What is political culture?

Unit II
American Political Culture
The meaning and unique qualities of
American Political Culture
• What is political culture? consistent set of
views as to the policies that government ought
to pursue; what government should be like;
the IDEAL America! (not reality)
Persistence of Democratic Institutions
in American CANNOT be explained by:
• Our unique Constitution (it’s been stolen!)
• Physical advantages of our country (it helps!)
Other things we must consider:
• Customs of our people or traditions
– Examples? How are we unique?
• “Moral and intellectual characteristics” de
– Americans are more industrious
– Americans are more individualistic
– Americans believe they can change their station in
• Political Culture
Definition of Political Culture
• The inherited set of beliefs, attitudes, and
opinions that Americans SHARE about how
their government OUGHT to operate.
• Example: Americans believe in political
equality but not economic equality
• NOT the same as political ideology!
What is political ideology?
• The philosophical differences between people
about what the role of government ought to
be regarding policy
– Examples:
Four Elements that make up American
Political Culture
• Liberty: we should all be able to do what we
want as long as no one gets hurt
• Equality: equal political opportunity
– We DO NOT want economic equality!
• Democracy: officials are accountable to the
people whom they serve
• Civic Duty: people have an obligation to
participate in the political process be cause
they have a right to do so!
How do we know that Americans share
these core beliefs?
Inferred by the books we read (buy)
Speeches we hear (political)
Slogans we respond to
Political choices we make
Observations of foreigners
Opinion Polls
How do we explain behaviors that are
inconsistent with our political culture?
• Self interest (our BELIEFS remain the same, our
behaviors do not)
• Social circumstances (might not be “cool” for
everyone to really be equal )
– We believe in equality, don’t always act on it
– Religious discrimination?
– Cliques?
• Beliefs important as a change agent
– Our ideals have resulted in changed behavior
– Voting Rights
– Equal Pay
If there is agreement on certain
political values, why have we had so
much political conflict?
*The conflict has been over specific policies, not
• Historians disagree about which values we
really share, or to what degree
• Americans interpret the values as they pertain
to their individual circumstances
Most consistent evidence of a Political
• Americanism, American Way of Life, UnAmerican
• Rarely have this type of bonding in other nations
– Can’t be un French, un Canadian, or un Norwegian
– No Saudi Way of Life
– No other nation seems to share this need for a
national bond
– We don’t share a common ethnicity, race, religion, or
national origin, so created this as our bond
American Economic System
• Support free enterprise, see limits in market
• Prefer equality of opportunity, not results
• Shared commitment to economic individualism
and self reliance
• Willing to help only the truly needy; elderly and
• Individualistic view of social policy (we want to
choose who we help)
• The responsibility for financial success rests with
the individual
Distinctiveness of American Political
Culture (Political Systems)
• Comparison to Sweden (more deferential than
Vote, but do not otherwise participate
Defer to gov and experts, don’t argue or protest
Rarely challenge gov in court; almost no lawsuits
Believe in doing “what is best” for the whole, rather
than gov providing what people want
– Value equality more than liberty
– Value harmony and social obligations more than
anything else; need to get along and be agreeable
Comparison with Japan (political)
• Value good relations with co-workers, must get along
with others
• Emphasis on group decision-making
• Value preserving social harmony
• Display respect for hierarchy (boss, gov, ancestors)
• Sensitive to needs of others(at cost to self)
• Want to avoid conflict at all costs
• Reach decisions through discussion and compromise
rather than an application of the rules/laws
• Emphasis on:
Equality (political)
Following the rules/laws
Treating others fairly
• More assertive of rights (even if aren’t sure what they are)
• Stronger sense of :
Civic Duty
Civic Competence
Obligation to be active in one’s community
Can rectify “bad laws”… Can fight city Hall!
Confidence in political institutions (trust)
National Pride
Over-generalizing and Stereotyping
• Misleading to think that we can understand a
nation’s political system as only the result of
their laws, economy, and physical
• Very difficult to generalize about political
cultures in nations which have a variety of
racial, ethnic, & religious groups
Economic Systems
• Sweden compared to America:
– They believe more in equal pay and limit top
– They believe their should be a lower ratio of
income between workers and executives
– Americans are less likely to believe that
government should be involved in income equity
No Need to compare US and Japan in terms of
Economics; we are virtually identical!
Cultural Differences =
Political Differences
The Sources of Political Culture in
• Historical Roots:
– American Revolution: equality!
– Constitution: our effort to balance personal liberty
with social control
– Americans obsessed with assertion and
maintenance of our rights
– Americans acted out of suspicion of government
and devotion to individualism
Revolution of 1800
• First test of our democracy/political culture:
Federalists (Adams) V. Democratic-Republicans
Jefferson accused Federalists of subverting
Constitution (Alien and Sedition Act)
Hamilton/Adams thought D-R would turn country
over to France
Civil War did not occur; peaceful transfer of power
Role of opposition parties legitimized; peaceful,
orderly transfer of power possible
Legal-sociological Factors
• Constitutional permitted wide-spread
participation (voting)
• No national religion
– prohibited by Constitution
– Wide-spread, diverse immigration ensured there
would be none
• Religious diversity was inevitable & led to
• With no common religion, common political
culture is difficult to create
Conflict between Puritan Tradition and
Catholic Church
• Differences:
– Religious practices
– Regulation of manners and morals
– Choice of political party
– Reflected in struggle over Prohibition
American political culture is
dominated by Puritanism
• Five “ethics”
– Hard work
– Save money
– Obey the law (human and God)
– Do good work (charity)
– Embrace “Puritan Ethic” Work=Happiness=Heaven
Churches offered opportunity to
develop/practice political skills
• Protestants are organized along congressional
• Churches were controlled by the members
(popular sovereignty)
• Churches are like mini political systems
• A participant political culture was made easier
by the existence of a participant religious
• Political culture is transmitted primarily by the
– Despite erosion of family unit (divorce, single
parents, etc…), family still has largest role
– Other sources are significant; just not as
important as family
– Family determines identification w/ political party
almost exclusively
• American children experience greater
freedom and equality which shapes political
– Have a say in leisure activities
– Have own phone, tv, computer, car, etc…
– Have ability to decide what to purchase w/ own $
– Have influence on family vacations, meals, etc…
Absence of Class Consciousness
• Results from:
– Religious and ethnic diversity (no “ruling class”)
– An individualistic philosophy (it’s all about me!)
– Fragmented political authority (federalism)
• Most people think of themselves as workers rather than
• Most Americans think they are middle class
• Even those who are unemployed do not think or act in
terms of their current economic situation
• Americans still believe they can succeed if they work hard
• US is only large, industrialized nation w/ no significant
socialist party or movement
Mistrust of Government
• Evidence of the increase:
– 1979 Speech by Pres. Jimmy Carter
Speech about the recession/inflation
Blamed Americans’ attitude for the economic downturn
“American Malaise”
Growing disrespect for government
1958-1980’s increasing mistrust
• Perceived that the number of “crooks in gov.
increased (Nixon, Agnew, Rostenkowski,
Kennedy(Teddy), Traficanti, etc…)
• Government appears to be run for the benefit
of a few big interests (NRA, oil, AMA, etc…)
• Lots of tax $ seem to be wasted
Cases for Mistrust
Civil Rights Movement (violence by gov)
Dramatic increase in crime rate (drugs)
Assassination Rate (JFK, RFK, MLK, etc…)
Massive number of riots and campus
• 2nd highest rate of inflation in US History! (up to
25% in some States; about 17% nation-wide)
Necessary to view mistrust in context
• We mistrust the leaders and politics, but NOT our
system of government
• Current level of mistrust is the norm; 1950’s had
unusual confidence
• Mistrust was shared w. other institutions
• Mistrust static since 1980’s (slight increase in
• Level of mistrust in 1990’s?
• Level of mistrust in 2000’s ?
• No loss of confidence in Americans themselves or
our system of government
– We are still #1; but gov………
– America still best place to live (according to Americans)
• People less ready to support leaders and their
More ready to believe in scandalous rumors
More cynical
Less likely to join political parties
More likely to join interest group
Political Efficacy
• A citizens’ capacity to understand and
influence political events
• Two types:
– Internal: confidence in one’s own ability to
understand and take part in political affairs
– External: a belief that the system will respond to
what citizens do (protest=gov action)
– Levels of internal efficacy constant since 1950’s
Political Efficacy
• Level of external efficacy has dropped a great
deal since the 1950’s
• Why?
• Conclusion:
– American political efficacy still higher than Europe
(and most of the rest of the world, too!)
– Americans are probably not more alienated, just
more realistic than in the past
Political Tolerance
• Crucial component in democracy
• Democracy in US would fail if:
– Unpopular speakers were shouted down and
prevented from speaking
– People supported gov censorship of newspapers
or other media (internet!)
– Peaceful demonstrations were routinely broken
up by mobs or gov’t
– Losing candidates did not allow winners to take
office (hello—Al Gore!)
• People do not need to be perfectly tolerant
– Everyone has some prejudice
– No way to remove all stereotyping
Levels of American Tolerance
• Most Americans are tolerant in the abstract--we believe in equality, don’t always act on
• Most Americans would dent rights to some
one else in a concrete case
• Community leaders, judges, lawyers are more
Average American’s Tolerance
• Willing to allow people they don’t agree with
to speak, write, protest, run for office, etc…
• Has become more tolerant since the 1980’s
• Is willing to with hold political liberty or
equality from some group or individual
Why do unpopular groups survive?
• Most people don’t act on their beliefs
• There is usually no consensus on who to
• Courts are sufficiently insulated from public
opinion. They protect even the most extreme
groups rights.
• We cannot take political liberty for granted; it
can be taken away
• No group should pretend to be perfectly