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American Political Culture

Instructional Objectives

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 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

1. Liberty

2. Equality

3. Democracy

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:

(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 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"

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 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
B. Parts
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'

D. Conclusion

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

D. Conclusions

1. Political liberty cannot be taken for granted

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

Discussion Questions

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 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?

Important Terms

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 need.

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 decades.

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 justification.

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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