Political socialization is the process by which individuals develop their political personalities from their youth through their adult years. These personalities include values and attitudes regarding politics, such as one’s views about the role of the government and the relationship between the government and citizens. Socialization affects whether people are even interested in politics and government in the first place.
Those who are most important in a person’s life, like their families and friends, play important roles in their political socialization. Schools, places of worship, and—increasingly—interactions with others through social media can also be important influences. The process is not deterministic; you cannot look at all the influences on your development and predict precisely who you will become. Still, you do not entirely choose who you will become, as you are in part the product of your social environment.
Every country has multiple political cultures. Political culture is the set of political attitudes, values, goals, and practices common to members of any political grouping. Countries have distinct political cultures, which means that citizens of a country are likely to share common views about their roles as citizens and the responsibilities of the government.
In any country, you can identify elite, mass, and minority cultures, each having its own set of views and attitudes and, perhaps, social markers such as clothing, music, or even dietary preferences. The elite culture comprises those who dominate a country’s political agenda, policy choices, and official positions of power. The mass culture consists of the bulk of citizens or, in democracies, voters who typically embrace the political values that are central to the nation’s political cultures but who are not in positions of power. A vast number of minority cultures exist, each having its own particular set of attitudes and behaviors. A key aspect of minority cultures is that they allow groups of individuals to distinguish themselves from the majority culture in ways that produce pride, belonging, and solidarity. Minority cultures arise for diverse reasons and may later develop their own political identities. Those in a particular culture might both change their personal behaviors to advance the group’s goals and engage in political activism with others in that culture.
Whenever individuals come together to make decisions, there is the potential that the group (collective) will face certain difficulties (dilemmas). These difficulties can involve disagreement about group goals or about the best course of action, or they might involve incentives individuals have to act in ways that are counter to group interests. When a group is sizable, one or more of these dilemmas is likely to exist in every attempt to make decisions or take action.
When group members disagree regarding goals, a decision can be reached by force or through nonviolent, democratic means. Nonviolent, democratic processes typically involve voting. In these cases, the voting rules will influence the outcome. These rules can vary, from a plurality rule, in which the outcome is decided by the position that obtains the most votes, to a unanimity rule, in which everyone must ultimately agree to a single position. In general, voting rules are set so that the more consequential the issue, the higher the proportion of votes is needed to change the status quo.
Groups making decisions face coordination challenges. These challenges exist when group members generally agree on the goals but disagree about the specifics. Making decisions regarding the specifics creates transaction costs—the time, effort, and other resources required to make the decisions—and conformity costs—the differences between the value of the policy that each individual hoped for and the decision they each actually received.
Collective action problems involve group decisions in which individuals within the group would benefit from cooperating with other group members, but they each have incentives not to cooperate. Individuals acting on these incentives can harm the group and, paradoxically, themselves.
In the tragedy of the commons, self-interested individuals have incentives to take as much of a public resource as they can. If enough individuals act on these incentives, the resource will be depleted; at that point, no individual would have access to the resource. Individuals are said to be free riding if they do not contribute to a group goal but still receive the same outcome as the group members who contribute. In a prisoner’s dilemma, the participants would benefit from cooperating with each other, but they have strong incentives to defect. As each participant faces similar incentives, the likely outcome is that every participant is worse off than if they had cooperated.
Collective action problems are common in large groups, and they are difficult to solve. The tragedy of the commons can be prevented if some authority can restrict exploitation of the resource or if the commons can be privatized in a way that prevents the resource from being depleted. Free riding can be avoided through monitoring that can detect free riders and sanctions that can punish them. Creating social solidarity so that individuals believe that they should not free ride can also be important. Unless the participants in a prisoner’s dilemma trust each other and know that they will need to work together again in the future, the expectation is that the outcome of the dilemma will harm both players. Avoiding this outcome requires a third party that can enforce cooperation or punish those who defect to induce future cooperation.