CHAPTER THREE POLITICAL CULTURE
Every country has a political
culture - a set of widely shared beliefs, values, and norms concerning the
ways that political and economic life ought to be carried out. The political
culture defines the relationship of citizens to government, to one another, and
to the economy. A good
understanding of a countryās political culture can help you make sense of the
way a countryās government is set up, as well as the political decisions its
The American political culture may share beliefs, values, and norms, with those of others countries, but the sum and configuration of each political culture is unique. A conflictual political culture is one in which different groups (or subcultures) clash with opposing beliefs and values; a consensual political culture experiences less conflict. No matter how broadly the consensus is held, any culture contains values that overlap and conflict; the American political culture is no exception. Although many conflicts exist within the political system in the United States, American political culture is generally consensual because we have a broad based of shared political values. Most of our conflicts occur because we disagree on how these values should be implemented, not on the basic beliefs themselves.
Alexis de Tocqueville
ö an early observer of American political culture ö came to the United
States during the 1830s to investigate why the American democracy seemed to be
so successful, especially since his native France seemed to be having so much
trouble with it. Tocqueville recorded his observations in Democracy in
America, a book that remains today a classic study of American political
values. He identified several
factors that he believed to be critical in shaping Americaās successful
Abundant and fertile land
Countless opportunities for people to acquire land and make a living
Lack of a feudal aristocracy that blocked othersā ambitions
An independent spirit encouraged by frontier living
Although many years have passed since
Tocqueville made his famous observations about American political culture, these
factors shaped our basic values of liberty, individualism, equal opportunity,
democracy, rule of law, and civic duty.
The values of the American political
culture are grounded in the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy that so
heavily influenced the founders. Over the years other values have been added,
some supporting the original ones, some conflicting. American political beliefs and behaviors today reflect an
accumulation of these values throughout United States history.
The following values have shaped the political culture since the founding of the country:
Some international studies show that Americans by comparison tend to be more nationalistic, optimistic, and idealistic than people in other countries, although the scope of these studies is limited.
CHANGING AMERICAN VALUES
The firmly entrenched values of the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were altered radically by the
Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. The most profound economic change was
the increase in the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income. By the
end of the century great wealth lay in the hands of a few people - the
entrepreneurs or "robber barons." In a sense, the economic development
brought out some inherent conflicts between the core values already established.
Capitalism ö Before
the late 1800s, most personal wealth was based on land ownership. The commitment
to capitalism ö wealth based on money and other capital goods - became
an additional shared political value during the Industrial Revolution, one that
complements individualism and freedom.
Free enterprise ö During
this same time period, American beliefs in freedom and individuals came to
embrace free enterprise ö economic competition without restraint from
These values reinforced the older
emphasis on individualism. Just as
early Americans had sought their fortune by claiming and farming new land by
their own individual efforts, entrepreneurs of the late 19th century
were flexing their muscles in the new industrial economy.
However, the new commitment conflicted with the old value of equality,
and tensions resulted. For example, robber barons were accused of exploiting
workers and limiting competition in order to get ahead themselves, not only
challenging equality, but other people's liberty as well. Monopolies also caused
many to question equality of opportunity. The era illustrated inherent conflicts
among the core values that had been in place for more than a century.
The resolution was to legislate new government regulations to ensure fair
treatment in the marketplace, and another belief was added to our political
culture: government responsibility for the general welfare.
VALUE CHANGES DURING THE 1930s
Although the Preamble to the
Constitution states that ćpromotion of the General Welfareä is a
major purpose of government, the meaning of that value was transformed during
the 1930s. The Great Depression
brought about the near-collapse of capitalism, and the New Deal was an
affirmation of the government's responsibility for the welfare of its people. In
Roosevelt's 1944 inaugural address, he outlined a "Second Bill of
Rights" that reflected his firm commitment to "economic security
and independence." For example, he asserted everyone's rights to a useful
job, food, clothing, a decent home, adequate medical care, and the right to a
good education. These beliefs played a major role in the creation of the civil
rights and welfare legislation of the 1960s, and as recently as the early 1990s,
Clinton referred to Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights when he said, "Health
care is a basic right all should have." The defeat of his health care plan
indicates that Americans donāt always agree on the meaning of this value.
Again, the movement created tension over the value of individualism, or
the individualās responsibility to take care of himself.
The governmentās responsibility for the general welfare became a major
issue of the 2000 election campaign as candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore
debated the merits of a government-sponsored prescription plan for the elderly,
and again in 2004, as President Bush supported privatization of Social Security
programs, and challenger John Kerry did not.
Another American value that is easily
misunderstood is political tolerance. Democracy depends on citizens being
reasonably tolerant of the opinions and actions of others, and most Americans
believe themselves to be fairly tolerant. Studies
show that political tolerance in much more complex a value than it appears on
the surface. Among their findings
The overwhelming majority
of Americans agree with freedom of speech, religion, right to petition - at
least in the abstract.
People are not as
politically tolerant as they proclaim themselves to be.
Americans are willing to
allow many people with whom they disagree to do a great deal politically.
Americans have become more
tolerant over the last few decades.
į Most people dislike one or another group strongly enough to deny it certain political rights, although people are not always inclined to act on their beliefs. As a general rule, people are willing to deny rights to people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. For example, liberals are most likely to deny right-wing groups, such as neo-Nazis or self-styled militia groups their rights, and conservatives are most likely to deny them to groups they may disapprove of, such as gays, atheists, or black militants. In conflict with popular opinion, research does not show that liberals are necessarily more tolerant than conservatives.
MISTRUST OF THE GOVERNMENT
A recent trend in changing American
political values and beliefs is that of growing mistrust of the government.
Although the trust reflected in the 1950s and early 1960s may have been
artificially high, trust in government and its officials has declined
significantly since the mid-1960s. Many scholars blamed the Vietnam War and
Watergate for the initial, dramatic drops, but the trend is persistent into the
early 21st century, with Americans in record numbers expressing
disgust with politics and politicians.
Accompanying the mistrust of
government has been a drop in political efficacy, a citizenās capacity
to understand and influence political events.
Political efficacy has two parts:
Internal efficacy ö the
ability to understand and take part in political affairs
External efficacy -
the belief of the individual that government will respond to his or her personal
needs or beliefs.
Most studies find little difference
over the last half-century in the levels of internal efficacy in the United
States. However, there has been a
big change in external efficacy, with most Americans believing that the
government is not very responsive to the electorate.
The levels dropped steadily during the 1960s and 70s, with many political
scientists blaming the Vietnam War and Watergate for the growing belief that
government officials operate without much concern for beliefs and concerns of
ordinary people. The patterns
continues until today, and may be one reason that incumbent presidents have had
a difficult time getting reelected in recent years.
Americans seem to have come to the
conclusion that government is too big and pervasive to be sensitive to
individual citizens. However, international studies show that Americans feel
significantly higher levels of political efficacy than do citizens of many
European nations. Americans are less likely to vote than most Europeans, but
they are more likely to sign petitions, work to solve community problems, and
regularly discuss politics.
Despite the fact that Americans share
broad cultural and political values, some observers believe that conflict has
increased since the mid-20th century, so that today we see two
cultural camps in this country in constant combat with one another.
The country has split on explosive political issues, such as abortion,
gay rights, drug use, school prayer, terrorism, and the U.S. role in world
affairs. On the one hand, some
Americans believe that the United States is subject to relatively unchanging
standards that are relatively clear ö belief in God, laws of nature, and the
United States in general as a force for good in the world.
The opposite camp emphasize that legitimate alternatives to these
standards do exist, and that the U.S. has at times had a negative ö or at best
neutral ö effect on world affairs.
The question is whether or not these differences of opinion actually amount to a big divide in the broad American political culture. One view is that they do because they strike at the very heart of the meaning of our democracy, but others believe that we are doing what we always have done ö argue about how our core values should be implemented.
DEFINITIONS AND IDENTIFICATIONS:
Conflictual political culture
Consensual political culture
Core American values
Alexis de Tocqueville
Rule of law
Second Bill of Rights
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