Political Culture

American Political Culture


political culture – the inherited set of
beliefs, attitudes, and opinions Americans have about how their
government ought to operate.

1. Define what scholars mean by political
culture, and list some of the dominant aspects of political culture
in the United States.

2. Discuss how American citizens compare with
those of other countries in their political attitudes.

3. List the contributions to American political
culture made by the Revolution, by the nation’s religious heritages,
and by the family. Explain the apparent absence of class
consciousness in this country.

4. Define internal and external feelings of
political efficacy, and explain how the level of each of these has
varied over the past generation.

Text Outline

I. Political culture

A. Tocqueville on American

1. No feudal aristocracy; minimal
taxes; few legal restraints

2. Westward movement; vast territory
provided opportunities

3. Nation of small, independent

4. “Moral and intellectual
characteristics” – today called “political culture”

B. Definition of political

1. Distinctive and patterned way of

thinking about how political and economic life ought to be
carried out.

2. For example, stronger American belief
in political than in economic equality

C. Elements of the American political

1. Liberty

2. Equality

3. Democracy

4. Civic duty

5. Individual responsibility

D. Some questions about the U.S. political

1. How do we know people share
these beliefs?

-before polls, beliefs inferred
from books, speeches, etc.

2. How do we explain behavior
inconsistent with these beliefs

-beliefs still important, cause
changes in behavior

3. Why has there been so much political
conflict in U.S. history?

-beliefs contradict one another,
are not consistently prioritized

Historians have debated the degree to
which basic political values are shared in the United States.
“Consensus” historians (like Louis Hartz) contend that
Americans agree on political values based on the principles
articulated by John Locke. “Conflict” historians (like Vernon
Parrington) discern a liberal-conservative dimension to
American values and dispute the existence of a unified

4. Most consistent evidence of political

-use of terms “Americanism,”

E. The Economic System

1. Americans support free
enterprise, but see limits on marketplace freedom

2. Americans prefer equality of
opportunity over equality of result

3. Americans have a shared commitment to
economic individualism (1924 /1977 Poll on Personal
Responsibility shows that high school students feel that we are
personally responsible)


II. Comparing US Political Culture to Other

A. Political System and

1. Americans tend to be assertive
and participatory

2. Other nations citizens, Sweden for
example, tend to “trust the experts” and advocate “what is
best” as opposed to “what people want.”

3. Japanese stress group harmony and
community more. Americans are much willing to buck trends and
disrupt the status quo.

4. Americans stress individualism,
competition, equality and “following the rules.”

5. Americans vote less but participate in
other ways more.

6. Americans have more faith in their
national institutions then other nations.

B. Economic Systems

1. American concept of Capitalism
and fair competition firmly entrenched.

2. America more of a “meritocracy.” We
accept some income inequality but not class

3. Other nations more

C. Religious Belief

1. Americans are much more

2. Religion plays a much more important
role in politics – both liberals and conservatives use religion
to promote their political agenda.

III. The source of political culture

A. Historical roots

1. Revolution essentially over
liberty; preoccupied with asserting rights

2. Adversarial culture due to distrust of
authority and a belief that human nature
is depraved

3. Federalist-jeffersonian transition in

a. Legitimated role of
opposition party; liberty and political change
can coexist

B. Legal-sociological factors

1. Widespread (not universal)
participation permitted by Constitution

2. Absence of an established national

a. Religious diversity a source
of cleavage

b. Absence of established religion has
facilitated the absence of political orthodoxy

c. Puritan heritage (dominant
tradition) stress on personal achievement:

(1) Work

(2) Save money

(3) Obey secular law

(4) Do good works

(5) Embrace “Protestant ethic”
(work ethic)

d. Miniature political systems
produced by churches’ congregational organization, so civic
and political skills could develop

3. Family instills the ways we think
about world and politics

a. Greater freedom of children
and equality among family members leads to belief in rights
and acceptance of diverse views in decision-making

4. High degree of class consciousness

a. Most people consider
themselves middle class

b. Even unemployed do not oppose

c. Message of Horatio Alger stories is
still popular

C. The culture war

1 . Two cultural classes in America
battle over values

2. Culture war differs from political
disputes in three ways:

a. Money is not at stake

b. Compromises are almost

c. Conflict is more

3. Culture conflict animated by deep
differences in people’s beliefs about private
and public morality

4. Culture war about what kind of country
we ought to live in

5. Simplify by identifying two

a. Orthodox: morality more
important than self-expression with fixed rules from

b. Progressive: personal freedom more
important than tradition with changing rules based on
circumstances of modern life

6. Orthodox associated with
fundamentalist Protestants and progressives with mainline
Protestants and those with no strong religious

7. Culture war occurring both between and
within religious denominations

8. Current culture war has special
historical importance due to two changes:

a. More people consider
themselves progressives than previously

b. Rise of technology makes it easier
to mobilize people

IV. Mistrust of government

A. Evidence of increase since

1. Jimmy Carter speech in 1979 on
American malaise

2. Polls showed people believed

a. “Quite a few” crooks in

b. Government run for a “few big

c. “Lots” of tax money

d. Government does right only “some of
the time”

B. Causes

1. Watergate

2. Vietnam

C. Necessary to view context

1. Mistrust of specific leaders and
policies, not of system mainly

2. Present view closer to historical

3. Mistrust shared with most other

D. In summary

1. No loss of confidence in
Americans themselves or in their system

2. But people less ready to support
leaders than in 1950s

V. Political efficacy

A. Definition: citizen’s capacity to
understand and influence political events

B. Parts

1. Internal efficacy

a. Confidence in one’s
ability to understand and influence events

b. About the same as in

2. External efficacy

a. Belief that system will
respond to citizens

b. Not shaped by particular

c. Declined steadily through 1960s
and 1970s

d. Government becoming too big to
respond to individual

C. Comparison: efficacy still much higher
than Europeans’

D. Conclusion

1. Americans today may not be more
alienated but simply more realistic

VI. Political tolerance

A. Crucial to democratic

1. Free discussion of ideas

2. Select rulers without

B. Levels of American political

1. Most Americans assent in
abstract but would deny rights in concrete cases

2. Most are willing to allow expression
by those with whom they disagree

3. Becoming more tolerant in recent

C. Question: How do very unpopular groups

1. Most people do not act on

2. Officeholders and activists more
tolerant than general public

3. Usually no consensus exists on whom to

4. Courts are sufficiently insulated from
public opinion to enforce protection

D. Conclusions

1. Political liberty cannot be
taken for granted

2. No group should pretend it is always
more tolerant than another


1. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democracy
as it exists in America rarely thrived in other nations. Why do you
think this is so?

2. How is political culture different from
political ideology?

3. Of the five important elements in the
American view of the political system (Liberty, Equality, Democracy,
Civic Duty and Individual Responsibility) are any more or less
important then the others?

4. What are the two most important aspects the
political culture that you have learned? (Individualism and

5. To what extent is their agreement in America
over these values?

6. What are our basic economic values as a

7. How are we different from other

8. How has gender and upbringing effect the
learning of political culture?

9. How has our Puritan heritage effected our
political culture? To what extent do you think it still has impact?

10. To what extent do you think America is
“class conscious?”

11. What is the culture war, what are the sides
involved and how has it impacted on the political

12. How has mistrust of government become part
of our political culture?

13. To what extent is tolerance a part of our
political culture?

Important Terms

Americanism A belief that
Americans consider themselves bound by common values and common

civic competence A belief that
one can affect government policies.

civic duty The belief that
citizens have an obligation to participate in civic and political

class consciousness The
tendency to think of oneself as a worker whose interests are in
opposition to those of management and vice versa.

culture war A split in the
United States reflecting differences in people’s beliefs about
private and public morality, and regarding what standards ought to
govern individual behavior and social arrangements.

efficacy Self esteem,
competence or mastery.

equality of opportunity An
economic value in American culture which maintains that all people
should have the same opportunity to get ahead but that people should
be paid on the basis of ability rather than on the basis of

external efficacy The belief
that the political system will respond to citizens. This belief has
declined in recent years because of public sentiment that the
government has become too big to be responsive.

internal efficacy Confidence
in one’s own ability to understand and to take part in political
affairs. This confidence has remained stable over the past few

orthodox (social) One of two
camps in the culture war that believes morality is as important (or
even more so) than self-expression and that moral rules are derived
from God.

political ideology A
comprehensive set of political, economic, and social views or ideas
concerned with the form and role of government.

political culture A
distinctive and patterned way of thinking about how political and
economic life ought to be carried out.

political efficacy The sense
that citizens have the capacity to understand and influence political

progressive (social) One of
two camps in the culture war that believes personal freedom is more
important than traditional rules and that rules depend on the
circumstances of modern life.

rights A preoccupation of the
American political culture that has imbued the daily conduct of
politics with a kind of adversarial spirit.

secular humanism The belief
that moral standards do not require religious

work ethic A tradition of
Protestant churches that required a life of personal achievement as
well as religious conviction; a believer had an obligation to work,
save money, obey the secular law, and do good works. Max Weber
attributed the rise of capitalism, in part, to this ethic.

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