Political Culture in America

Political Culture

Political culture is that set of ideas
which Americans share widely about who should govern, for what ends,
and by what means. Values are shared ideas about what is
good. Beliefs are shared ideas about what is true. Beliefs
often give a foundation for values. For instance, the belief that God
endowed humankind with rights to life, liberty, and property is a
foundation for giving these concepts the status of values in our
political culture. Subcultures also exist, such as those
based on religion, race, or ethnic identity, holding different or
even deviant beliefs and values. Actual conditions (ex., slavery
before the Civil War) may contradict cultural values (ex., equality),
creating pressures for political action. The existence of a shared

political culture does not prevent conflict over such pressures to
reconcile conditions with values, or one value with

The Liberal Tradition in

Classical liberalism, which asserts
the dignity of the individual and their rational ability to control
their own destinies, is central to American political culture. It
derives from Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the heritage of
European feudalism:

1.John Locke (natural law implies limited
government, rather than absolute monarchy)

2.Jean-Jacques Rousseau (social contract,
rather than divine right of kings)

3.Adam Smith (free markets under capitalism,
rather than mercantilism)

Dilemmas of Equality

The cultural value of equality means that, in
the abstract, Americans believe no person is better than anyone else.
This applies especially to legal equality, where every
citizen is supposed to have equal rights before the law, such as
right to a speedy trial. Political equality trailed the
development of legal equality, with constitutional amendments not
guaranteeing the vote for ex-slaves until 1868 and for women until
1920 and with the need for voting rights acts even in modern

Equality of opportunity is a
widely-shared value which means Americans do not begrudge income
inequalities arising from differences in education, effort,
risk-taking, investment, talent, or event luck, like winning the
lottery, but this acceptance assumes that all have had an equal
opportunity to become educated, make effort, take risks, invest, use
talents, or just be lucky. To the extent race, gender, religion,
ethnicity, or other factors make equality of opportunity different
for different classes of citizens, Americans feel the value of
equality of opportunity is violated. Affirmative action,
which are efforts to remedy the effects of past bias, is a value
which is in dispute and cannot be said to be part of American
political culture, though many Americans support it.

Equality of results is another value
which is in dispute. Thomas Jefferson denounced “leveling,” and such
views have been part of the American critique of socialism. Americans
differ strongly on whether the government should take action to
reduce income and other material inequalities, which are larger in
this country than some other Western democracies, and larger than in
the past in terms of our own history. One may contrast Italian
political culture, for instance, where over 80% believe it is the
government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between
people. Fewer than 30% of Americans hold the same belief, by 1988

Inequality of Income and

That Americans do not agree on equality of
results reflects the fact that in this country, as most others,
inequality of income and wealth is a source of political conflict.
Comparing 1929 and the present, the poorest one-fifth of Americans
increased their share of al family personal income from 3.5% to 4.2%,
while the richest fifth declined from 54.4% to 46.2%. However, while
these figures show slightly more equality of income, in absolute
terms the difference remains very great. Moreover, the equalization
occurred prior to 1970. Since then, the trend has been back toward
greater inequality of income. This may be due to replacement of
manufacturing by lower-paid service sector jobs, global competition,
increasing numbers of female-headed single-income families,
increasing numbers of elderly, and other factors.

It should also be noted that wealth is much
more unequally distributed than income. The wealthiest 1% of
Americans own almost 40% of all family wealth. Its distribution, too,
has been becoming more unequal since the 1970s.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is high in the United
States, mitigating possible discontent over income and wealth
inequalities. In a given decade, about one-third of those in the
poorest fifth of the nation move upward, and about one-third of those
in the richest fifth move downward. In recent years there appears,
however, to be a slowing in socially mobility out of the lowest
fifth. Most Americans describe themselves as “middle class” and class
conflict is not a major factor in American politics.

A Nation of

The United States started as a nation of
immigrants and still today accepts more immigrants than all other
nations of the world combined. Early immigration acts were biased,
such as the 1882 act, which barred nearly all Asians from
immigration. The Immigration Act of 1921 established as an
immigration quota 3% of the number of a given nation’s foreign-born
living in the U. S. in 1910. This was later reduced to 2% of those
residing here in 1890. These quotas were directed against massive
immigration of Southern and Eastern European Catholics and Jews. This
quota system was abolished by the Immigration and Nationality Act of
1965, replacing quotas with a system giving preferences to close
relatives, professionals, and skilled workers.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
sought to control rising immigration, especially from Mexico and
Latin America (not restricted by the 1921 act). It did this by
establishing fines for employers of illegal immigrants. Partly
because it allowed employers to accept easily-forged documents as
evidence of residency, the 1986 act did not reduce illegal
immigration. Today about one million legal immigrants arrive each
year, to which must be added illegal immigration, estimates of which
range from 400,000 to three million. As a result, immigration raises
complex economic, social, and political issues.

Ideologies: Liberalism and

An ideology is a consistent and integrated
system of ideas, values, and beliefs about who should get what, when,
and how. While many Americans avoid labeling, preferring to call
themselves “moderates,” two major ideologies are prominent in
American politics:

1. Modern conservatism believes in
free market capitalism, limited government, and individual
self-reliance without government aid. Much of modern conservatism
reflects values it shares with classic liberalism, discussed above.
Unique conservative perspectives, different from classic liberalism,
include pessimism about human nature, belief in the importance of
strong law and order measures, and support for efforts to strengthen
traditional institutions such as families and churches.

2. Modern liberalism believes in a
strong government to provide economic security and protection for
civil rights, yet it also believes in freedom from government
intervention in social conduct. In its commitment to individual
dignity, modern liberalism shares much with classic liberalism. It
differs, however, in not viewing government as a negative force to be
limited but instead favors government action to end discrimination,
reduce poverty, provide medical care for all, educate all, and
protect the environment. Modern liberalism supports free markets, but
it endorses government actions to mitigate what it sees as hardships
associated with capitalism. Modern liberals also believe that
individual dignity and true equality of opportunity to some extent
rest on government action to limit extreme inequalities of

There are, of course, other ideologies of
importance in American politics. Neo-conservatives support
liberal goals, but believe that liberal means (big government) are
self-defeating. Neo-conservatives are typified by ex-liberals who
later became Republicans. Neo-liberals support liberal means
(big government), but believe social goals favored by liberals must
defer to more important economic goals, such as federal industrial
policy to promote growth. Neo-liberals include Clinton advisors who
favored welfare reform and reduction of the deficit rather than
national health care.

Ideological Battlegrounds: Four

The figure below depicts four ideological
groupings in American politics:

  • Liberals favor economic activism
    by government, including protection of the environment and
    consumers, but in social affairs they are apt to oppose government
    intervention such as restrictions on abortion.
  • Conservatives favor limitation of
    the government’s role in the economy, including low taxation, but
    they often favor strong governmental activism in such areas of
    social affairs as regulation of pornography.
  • Populists are liberal in economic
    affairs, favoring governmental regulation of the economy, but they
    are conservative in social affairs, often siding with
    conservatives on social issues.
  • Libertarians are consistent in
    favoring sharp limitations on government action in either the
    economic or social spheres. Libertarians thus may oppose almost
    all government regulations, whether environmental regulations or
    attempts to regulate drug use.

Dissent in the United

Outside the range of political ideology
discussed above are dissenters of the left and right. These include
antidemocratic ideologies like fascism (belief in the
supremacy of the state or race over individuals), Marxism
(belief a working class revolution should and will overthrow
capitalism), communism (authoritarian single-party rule in
the alleged interests of the working class), and socialism
(seeks democratically and peacefully to replace capitalism with an
egalitarian order).

Some have argued that the collapse of communism
and the worldwide movement toward free markets and democracy in the
late twentieth century has led to an “end of history,” making
irrelevant all those ideologies focused on issues surrounding
capitalism. However, these trends do not spell an end to ideology
since capitalism does not automatically ensure democracy or other
values of the American political culture, conflict over which can and
does continue. This continuing conflict is evidenced, for instance,
in the debate over “politically correct” (PC) thinking, a form of
academic radicalism which views America as racist, sexist, and
homophobic, requiring correction in curriculum, books, and the media
to assure racial, gender, and sexual choice sensitivity.

Dye, Thomas R. Politics in America, Prentice Hall.