American Political Culture
Political culture is the invisible hand that guides the conduct of political affairs in a society. It represents an amalgamation of beliefs, values, practices, and traditions that define how political and governmental affairs are conducted. In the United States, the political culture is a complex tapestry that has evolved significantly from its colonial origins to the present day. It serves not only as a window into the national ethos but also as a mechanism that influences political behavior and policy decisions. This essay seeks to dissect the intricacies of American political culture, tracing its roots and understanding its prevailing values, while also assessing its impact on the nation’s political and civic life.
Historical Foundations of American Political Culture
Colonial Influence and the Revolutionary Spirit
The seedbed of American political culture was undoubtedly the period of colonial America. Governed by the British Crown, the colonies were subject to a political culture that was, at its core, an extension of England’s own. Yet, the distance from the Crown and the diversity of the colonial population brewed a unique variant of political practice. The Enlightenment ideas percolating through Europe about self-governance, natural rights, and republicanism began to take root in the fertile intellectual soil of America. This cultural milieu set the stage for the Revolutionary War, which would be as much a clash of arms as a clash of political cultures.
The Constitution and Federalism
The adoption of the Constitution marked a revolutionary shift in American political culture. The document codified a balance between liberty and order, embedding the principles of federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers into the national psyche. The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates reflected deep-seated convictions about governance and personal freedoms, which were eventually reconciled through the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments secured the individual liberties that remain central to American political identity to this day.
The Expanding Frontier and American Individualism
As the nation expanded westward, the frontier became a symbol of American ingenuity and individualism. The ideal of Manifest Destiny encapsulated the belief that Americans were divinely ordained to spread democracy and capitalism across the continent. This expansionist zeal was not only a physical journey but also a cultural one, reinforcing a sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance that would become hallmarks of the American political spirit.
The Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War was a pivotal moment in the history of American political culture, raising profound questions about federal authority versus states’ rights and the nature of union and liberty. The post-war Reconstruction era saw an expansion of federal power and civil liberties, albeit contested and incomplete, attempting to reconcile a fractured nation. The legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction continues to influence American political discourse, particularly around issues of race, justice, and the distribution of power within the federation.
Core Values of American Political Culture
Liberty and Freedom
The twin pillars of American political culture, liberty and freedom, are enshrined in the nation’s founding documents and public consciousness. The concept of individual rights, safeguarded by the rule of law, underpins the political ethos of the United States. It informs the legal framework that protects freedoms ranging from speech and assembly to the pursuit of economic enterprise. The American Dream, an embodiment of economic freedom, promotes the idea that prosperity and success are accessible to all who are willing to work hard, regardless of their origins.
While liberty and freedom emphasize the rights of the individual, equality addresses the moral and legal foundations of American society. The pursuit of equality in the United States has been a long and often tumultuous journey, highlighting the distinction between legal equality, as granted by the Constitution, and social equality, which has been fought for through social movements and policy reforms. The Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century and the ongoing struggle for gender equality exemplify the continuous efforts to bridge the gap between the country’s egalitarian ideals and the realities of social stratification.
The value of democracy lies at the heart of American political life, emphasizing the role of citizens in the governing process. Representative democracy is facilitated by relatively broad suffrage rights and the accountability of public officials to the electorate. Yet, voter participation and the efficacy of the electoral system are subjects of ongoing debate, with controversies surrounding electoral reforms and voting rights indicating that democracy is a living, evolving system that must be continually nurtured and defended.
Civic Duty and Responsibility
American political culture is also characterized by a strong sense of civic duty and responsibility. This encompasses a commitment to community service, volunteerism, and the active engagement in political and civic affairs. The prevalence of civil society organizations and the tradition of activism reflect the belief that citizens are not just passive recipients of government actions but are active participants in the shaping of public policy and community welfare.
Political Socialization and Cultural Transmission
The Role of Education and Family
Education serves as the primary vehicle for political socialization, instilling civic values and knowledge about the political system. Schools, from elementary to higher education, play a crucial role in shaping the political consciousness of American citizens. The family also acts as a fundamental agent, often transferring partisan loyalties and ideological leanings to the younger generation through discussion and participation in political activities.
Influence of Media and Technology
In contemporary society, media and technology have emerged as dominant forces in political socialization. The mass media, with its extensive reach, shapes perceptions and opinions about political issues and actors. Meanwhile, digital platforms and social media have revolutionized the way information is disseminated, creating new spaces for political engagement and discussion, albeit with the challenge of echo chambers and misinformation.
Religious and Ethnic Influences
Religion and ethnicity continue to impact American political culture significantly. Religious beliefs inform the moral and ethical perspectives of individuals and groups, influencing their political views and behaviors. Ethnic identity also plays a role in political affiliation and policy preferences, with the increasing diversity of the American populace contributing to a more multifaceted political landscape.
The Impact of Economic and Social Class
Economic and social class contribute to political socialization by delineating different interests and perspectives within society. These class distinctions can influence individuals’ political priorities, with economic status often correlating with certain policy preferences and voting patterns.
Political Ideologies and Partisanship
The American Two-Party System
The United States is known for its two-party system, dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties. This system shapes the political debate and provides a clear dichotomy in political ideologies, with each party representing a broad coalition of interests and beliefs. The two-party dynamic fosters a sense of identity and belonging among voters but also poses challenges in representing the full spectrum of political opinions.
Conservative and Liberal Ideologies
Conservative and liberal ideologies represent the main spectrums of political thought in the United States. Conservatives generally advocate for limited government, free-market principles, and traditional social values. Liberals tend to support a more active government role in the economy, progressive social policies, and individual liberties. These ideologies are not static and have evolved over time, influenced by cultural, social, and economic changes.
The Rise of Partisanship and Polarization
Recent decades have seen an intensification of partisanship and political polarization, with ideological divides becoming increasingly pronounced. Partisan loyalty often overrides compromise, leading to gridlock in governance and a polarized electorate. This polarization raises concerns about the health of the democratic process and the ability of the political system to effectively address complex challenges.
Third Parties and Independent Movements
While the two-party system prevails, third parties and independent movements periodically emerge, reflecting diverse viewpoints and dissatisfaction with the dominant parties. These groups struggle for recognition and influence within the political system, often bringing attention to specific issues or perspectives that are not adequately represented by the major parties.
Challenges to American Political Culture
Political Apathy and Voter Disengagement
One of the most pressing challenges to American political culture is the issue of political apathy and voter disengagement. With many citizens feeling that their voices are not heard or that their votes do not make a difference, there is a significant disconnect that threatens the core democratic principle of active citizenry.
Media Fragmentation and the Information Echo Chamber
The fragmentation of media and the proliferation of information echo chambers create environments where individuals are rarely exposed to diverse viewpoints, leading to a segmented society and the solidification of preexisting beliefs. This phenomenon hampers constructive political discourse and the healthy exchange of ideas.
The Influence of Money in Politics
The influence of money in politics, particularly in the form of campaign contributions and lobbying, presents a significant challenge to the democratic process. It raises questions about the equality of voice and representation, with concerns that the interests of the few may outweigh the needs of the many.
Partisan Polarization and Legislative Gridlock
Partisan polarization leads to legislative gridlock, where the inability to reach bipartisan compromise stymies effective governance. This gridlock not only affects policy-making but also fosters cynicism among the electorate about the functionality of their political institutions.
The Future of American Political Culture
Adaptation and Reform
The future of American political culture will likely require adaptation and reform. Acknowledging and addressing the challenges of polarization, political engagement, and the role of money in politics are critical to ensuring that the political system remains representative and effective.
Technological Innovation and Political Engagement
Technological innovation offers new avenues for political engagement and may serve to reinvigorate the democratic process. The potential for digital platforms to enhance citizen participation, education, and dialogue is substantial, albeit with the need for vigilance against the spread of misinformation.
The Evolving American Identity
As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the American identity and its political culture will evolve. This diversification has the potential to enrich the political landscape with new perspectives and ideas, leading to a more inclusive and representative polity.
American political culture is a complex and ever-evolving construct. It is shaped by historical events, influenced by a set of core values, and constantly challenged by changing societal norms and technological advancements. As the United States continues to confront internal and external pressures, the resilience of its political culture will be tested. However, the adaptability that has characterized American political development offers hope for the future. By addressing the pressing issues of today, and by striving to uphold the principles of liberty, equality, and democracy, American political culture can continue to evolve in a manner that affirms the nation’s founding ideals while embracing the changes of the modern world.
Class Notes, Discussion Questions, and Outline on 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.
I. Political culture
A. Tocqueville on American democracy
1. No feudal aristocracy; minimal taxes; few legal restraints
2. Westward movement; vast territory provided opportunities
3. Nation of small, independent farmers
4. “Moral and intellectual characteristics” – today called “political culture”
B. Definition of political culture
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 system
4. Civic duty
5. Individual responsibility
D. Some questions about the U.S. political culture
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 culture.
4. Most consistent evidence of political culture
-use of terms “Americanism,” “un-American”
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 Nations
A. Political System and Ideology
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 division.
3. Other nations more socialistic.
C. Religious Belief
1. Americans are much more religious
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 1800
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 religion
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:
(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 absent
a. Most people consider themselves middle class
b. Even unemployed do not oppose management
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 impossible
c. Conflict is more profound
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 camps
a. Orthodox: morality more important than self-expression with fixed rules from God
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 beliefs
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 mid-1960s
1. Jimmy Carter speech in 1979 on American malaise
2. Polls showed people believed…
a. “Quite a few” crooks in government
b. Government run for a “few big interests”
c. “Lots” of tax money wasted
d. Government does right only “some of the time”
C. Necessary to view context
1. Mistrust of specific leaders and policies, not of system mainly
2. Present view closer to historical norm
3. Mistrust shared with most other institutions
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
1. Internal efficacy
a. Confidence in one’s ability to understand and influence events
b. About the same as in 1950s
2. External efficacy
a. Belief that system will respond to citizens
b. Not shaped by particular events
c. Declined steadily through 1960s and 1970s
d. Government becoming too big to respond to individual
C. Comparison: efficacy still much higher than Europeans’
1. Americans today may not be more alienated but simply more realistic
VI. Political tolerance
A. Crucial to democratic politics
1. Free discussion of ideas
2. Select rulers without oppression
B. Levels of American political tolerance
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 decades
C. Question: How do very unpopular groups survive?
1. Most people do not act on beliefs
2. Officeholders and activists more tolerant than general public
3. Usually no consensus exists on whom to persecute
4. Courts are sufficiently insulated from public opinion to enforce protection
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 than the others?
4. What are the two most important aspects the political culture that you have learned? (Individualism and equality)
5. To what extent is their agreement in America over these values?
6. What are our basic economic values as a nation?
7. How are we different from other nations?
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 socialization?
12. How has mistrust of government become part of our political culture?
13. To what extent is tolerance a part of our political culture?
Americanism A belief that Americans consider themselves bound by common values and common hopes.
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 affairs.
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 events.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions about American Political Culture
American political culture is defined by several core characteristics that have been embedded into the nation’s consciousness since its founding. These include a commitment to individual liberty, political equality, democracy, the rule of law, and civic duty. Liberty, particularly, is a central tenet that champions individual freedoms and limits on government power, ensuring that citizens have the right to express themselves, practice their religion, and pursue their own economic interests. Political equality holds that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law and have equal voting rights and opportunities to participate in the political process. Democracy in the American context is anchored in the belief that government should be by the people and for the people, emphasizing the importance of public opinion, elections, and representative governance. The rule of law suggests that society should be governed by laws, not by individuals, and that those laws should be applied equally to all. Lastly, civic duty encompasses the belief that citizens are not only rights-holders but also bear the responsibility to engage in public affairs, uphold the laws, and contribute to the common good.
The American education system contributes to the country’s political culture primarily through the process of political socialization, by which individuals acquire their political beliefs, values, and behaviors. From a young age, American students are taught about the country’s historical struggles for freedom and justice, the significance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the roles and responsibilities of citizens within a democracy. Civics education plays a pivotal role, offering students a deeper understanding of their government’s structure and function, the importance of voting, and the means by which they can participate in political life. Additionally, the fostering of critical thinking skills encourages students to analyze and engage with political issues independently. The educational system also reinforces the ideals of equality and the belief in the American Dream — the notion that all individuals, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed through hard work. Through these teachings, the education system nurtures the next generation of citizens who are informed about, and capable of contributing to, the political culture of the United States.
Recent technological advancements, especially the rise of the internet and social media, have significantly impacted American political culture. These technologies have changed how information is disseminated and consumed, how political campaigns are run, and how elected officials communicate with constituents. Social media platforms have enabled citizens to engage more directly with political discourse, participate in community organizing, and mobilize for social movements. They have also made political information more accessible, though not without challenges; the prevalence of misinformation and echo chambers can distort public perception and debate. The 24-hour news cycle and the rapid spread of information (and misinformation) can lead to political polarization, as individuals become entrenched in their ideological bubbles. However, technology has also empowered grassroots movements and allowed for more significant civic engagement and advocacy, as seen with various online petitions and fundraising campaigns. Despite these advancements posing certain challenges to American political culture, they have undoubtedly democratized aspects of political participation.
Immigration and diversity have fundamentally shaped American political culture by bringing in a multitude of perspectives, values, and beliefs. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has a unique identity that is continually reshaped by the influx of people from around the globe. This diversity has expanded the range of political issues and influenced the creation and adaptation of policies, particularly those related to civil rights, immigration, and multiculturalism. The interplay of different cultures has led to a more inclusive definition of what it means to be American, one that goes beyond a single ethnic or racial identity to embrace a more pluralistic view of citizenship and national belonging. Diversity has also introduced new ideas and traditions into the American political system, enriching the democratic process by incorporating varied voices and experiences. Nonetheless, this diversity has also led to debates over assimilation, the role of bilingualism, and the balance between accommodating diversity and maintaining a cohesive national culture. Overall, immigration and diversity continue to be a source of vitality as well as tension within American political culture, reflecting the nation’s ongoing endeavor to define its identity in an ever-changing world.
The American Dream, the national ethos of the United States, suggests that freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work. This concept influences American political culture by promoting the ideals of progress, meritocracy, and the belief that upward mobility is accessible to all. It affects policy debates, particularly those related to economic issues, taxation, education, and immigration. Politicians across the spectrum often invoke the American Dream to garner support for policies intended to provide equal opportunities for success. However, the reality of achieving the American Dream is subject to considerable debate, particularly in discussions about income inequality, systemic barriers to success, and the varying definitions of what constitutes ‘success’ in American society. The enduring power of this concept lies in its aspirational nature and its ability to shape the collective hopes and motivations of the American people.
Political parties play a central role in American political culture, organizing political action, and expressing collective ideologies. They provide a structure for political debate, policy formulation, and the electoral process. The United States’ two-party system, dominated by Democrats and Republicans, structures much of the political dialogue around a left-right spectrum, though the parties themselves are coalitions of various interest groups and ideological factions. Parties help to mobilize voters, facilitate political participation, and serve as a means for the average citizen to identify with larger political trends and movements. They also act as gatekeepers, influencing which issues gain national attention and which candidates are presented to the electorate. While parties are crucial to the functioning of American democracy, they also contribute to political polarization and the challenges of achieving bipartisan consensus in governance.
Federalism, the constitutional division of power between the national government and the state governments, shapes American political culture by fostering a sense of localism and regional identity alongside national identity. It allows for a diversity of policies and political cultures to exist within the country, accommodating the vast geographic and demographic differences across states. Federalism promotes political innovation, as states can act as “laboratories of democracy,” experimenting with policies before they are adopted at the national level. It also encourages political participation by bringing government closer to the people, allowing for more accessible and localized avenues for citizens to influence their governance. On the other hand, federalism can lead to inconsistencies in the rights and services provided across states, creating a complex tapestry of laws and regulations that can be both a strength and a challenge within American political culture.
Social movements have had a profound impact on American political culture by driving progress and reform. These movements—from the civil rights movement to the women’s suffrage movement, from LGBTQ+ advocacy to environmental activism—have raised awareness about issues that are sometimes neglected by mainstream politics and have pushed for legislative and social changes. They have mobilized citizens, influenced public opinion, and ultimately led to significant changes in laws and societal norms. Social movements have also enriched American democratic practices by demonstrating the power of collective action and civic engagement. They remind policymakers of the ongoing struggles for equality and justice and serve as a catalyst for political and social transformation. Furthermore, social movements have historically played a role in redefining the values and priorities of American political culture, emphasizing the importance of grassroots efforts in a functioning democracy.