American Political Culture: Ideas That Unite
Our Enlightenment heritage, combined with our own historical development, has produced a distinctive American political culture based on the notion of representative government. Political culture refers to the general political orientation or disposition of a nation, the broad pattern of ideas, beliefs, and values that most of the population holds about the proper distribution of power in public life, the relationship of individuals to government, and the role that government ought to play. Values are central ideas about the world that most people agree are important, even though they may disagree on exactly how the value—such as “equality” or “freedom”—ought to be defined. Keep in mind that political culture is about our public lives; it does not necessarily specify the appropriate behavior or values for private relationships. Political culture is shared, although certainly some individuals find themselves at odds with it. When we say, “Americans think...” we mean that most Americans hold those views, not that there is unanimous agreement on them. Political culture is handed down from generation to generation, through families, schools, communities, literature, churches and synagogues, and so on, helping to provide stability for the nation by ensuring that a majority of citizens are well-grounded in and committed to the basic values that sustain it. We will talk about the process though which values are transferred in Chapter 12, “Public Opinion.”
Political cultures are complex things. They are further complicated by the fact that we often take our own culture so for granted that we aren’t even aware of it, and thus we can have trouble seeing it as clearly as someone who was not raised in it. We can simplify our understanding of American political culture by characterizing it as fundamentally procedural and individualistic. By procedural we mean that our culture is focused on rules rather than on substantive results, or the actual outcome of the rules. By individualistic we mean that what is good for society as a whole is assumed to be the same as what is good individually for all the people in it. This contrasts with a collectivist point of view, which holds that what is good for society may not be the same as what is in the interest of individuals.
When we say that American political culture is procedural, we mean that Americans expect government to guarantee fair processes rather than particular results. Other political cultures, for example, those in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, believe that government should determine certain results and produce desirable outcomes, perhaps to guarantee a certain quality of life to all citizens, or to increase equality of income. Those governments can then be evaluated by how well they accomplish those substantive goals. But while American politics does set some substantive goals for public policy, Americans are generally more comfortable ensuring that things are done in a fair and proper way, and trusting that the outcomes will be good ones because the rules are fair. Thus, our justice system has been known to release criminals known to be guilty because their procedural rights have been violated, and the economic market, which is seen as impartial and thus fair, is relied on to determine income levels and the distribution of property. Though the American government does get involved in social programs and welfare, it aims more at helping individuals get on their feet so they can participate in the market (fair procedures), rather than at cleaning up slums or eliminating poverty (substantive goals).
The individualistic nature of American political culture means that individuals, not government or society, are responsible for their own well-being. Our politics revolves around the belief that individuals are usually the best judges of what is good for them; we assume that what is good for society will automatically follow. We don’t hold that there is something good for society that is different from what is good for individuals, as collectivist cultures sometimes do. Let’s look again at Sweden, a democratic capitalist country like the United States, but one with a collectivist political culture. At one time Sweden had a policy that held down the wages of workers in more profitable firms so that the salaries of higher- and lower-paid workers would be more equal and society, according to the Swedish view, would be better off. Americans would reject this policy as violating their belief in individualism (and proceduralism as well). American government rarely asks citizens to make major economic sacrifices for the public good, although individuals often do so privately and voluntarily. A collective interest that supersedes individual interests is generally invoked in the United States only in times of war or national crisis. This echoes the two American notions of self-interested and public-interested citizenship we discussed in Chapter 1.
We can see our American procedural and individualistic perspective when we examine the different meanings of three central American values: democracy, freedom, and equality. Democracy in America, as we have seen, is representative democracy, based on consent and majority rule. Basically, American democracy is a way to make political decisions, to choose political leaders, and to select policies for the nation. It is seen as a fundamentally just or fair way of making decisions because every individual who cares to participate is heard in the process and all interests are considered. We don’t reject a democratically made decision because it is not fair; it is fair precisely because it is democratically made. Democracy is not valued primarily for the way it makes citizens feel, or the effects it has on them, but for the decisions it produces. Americans see democracy as the appropriate procedure for making public decisions—that is, decisions about government—but generally not for decisions in the private realm. Rarely do employees have a binding vote on company policy, for example.
Americans also put a very high premium on the value of freedom, defined as freedom for the individual from restraint by the state. This view of freedom is procedural in the sense that it guarantees that you won’t be prevented from doing something, not that you will actually be able to accomplish it. For instance, when an American says, “You are free to go,” he or she means that the door is open; a substantive view of freedom would provide you with a bus ticket so that you can go. Americans have an extraordinary commitment to freedom, perhaps because our values were forged during the Enlightenment when liberty was a guiding principle. This commitment can be seen nowhere so clearly as in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantee our basic civil liberties, the areas where government cannot interfere with individual action. Those civil liberties include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of belief, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble, just to name a few. (See Chapter 5, Civil Liberties, for a complete discussion of these rights.)
But Americans also believe in economic freedom, the freedom to participate in the marketplace, to acquire money and property, and to do with those resources pretty much as we please. Americans believe that it is government’s job to protect our property, not to take it away or regulate our use of it too heavily. Our commitment to individualism is apparent here too. Even if society as a whole would be better off if we taxed people more in order to pay off the federal debt (the amount our government owes from spending more than it brings in), our individualistic view of economic freedom means that Americans have one of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world (see Figure 2.2). This reflects our national tendency in normal times to emphasize the rights of citizenship over its obligations.
A third central value in American political culture is equality. For Americans, equality is valued not because we want individuals to be the same but because we want them treated the same. Of all the values we hold dear, equality is probably the one we cast most clearly in procedural versus substantive terms. Equality in America means equality of treatment, of access, of opportunity, not equality of result. People should have equal access to run the race, but we don’t expect them all to finish in the same place. Thus we believe in equality before the law, that the law shouldn’t make unreasonable distinctions among people the basis for treating them differently, and that all people should have equal access to the legal system. One problem the courts have faced is deciding what counts as a reasonable distinction. Can the law justifiably discriminate between—that is, treat differently—men and women, minorities and white Protestants, rich and poor, young and old? When the rules treat people differently, even if the goal is to make them more equal in the long run, many Americans get very upset. Witness how controversial affirmative action policies are in this country. The point of such policies is to allow special opportunities to members of groups that have been discriminated against in the past, in order to remedy the long-term effects of that discrimination. For many Americans, such policies violate our commitment to procedural solutions. They wonder how treating people unequally can be fair.
Another kind of equality Americans hold dear is political equality, the principle of one person–one vote. Some strenuous political battles have been fought to extend the right to vote to all Americans, as we’ll see in Chapter 6, “Civil Rights.” African Americans won the vote in 1870 (although even then, many were in fact prevented from exercising that right in the South until 1965), women won suffrage rights on a national level in 1920, and the right to vote was extended to eighteen-year-olds in 1971.
American Ideologies: Ideas That Divide
While most Americans are united in their commitment at some level to proceduralism and individualism, and to the key values of democracy, freedom, and equality, there is still tremendous room for disagreement on other ideas and issues. The sets of beliefs and opinions about politics, the economy, and society that help people make sense of their world, and that can divide them into opposing camps, are called ideologies. Compared with the ideological spectrum of many countries, the range of debate in the United States is fairly narrow; we have no successful communist or socialist parties here, for instance. The ideologies on which those parties are founded seem unappealing to most Americans because they violate the norms of procedural and individualistic culture.
The two main dimensions that divide contemporary ideologies are their attitude toward government action (government can be trusted to act wisely and should intervene widely in society and economics versus distrust of government action and a belief that it should be limited to the maintenance of social order) and their attitude toward change (progress is almost always a good thing and should be pursued with vigor versus change is likely to lead to trouble and should be pursued with caution). Attitudes favoring government action and change as progress tend to be labeled liberal; ideas that favor limited government and traditional social order tend to be called conservative. We also say that liberals are on the left side of the political spectrum and that conservatives are on the right. These spatial labels come partly from (not always successful) efforts of social theorists to line up ideological positions on a linear continuum, and partly from the fact that in eighteenth-century France, the liberals sat on the left side of the parliamentary chamber and the conservatives on the right. Even though revolutionary French ideologies are not relevant in twenty-first-century America, the labels have stuck.
Based on these ideological dimensions, we say that the ideologies on the far left advocate totalitarian systems, which provide no limits on what government can do. Since communist and socialist systems usually require a large role for government in running the economy and allocating resources, they are located near the left end of the spectrum. The ideologies of the far right advocate anarchy, or the absence of government altogether. Most people want something in between these extremes, although in many countries there are numerous representatives of all these ideologies. In the United States, most people identify themselves as liberals, conservatives, or something between the two. While it may seem to Americans that those two ideological camps are poles apart, from the perspective of foreign observers, Americans don’t disagree all that widely.
The basic difference, then, between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives tend to be in favor of traditional values, they are slow to advocate change, and they place a priority on the maintenance of social order. Liberals, on the other hand, emphasize the possibilities of progress and change, look for innovations as answers to social problems, and focus on the expansion of individual rights and expression. It is the nature of conservatives to conserve, or protect, the status quo, so the precise issue stances they take change over time as the status quo changes. Since the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, a set of government policies designed to get the economy moving and to protect citizens from the worst effects of the Depression, conservatives and liberals have also taken the following positions with respect to government and the economy. Conservatives, reflecting a belief that government is not to be trusted with too much power and is, in any case, not a competent economic actor, have reacted against the increasing role of the government in the American economy. Liberals, in contrast, arguing that the economic market cannot regulate itself and, left alone, is susceptible to such ailments as depressions and recessions, have a much more positive view of government and the good it can do in addressing economic and social problems. Typically, conservatives have tended to be wealthier, upper-class Americans, whereas liberals have been more likely to be blue collar workers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, another dimension has been added to the liberal–conservative division in the United States. Perhaps because, as some researchers have argued, most people are able to meet their basic economic needs and more people than ever before are identifying themselves as middle class, many Americans are focusing less on economic questions and more on issues of morality and quality of life. Growing out of the commitment to tradition, for instance, some conservatives have gone beyond the economic realm to support what they call “family values”: mothers remaining in the home with their children, regular church attendance, strong family discipline, laws denying equal rights to homosexuals, and legislation outlawing abortion. Partly in reaction to the conservative stance, liberals have come to include groups left out of the traditional vision of society: working women and mothers, single parents, gays, pro-choice groups, and others who do not see themselves as part of the model family. Ironically, these more recent ideological positions do not necessarily fit with the original liberal and conservative orientations toward government action. It requires an active government to outlaw abortions and gay rights, and to otherwise legislate morality. It is the liberals in this case, rather than the conservatives, who are asking government “to get off their backs” with regard to moral choices, and to let individuals make their own decisions. This causes some problems, especially among more traditional economic conservatives who don’t want to be associated with the new moral positions.
Libertarians, who represent a small percentage of Americans, fall to the right of conservatives on economic issues and to the left of liberals on many social issues. While libertarians do not go as far as anarchists in advocating the absence of government, they do want the presence of government in their lives reduced to the absolute minimum. Libertarians believe that government should exist to provide security and to protect property, but within that framework they want the broadest possible sphere of unrestrained individual action. For instance, libertarians agree with many liberals who think that marijuana and other drugs should be legalized. Libertarians hold this belief because they think individuals should be able to make decisions for themselves and take responsibility for their actions without government interference. On the other hand, and for the same reasons, they agree with conservatives that individuals should have the right to own handguns and other weapons.
To live as a nation, citizens need to share a view of who they are and what their world is like. If they have no common culture, they fragment and break apart, like the divided peoples of Ireland and Yugoslavia. Political cultures provide coherence and national unity to citizens who may in other ways be very different.
Citizens express those differences in ideologies that share assumptions with the broader political culture but that allow them to manage conflicts on the role of government, human nature, and prospects for change.