American Political Attitudes and Participation

4a. American Political Culture

Horatio Alger, Jr.
Horatio Alger, Jr.'s novels embodied the American ideal that hard work and determination would eventually be rewarded. The young protagonists of his books "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" and proved America to be the land of opportunity.

The American Dream. It's the belief that each American has the freedom to pursue a better life — a nice house, a car or two, and a more comfortable existence than our parents.

This freedom has fueled incredible "rags to riches" stories, such as Presidents starting out in log cabins and highly successful entrepreneurs who came to America as penniless immigrants — not to mention the guy that dropped out of Harvard to become the richest man in the world. These stories contribute to the American political culture.

Every country has a political culture — widely shared beliefs, values, and norms that define the relationship between citizens and government, and citizens to one another. Beliefs about economic life are part of the political culture because politics affects economics. A good understanding of a country's political culture can help make sense of the way a country's government is designed, as well as the political decisions its leaders make. For example, why does Great Britain still have a queen? She doesn't have any real political power, so why don't they just end the monarchy? These questions can be puzzling, unless you understand something about the British political culture — one that highly prizes tradition.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Why does our system of government work for us better than for almost anyone else? French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, an early observer of the American political culture, gave some answers during the 1830s.

Tocqueville came to the United States primarily to answer the question, "Why are the Americans doing so well with democracy, while France is having so much trouble with it?" France was in turmoil at the time, swinging back and forth between absolutism and radical democracy, and Tocqueville thought that France could learn a thing or two from the Americans. Tocqueville's observations remain today a classic study of American political culture.

He identified several factors that influenced America's success — abundant and fertile land, countless opportunities for people to acquire land and make a living, lack of a feudal aristocracy that blocked the ambitious, and the independent spirit encouraged by frontier living.

The American View

The American political culture that Tocqueville described in the 1830s has changed over the years, but in many ways, it has remained remarkably the same, even after the continent was settled coast to coast. The American view has been characterized by several familiar elements:

Abraham Lincoln
American political culture puts a special emphasis on hard work, and is rife with stories of successful businessmen and leaders. Consider Abraham Lincoln, who achieved great stature despite having been born in a log cabin.

  • Liberty: Most people believe in the right to be free, as long as another's rights aren't abused.

  • Equality: This generally translates as "equality of opportunity," not absolute equality.

  • Democracy: Elected officials are accountable to the people. Citizens have the responsibility to choose their officials thoughtfully and wisely.

  • Individualism: The individual's rights are valued above those of the state (government); individual initiative and responsibility are strongly encouraged.

  • The Rule of Law: Government is based on a body of law applied equally and fairly, not on the whims of a ruler.

  • Nationalism: Despite some current negative attitudes toward the government, most Americans are proud of our past and tend to de-emphasize problems, such as intolerance or military setbacks. This value includes the belief that we are stronger and more virtuous than other nations.

  • Capitalism At the heart of the American Dream are beliefs in the rights to own private property and compete freely in open markets with as little government involvement as possible.

One of the hallmarks of British political culture is the existence of a monarchy, despite the fact that today's King or Queen has little power or authority over the government.

Other countries may share some, or even all, of these beliefs and values. However, the arrangement and subtleties of this core form an array that makes every political culture a little different than all the others. The elements of the American political culture include disagreement and debate. They include ideals, but they leave room for the reality of falling short of goals.

Famous events from American history — the movement West, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, involvement in World Wars I and II, the New Deal and the Great Society — have been expressions of American political culture. Many events have questioned and answered various interpretations of American values and beliefs. But most of all, the political culture defines political attitudes, institutions, and activities that are most cherished in American political life.

On the Web
The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont spent nine months criss-crossing the United States in an attempt to learn more about the prison system. But in the end, they learned a whole heap about American political culture. Relive their historic journey at this C-SPAN produced website. Read modern references to Tocqueville from today's leaders, read excerpts from Democracy in America, learn more about Tocqueville's France, and tons more.
Welcome to the West
America has always been a land that believes in growth and expansion. At no time was this more evident than the 1800s, when going west became the thing to do! PBS provides a multimedia tour of the settlement of the West based on their 8-part television documentary series. Get a firsthand look at the people, the gold, and the battles for free soil, and find out how the "Wild West" got its name.
The Civil War
Although you'd think freedom would be at the top of a list of American ideals, this was not the case during the Civil War. Because of disagreements on slavery and many other issues, the United States became two countries at war with one another. Learn more about this violent expression of opposing political ideals at this History Place website.
The World Wars
American political culture has long supported democracy and freedom throughout the world. This support was especially evident during the two world wars that took place during the 20th century. Visit this page, part of Mr. Dowling's Electronic Passport, for a short synopsis of the two conflicts, complete with images and links for further study.

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