American Political Culture

Many countries around the world have attempted to create a democracy with a limited government using a constitution very much like America’s. Places like Brazil, the Philippines, and Argentina all have similar constitutions, but they have experienced corruption, military takeovers, and the rise of radical politicians. What has made American democracy last so long? Americans are diverse in almost every way possible, yet our political culture unifies us in such a way that our democratic institutions persist. So, what exactly is this political culture, and how is it reflected in American attitudes toward politics and economics? In this article, we will explore American political culture and how our shared attitudes about political beliefs bring us together. 

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Table of contents

    American Political Culture Definition

    Political Culture: the shared set of beliefs and values about how government and politics ought to be carried out.

    When French author Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he made observations about why American democracy flourished while other democracies had failed, even though they all promised personal freedom. His observations were compiled in his two-volume book, Democracy in America. De Tocqueville wrote about the geographic vastness of the frontier, which created opportunities for people to make a living in a way of their choosing. He also wrote about American egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and the “moral and intellectual” characteristics of the American people. Modern political scientists agree that there are certain characteristics that most Americans share that have become known as political culture.

    Political Culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, StudySmarterFig. 1, Alexis de Tocqueville, Wikimedia Commons

    Core Values Of American Political Culture

    American political culture has its roots in the Declaration of Independence, a document that contains the American creed. This creed can be summed up in the fiery writing of Thomas Jefferson’s founding document.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    The concept that the purpose of government is to protect the natural rights of its citizens, and that people are equal, and free to their government is essential to American political thought.

    American Political Culture, Declaration of Independence, StudySmarterFig. 2 Declaration of Independence, Wikimedia Commons

    Five Elements Of American Political Culture

    The five elements of American political culture are liberty, individualism, free enterprise, egalitarianism, and limited government.

    Liberty

    When many immigrants are asked why they come to America, a common response is “freedom.” America’s promises of freedom of speech, religion, and many other rights are fundamental to American culture. As long as one’s rights do not interfere with someone else’s liberty, American citizens typically believe they should be free to do just about whatever they choose.

    Individualism

    Another element of American political culture that shapes our democracy is the idea that people can shape their own futures and should be able to make it on their own. The ideal of the American dream is embedded in the mindsets of Americans. We’ve all heard stories of a president who came from a log cabin to inhabit the most powerful position in American politics or self-made millionaires born into poverty, and those stories highlight the idea of individualism. America was settled by people who wanted very little from their government and wanted mostly to be left alone. Individualism as a characteristic of American political culture means that individuals are responsible for their own behavior, choices, and their own success. It is a distinctly American way of thinking.

    Free Enterprise

    As in American politics, liberty is important in American economics. Americans largely support free enterprise, capitalism, and limited government, and generally believe that the economic system promotes fair competition and allows for economic growth and individual success. Free enterprise is a reflection of the American belief in individualism. Laissez-faire economics embraces personal responsibility and economic individualism.

    Laissez-faire is an economic principle that reflects the philosophy of free-market capitalism. It embraces the concept that government should not interfere in the economy.

    Egalitarianism

    In the U.S. Constitution, titles of nobility are forbidden. The framers of American government were opposed to the idea that some people, just because of their birthright, were more fit to rule than others. Instead, in America, every person has the right to influence government equally, and everyone’s vote counts the same. The most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” America hasn’t always lived up to that ideal, but it has been a beacon to strive toward. Americans have never embraced the idea of equality of outcome, instead, they have the belief in the equality of opportunity: the idea that all people are equal and should be given the same opportunities to be successful. Egalitarianism means that everyone should have equal access to participate in politics, and your background should not determine who you can become.

    Limited Government

    The meaning of limited government is that certain individual liberties and rights of people are beyond the scope of government control and intervention. The principle of Limited government is the idea that there should be clear restrictions on government and its rulers to protect the natural rights of citizens. The government is limited by a constitution and by an unwritten social contract. American government is for the people and by the people, and if the government isn’t responsible to the will of the people, the people have the power to change the government. The people are at the heart of American democracy, and Americans believe that government officials are, above all, accountable to the people. Citizens and states retain rights that are not explicitly stated as belonging to the federal government.

    Equality In American Political Culture

    One question that may arise when contemplating equality as an essential element of American political culture is: How can Americans believe in equality when, historically, American behaviors have been inconsistent with the belief that all people are equal? Inconsistency between value and behavior is a fact of life. Yet, the American value of equality is important because it remains a source of change: over time, America has become more democratized. In the early 1830s, DeTocqueville wrote that America had the most advanced equality in action. While Americans have never been equal in conditions of life, the belief that most Americans have that all people are born equal and should be treated equally is a driving force of progress.

    Aspects Of American Political Culture

    Americans have a distinct way of thinking about politics, government, and their place in those institutions. Where did it come from? America was founded by revolutionaries who wanted to be free. They wanted to be left alone, and they wanted to chart their own destinies. The Revolutionary War was essentially a war fought over the idea of liberty; therefore, Americans have remained preoccupied with the idea of their rights and the idea that people should be able to choose their own destinies. American political culture results in a deeply held idea that citizens should demand freedom, equality of opportunity, and a responsive government.

    American Political Culture - Key takeaways

    • The five elements of American political culture are liberty, individualism, free enterprise, egalitarianism, and limited government.
    • Political Culture is the shared set of beliefs and values about how government and politics ought to be carried out.
    • American political culture has its roots in the Declaration of Independence, a document that contains the American creed.
    • Modern political scientists agree that there are certain characteristics that most Americans share that have become known as political culture.
    • Americans are diverse in almost every way possible, yet our political culture unifies us in such a way that our democratic institutions persist.

    References

    1. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm
    2. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
    3. https://content.studysmarter.de/studyset/8932066/summary/54682666
    4. https://content.studysmarter.de/studysets/8932062/subtopics/8932064
    5. Fig. 1 Alexis deTocgueville (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_de_Tocqueville#/media/File:Alexis_de_Tocqueville_(Th%C3%A9odore_Chass%C3%A9riau_-_Versailles).jpg) by Théodore Chassériau (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th%C3%A9odore_Chass%C3%A9riau) In Public Domain
    6. Fig. 2, Declaration of Independence (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Declaration_of_Independence.jpg) In Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Political Culture

    What is American political culture? 

    The definition of political culture is the shared set of beliefs and values about how government and politics ought to be carried out.

    What are the characteristics of American political culture? 

    The five elements of American political culture are liberty, individualism, free enterprise, egalitarianism, and limited government.

    What are the core values of American political culture? 

    The five elements of American political culture are liberty, individualism, free enterprise, egalitarianism, and limited government.

    Why is individualism important to understanding American political culture?

     Individualism as a characteristic of American political culture means that individuals, barring any disabilities, are responsible for their own behavior, choices, and their own success.

    Why is foreign policy generally devalued in American political culture? 

    Foreign policy isn’t a characteristic of American political culture, but American political culture guides government officials as they engage in foreign policy decisions. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What document contains the essential elements of the American creed?

    T/FIn America, equality of outcome is part of political culture.

    Who wrote Democracy in America?

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