American Political Culture

Political culture: is distinctive and patterned way of thinking about how political and economic life ought to be carried out. The five elements in the American view of the political system are:

Liberty: freedom to do what they want as long as it doesn't infringe on others rights

Equality: equal vote, equal chance to participate and succeed

Democracy: government officials are accountable to the people

Civic Duty: people ought to take government seriously and help out when they can

Individual Responsibility: individuals are responsible for their own actions, well-being

Questions about political Culture, etc.

Three questions:

How do we know that Americans share these beliefs? For most of our history there were no opinion polls, etc. We can infer values, however, from political voting records, the media, etc.

How can we explain the existence of behavior in society that is inconsistent with these values? What about racial equality hypocrisy?

If there is agreement, why has there been political conflict? Why a civil war? Why violent conflict?

Americans are now much more likely to believe the federal government ought to help the needy and regulate business


Sweden: Most people vote, etc. but few participate in politics. Value equality as much as liberty. Believe government should do "what is best" more than "what the people want"

Japanese Vs americans: Americans emphasized virtues of individualism, competition, and equality. Japanese emphasized maintaining good relations with colleagues, having group decisions, and preserving social harmony and hierarchy; were more personal-oriented than rule-oriented

Americans have more. . .

Civic duty (belief in obligation to public affairs)

Civic competence (one can impact policy)

Equality Concepts

Americans feel that equality is second only to liberty

Believe in equality of opportunity; equality in eyes of fed

Swedish believe in equality of wages, etc.


Religion provides another forum for political action

Unification of morality; installment of morality (yikes!)

Concepts of "god-given rights"

Sources of American Political Culture

American revolution; assertion of natural rights; were forced into it, abandoned by British

Constitution = personal liberty vs. social control & order

Preoccupation with assertion and maintenance of rights; necessarily adversarial

Distrust of authority

From experience with british

Religions dictated that human nature was fundamentally bad

Thus, constitution must curb human lust for evil

Federalists vs. Antifederalists (Federalists vs. Jeffersonian Republicans) and peaceful revolution of 1800 showed that legitimate second party was possible

Greater things than personal achievement when it comes to government; cite George Washington walking away from being king, from more than two terms.(Public Service)

Division of powers and federalist system created opportunities for political involvement

Puritans (personal) vs. Catholics (authoritarian)

Protestantism: Work hard, save money, obey law, do good works

Class consciousness (lack of): most Americans view themselves as middle-class

Horatio Alger stories: success is available if you work hard (might explain lack of socialist party)

The Culture War

Cultural classes vs. economic classes

Different from other battles: no economics at sake, compromises are harder, battle is more profound

About deep differences in morality, both public and private

Orthodox: morality is as or more important than self-expression; God set down laws

Progressive: personal freedom is paramount, relativity of morality.

Mistrust of Government

Rose from 1960s, spiked during watergate, and then slowed during 1980s

Perhaps this is normal; 1950&early 60s were just periods of really-high government trust (due to victory over Germans, Japanese, and depression)

Vietnam, civil rights movement, crime rate increase, assasinations, scandals, etc. all contribute to lack of confidence

Perot lost because people didn't distrust government that much

Political Efficacy

Political efficacy: a citizens capacity to understand and impact political events

Internal efficacy: The ability to understand and take part in political affairs. Level generally holds steady

External efficacy: The ability to make the system respond to the citizenry. Level bounces around


Eric Jonas's 1998-1999 AP American Government Notes
This material copyright Eric Jonas, 1999.
These notes have been taken from American Government, 7th edition, by Wilson and DiIulio, and from in-class lecture by Mr. Greg Sandmeyer at Timberline High School.