American Political Culture

Chapter 4
Political Culture
• Definition: The widely-shared beliefs, values, and
norms that citizens share about their government.
• Differs from Ideology:
– Integrated set of beliefs and values that shape a person’s
– Political culture consists of fundamental assumptions
about how the political process should operate, Political
ideology is a consistent set of views an individual might
have regarding governmental policies
Characteristics of Political Culture
 Americans are preoccupied with their rights.
 I can do what I want, I’m American!!
Characteristics of Political Culture
– Political equality more than economic equality
– Americans support free enterprise, and also support limits on
marketplace freedom
– Commitment to economic individualism (economic freedom over
– Believe in equality of opportunity more than equality of
Everyone should have an equal vote and an equal chance to
participate and succeed.
– American Dream: Reverence for property/capitalism/chance
to acquire wealth
– FDR’s “second Bill of Rights” (1944) ensuring economic
– False Consciousness (as opposed to class consciousness
historically associated with Europe)
Characteristics of Political Culture
 The conflict lies between liberty associated with
capitalism and equality associated with democracy!
 In Progressive Era to bring corporations under control
 In 1930s to smooth out ill effects of capitalism
 In 1960s with Great Society programs
Characteristics of Political Culture
A form of government, where a constitution
guarantees basic personal and political rights, fair and
free elections, and independent courts of law.
– Americans think government officials should be
accountable to the people
Characteristics of Political Culture
Civic Duty
– Americans generally feel people ought to take
community affairs seriously and help out when they can
– Political scientist Robert Putnam uses, as an example of the
decline in social capital, the decline in the number of
people who participate in bowling leagues. The number of
people who bowl has increased, but the number of people
who bowl in leagues has declined. With a decline in such
social networks, there is less likelihood of people coming
together, listening to each other, exchanging ideas ->
consequently a smaller degree of civic duty.
Characteristics of Political Culture
Individualism/rugged individualism (as opposed
to collectivism/statism)
 A characteristically American view is that, barring some
disability, individuals are responsible for their own
actions and well-being.
Characteristics of Political Culture
1. Need to form 5 groups of equal numbers
2. Each group assigned one of the characteristics of U.S.
political culture
3. One member get pass and go to library for a 3’ sheet of
butcher paper
4. Remaining members of group work on the following:
Define characteristic in own words (5th Grader)
5 examples of your characteristic
An example of conflict between the other 4 characteristics
and yours
Put on butcher paper to present to class
Characteristics of Political Culture
Questions to answer about our political culture
How do we know that the American people share
these beliefs?
2. How can we explain the existence in our society of
behavior that is obviously inconsistent with them?
3. Why has there been so much political conflict in our
Distrust of Government
 Since the late 1950’s there has been a steady decline in
trust of government to do the right thing
 1960s Vietnam
 1970s Watergate/Nixon resignation
 1990s Clinton impeachment
 2004-07 Bush war in Iraq
 2008-now Recession/war/bailouts, need I go on???
Brief bump up with Reagan and briefly after 9/11
Political Efficacy
 The sense that one can both understand and influence
public policy
 Internal efficacy: the ability to understand and take
part in politics
 External efficacy: the willingness of the state to
respond to the citizenry
 Americans more likely to score higher on the efficacy
scale than citizens in Germany, Great Britain, or the
 Americans less likely to vote but more likely to regularly
discuss politics, sign petitions or solve community
Political Tolerance
 More in the abstract than in the concrete
 Americans agree with: freedom of speech, majority
rule, and the right to circulate petitions
 Americans not very tolerant of groups they dislike
 Would you permit these group to hold meetings in your
community’s civic auditorium?
Right-to-life group
Gays organizing for homosexual rights
Atheists preaching against God
Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church
Protestants holding a revival meeting
Political Tolerance
 Americans are generally becoming more tolerant,
however, some would deny rights to specific groups
 Most Americans believe that the nation is too tolerant
of harmful behaviors; defense of common moral
standards is more important than protection of
individual rights
 Still, most are willing to allow expression by those with
whom they disagree
Political Tolerance
So…how do very unpopular groups survive?
 Most people don’t act on beliefs
 Usually no consensus exists on whom to persecute
 Courts are sufficiently insulated from public opinion to
enforce constitutional protections