sense of political efficacythat is, if they feel that they have (he ability to influence politicians and the political order. In addition, citizens are more likely to become involved if they trust political leaders or feel that an organized political party represents their interest. Without question, in an age marked by the rise of big government and by revelations of political corruption at the highest levels, many Americans of all social groups feel powerless and distrustful. Yet such feelings are especially intense among the young, the poor, and minorities. is a result, many view political participation, including voting, as a waste of time.
Cross-national comparisons, while confirming he comparatively low level of voting in the linked States, also suggest that Americans are more likely than citizens of other nations to be active at the community level, to contact local officials on behalf of themselves or others, and to have worked for a political party. Perhaps this contrast reflects how unusual it is for people to be directly involved in national political decision making in the modem world. Nevertheless, it is possible to speculate that if tens of millions of Americans did not stay home on Election Day and instead became more active in the nations political lifethe outcome of the political process might be somewhat different.
Women and Politics
In 1984, American women achieved an unprecedented political breakthrough when Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York became the Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States. Never before had a woman received the nomination of a major party for such high office.
Nevertheless, women continue to be dramatically underrepresented in the halls of government. In 1988, there were only 23 women (out of 435 members) in the House of Representatives and only 2 women (out of 100 members) in the Senate. This is not because women have failed to participate actively in political life. Eligible women vote at a slightly higher rate than men. The League of Women Voters, founded in 1920, is a nonpartisan organization which performs valuable functions in educating the electorate of both sexes. Perhaps the most visible role of women in American politics is as unpaid workers for male candidates: ringing doorbells, telephoning registered voters, and carrying petitions. In addition, wives of elected male politicians commonly play significant supportive roles and are increasingly speaking out in their own right on important and controversial issues of public policy.
The sexism of American society has been the most serious barrier to women interested in holding public office. Female candidates have had to overcome the prejudices of both men and women regarding womens fitness for leadership. Not until 1955 did a majority of Americans state that they would vote for a qualified woman for president. Yet, as a 1984 national survey revealed, Americans say they will support a woman running for office only if she is by far the most qualified candidate.
Moreover, women often encounter prejudice, discrimination, and abuse after they are elected. In 1979, a questionnaire was circulated among male legislators in Oregon, asking them to "categorize the lady legislators" with such labels as "mouth, face, chest/dress, and so forth".
Despite such indignities, women are becoming more successful in winning election to public office. For example, there were 1176 women in state legislatures in 1988, as compared with only 31 in 1921,144 in 1941, and 301 in 1969. Not only are more women being elected; more of them are identifying themselves as feminists. The traditional woman in politics was a widow who took office after her husbands death to continue his work and policies. However, women being elected in the 1980s are much more likely to view politics as their own career rather than as an afterthought. These trends are not restricted to the United States.
A new dimension of women and politics emerged in the 1980s. Surveys detected a growing "gender gap" in the political preferences and activities of males and females. Women were more likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans and were also more critical of the policies of the Republican administration. What accounts for this "gender gap"? According to political analysts, the Democratic partys continued support for the equal rights amendment may be attracting women voters, a majority of whom support this measure. At the same time, virtually all polling data indicate that women are substantially less likely than men to favor large defense budgets and military intervention overseas; these policies have become more associated with the Republican party of the 1980s than with the Democrats.
Politicians have begun to watch carefully the voting trends among women, since women voters could prove decisive in dose elections. The gender gap did appear to be a factor in the 1984 electionsthough not as significant a factor as some observers had expected. According to a poll by ABC News, men supported President