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5.1 Political Culture

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  1. What political culture is.
  2. What political socialization is.

How people participate, and how much they participate, may be determined in part by political culture. Political cultureA broadly shared set of beliefs about the nature of politics and government. is a broadly shared system of beliefs on the nature of government and citizens’ roles within government. “Broadly shared” means these are ideas that large numbers of people agree upon. These values influence the way decisions are made and what people think should happen in public life. The idea of political culture therefore attempts to explain why people behave the way they do - in terms not so much of their specific desires, but rather in terms of what they believe about what government should be like and how it should be run.

Political culture, and hence public opinion, starts with what is called political socializationFactors that influence a person’s development and opinions.—all of the elements and influences that go into making any one person’s outlook on political life. The influences are fairly obvious once you stop and think about them—your parents, friends and neighbors, education, media, where you work. Some of this appears to be formed by your experiences in your late teens and college years. That is, for example, why so much advertising is targeted at young adults. People in that age group haven’t entirely made up their minds about things, and so advertisers pursue them in hopes of snaring potential longtime, loyal customers.

So, college will have a big impact on how you think about politics and government. You may largely disagree with what I think, for example, but odds are you will be nudged a little bit one way or another by the experience of reading this book. The opinions of your professors and the people you meet in college will necessarily make you think a little bit differently about the world.

What you believe about government and citizens’ roles within it makes up political culture, an idea that annoys some political scientists because it’s hard to measure (and therefore you can’t really crank out fancy equations to demonstrate it). Nonetheless, political culture can tell us something about what people think before they vote or make other political decisions. It can’t necessarily tell us how people will decide, but it can tell us something about what items and choices will make their way onto the public agenda.

How do aspects of American political culture color the way our government operates? Some elements of American political culture include the following:

  • Liberty: U.S. citizens believe they are free to make choices in most aspects of life.
  • Equality: Everyone is regarded as equal before the law.
  • Individualism: Americans tend to think individuals are responsible for themselves. Especially other individuals.
  • Democracy: We expect to vote on things.
  • Justice: If someone has been wronged, there should be recompense. People who have broken the law should be punished.
  • The rule of law: Aside from speed limits, we expect to obey the law, even when no one is looking.
  • Nationalism: Americans tend to be remarkably proud of their country, and to think it is somehow different and special. This is sometimes called American exceptionalismThe idea that the United States is different than the rest of the world, with a special mission to spread freedom and democracy across the globe.. This thought can go so far as to mean that the United States has a special mission to spread freedom and democracy (and capitalism). As Ronald Reagan once said, echoing Puritan pioneer John Withrop, who was quoting the Bible, America is a “shining city on the hill.” This level of chest-pounding, cheerleading self-celebration is sometimes quite annoying to non-U.S. citizens (something to keep in mind when you travel overseas). The United States has done some good things in its time, but if you stop to think about it, every country is special and different. But many Americans will tell you that the U.S. is the best place on earth, even when they’ve never lived anywhere else.
  • Optimism: We expect things to get better.
  • Idealism: The belief that a better political system can and will be created.

Every nation has some kind of political culture. People in other nations tend to have less faith in government than do Americans (though that may be changing in an era when so many candidates say “the system is broken” as their opening line). Europeans tend to value public consensus and state support for the individual a little more than do U.S. citizens; in India and the United Kingdom, social and economic class play a bigger role in politics than they do in the U.S.

In the case of the U.S., whereas we might agree broadly that liberty, opportunity and fairness is what we believe in, when it comes to specifics we rapidly break down into different camps as to how these ideas will be translated into policy. For example, consider the notion of equality. What does it mean for us to be equal? We believe everyone should get to vote over a certain age, although for a long time and in different parts of the country this wasn’t always true. For example the Founding Fathers thought only property owning males should get to vote. Gradually, this franchise was extended to every citizen over the age of 18.

But what else could equality mean? We generally favor equality of opportunity, at least in name if not in practice. Some Americans would prefer equality of outcome, and point to income disparities between the rich and the poor to suggest that equality of opportunity must be reflected in equality of result for it to be meaningful. Others oppose equality of result, and suggest that people need to make their own way, so that hard work and initiative are rewarded.

Regionally, we still find a great deal of variation in terms of political culture. The politics of Chicago, Seattle, and Atlanta are quite different, as are the politics of urban and rural settings. (People from the east who visit Seattle are surprised to see Seattleites waiting at crosswalks for the light to change, even when there are no cars coming. Some are even more surprised when they get tickets for jaywalking.) As a result, government operates in different ways in each setting, with different expectations and frequently outcomes.

The political scientist Daniel Elazar identified three types of American political culture (others have found more):

  • Moralistic: Society matters slightly more than does the individual; government’s role is to create a good society in which the community can flourish. Typical of the Midwest and parts of the West.
  • Individualistic: Government is limited to helping individuals advance; it isn’t always clean; it shouldn’t get involved in private matters. Common in the Northeast.
  • Traditionalist: Government preserves the existing social order; social and family connections tend to dominate politics. Common in the South.

These are generalizations, of course. Within every state are pockets of different sets of belief and, as with ideology, people may have a mixed set of beliefs about politics.

Another related factor that can influence political outcomes is what has been called the political landscapeDemographic and social factors that may influence how people in a particular state or region feel about politics.. This includes a variety of social and demographic factors—age, race, gender, average level of education, average incomes, percentage of home ownership, level of employment, major employers. So, for example, an area with a higher percentage of senior citizens will vote more often and be more concerned about issues such as Social Security. In some communities, senior citizens may be less likely to vote for school funding measures. Some wealthier areas of the U.S. (but not all) are more likely to vote Republican; some (but not all) poorer areas may vote Democrat more often. Urban areas tend to vote Democrat; rural areas are more likely to vote Republican. Homeowners tend to vote more often than renters. Areas with higher percentages of immigrants may be more concerned about immigration issues; U.S. states on the border with Mexico, for example, will have populations who feel quite differently about immigration issues. For the United States, those two issues—increasing diversity plus an aging population—will continue to inform politics for some years to come.

Key Takeaways

  • Political culture can tell us what gets on the agenda, not necessarily what decisions will be made.
  • Political culture varies across nations and within nations.
  • Political socialization includes all of the influences in a person’s life.


  1. What political culture best describes the way you feel about politics and government?
  2. What influences have shaped your beliefs about politics and government?