Political Culture Wilson Chapter 4 Klein Oak High School

Political Culture
Wilson Chapter 4
Klein Oak High School
Tocqueville on why democracy
could take root in the U.S.
• No feudal aristocracy; minimal taxes; few
legal restraints
• Westward movement; vast territory
provided opportunities
• Nation of small, independent farmers
• “Moral and intellectual characteristics”—
today called “political culture”
Definition of political culture
• Distinctive and patterned way of thinking
about how political and economic life
ought to be carried out
• For example, Americans generally believe
more strongly in political than in economic
Elements of the American view of
the political system
• Liberty (rights)
• Equality
• Democracy (government is accountable to
the people)
• Civic duty
• Individual responsibility
Some questions about the U.S.
political culture
• How do we know people share these beliefs?
– before polls, beliefs were inferred from books,
speeches, political choices etc.
• How do we explain behavior inconsistent with
these beliefs?
– beliefs are still important and may cause changes in
• Why is there so much political conflict in U.S.
– beliefs contradict one another and are not
consistently prioritized
Historians Debate
• “Consensus” historians (e.g. Louis Hartz)
contend that Americans agree on political values
based on the principles articulated by John
• “Conflict” historians (e.g. Vernon Parrington)
discern a liberal–conservative dimension to
American values and dispute the existence of a
unified culture.
• Perhaps the most consistent evidence of a
common political culture is the use of the terms
“Americanism,” “un-American”
The Economic System
• Americans support free enterprise, but see
limits on marketplace freedom
• Americans believe in equality of
opportunity in the economy, but not
equality of result
• Americans have a widely shared
commitment to economic individualism
Comparing U.S. to Sweden
• Swedes have a well-developed democracy, but
are more deferential than participatory
– Defer to government experts and specialists
– Rarely challenge governmental decisions in court
– Believe in “what is best” more than “what people
– Value equality as much as (or more than) liberty
– Value harmony and observe obligations
Comparing U.S. to Japan
• Japanese
– Value good relations with colleagues
– Emphasize group decisions and social harmony
– Respect hierarchy
• Americans
– Tend to assert rights
– Emphasize individualism, competition, equality,
following rules, treating others fairly but impersonally
Cultural Differences Affect
• political systems
• economic systems
Danger in Overgeneralizing
• many diverse groups in each culture
Comparisons with Europe
• U.S. and British citizens in 1959/1960 had a
stronger sense of civic duty and competence
• Americans lag in voting rates but not in other
forms of participation
• Americans have more confidence in government
• Americans acknowledge flaws but are still “very
proud” of their national identity and “would be
willing to fight” for their country in the event of
Comparing Economic Systems
• Swedes (contrasted with Americans):
Verba and Orren
– Favor equal pay and top limit on incomes
– Favor less income inequality
– Americans are less likely to believe that hard
work goes unrewarded or that government
should guarantee a basic standard of living
Role of religion
• Americans are highly religious compared
to Europeans
• Religious beliefs have played an important
role in American politics
• Both liberals and conservatives have and
do use the pulpit to promote political
The sources of political culture
• Historical roots
• Legal–sociological factors
Historical Roots 1
• American Revolution was essentially over
liberty -- asserting rights
• Constitution, though, dealt with other
issues as well; it was an effort to reconcile
personal liberty with societal control
• Adversarial culture
• Also a longstanding distrust of authority,
reflective of a belief that human nature is
Historical Roots 2
• Federalist–Jeffersonian transition in 1800
– reconciling the need and the suspicion of
– Legitimated the role of the opposition party,
demonstrating that liberty and political change
can coexist
Legal-Sociological Factors
• Widespread (not universal) participation
permitted by Constitution
• Absence of an established national religion
– Religious diversity a source of cleavage
– Absence of established religion has facilitated the
absence of political orthodoxy
– Puritan heritage stress on personal achievement:
Save money
Obey secular law
Do good works
Protestant Ethic
• Max Weber described this (previous slide)
as the “Protestant ethic” (work ethic)
• Miniature political systems were produced
by churches’ congregational organization,
so civic and political skills could develop
• instills the ways we think about world and
– Greater freedom of children and equality
among family members ...
– . . . leads to belief in rights and acceptance of
diverse views in decision-making
Class Consciousness
• not a high degree in U.S.
• Most people consider themselves middle
• Even unemployed do not oppose
management – the political views of
employed and unemployed people are
• Message of Horatio Alger stories is still
The Culture War 1
• Cultural classes in America battle over values
• Culture war differs from political disputes in
three ways:
– Money is not at stake
– Compromises are almost impossible
– Conflict is more profound
The Culture War
• Culture conflict due to deep differences in
beliefs about
– private and public morality
• standards that ought to govern individual behavior and
social arrangements
• What kind of country should we line in?
Two Camps in Culture War
• Orthodox:
– morality is as, or more, important than self-expression
– morality derives from fixed rules from God
• Progressive:
– personal freedom is as, or more, important than tradition
– changing rules based on circumstances of modern life
• Orthodox associated with fundamentalist Protestants
• Progressives associated with liberal Protestants and
those with no strong religious beliefs
Historical Importance of Culture
• More people consider themselves progressives
than previously
• Rise of technology makes it easier to mobilize
Culture Wars Affect
• trust in government
• sense of political efficacy
• sense of the freedom that should be granted to
one’s opponents
Mistrust of Government – Increases
• Jimmy Carter’s 1979 malaise speech
• Polls showed people
– Less often trusted government to “do what is right”
all or most of the time
– Had diminished trust in the president and Congress
– Had virtually unchanged trust in the Supreme
– Had increased trust in state and local governments
Mistrust of Government – Causes
• Watergate
• Vietnam
• However, trend was the same before and after
these events.
Mistrust in Context
• Mistrust of specific leaders and policies, not of
the system
• Present views are closer to historical norm
• No loss of confidence in Americans
themselves or in their system
Political Efficacy
• citizen’s capacity to understand and influence
political events
• two parts
– internal
• ability to understand and change events
• same as 1950s
– external
• belief that system will respond to citizens
• not shaped by particular events
• steadily declined since 1960s
Efficacy Conclusions
• Americans seem to believe that government is
becoming too big to respond to individual
• efficacy is still much higher among Americans
than among Europeans
• Americans today may not be more alienated . .
. but simply more realistic
Political Tolerance
• Crucial to democratic society
• It allows
– free discussion of ideas
– selection of rulers without oppression
Levels of Tolerance
• Most Americans assent in abstract …
• … but would deny rights in concrete cases
• Fear that the nation is too tolerant of harmful
behaviors leads many people to defend
common moral standards, over protecting
individual rights
• Still, most are willing to allow expression by
those with whom they disagree
How Do Unpopular Groups
• Most people don’t act on their beliefs.
• Officeholders and activists more tolerant than
general public
• Usually no consensus exists on whom to
• Courts are sufficiently insulated from public
opinion to enforce constitutional protections
The End!