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American Political Culture

This chapter briefly explains the "core" principles of the political culture that have shaped American politics since the country's earliest years and explores the power of those ideals. These are the chapter's main points:

  • American political culture centers on a set of core ideals--liberty, equality, self-government, individualism, diversity, and unity--that serve as the people's common bond.
  • Politics is the process that determines how a society will be governed. The play of politics in the United States takes place in the context of democratic procedures, constitutionalism, and capitalism, and involves elements of majority, pluralist, and elite rule.
  • Politics in the United States is characterized by a number of major patterns, including a highly fragmented governing system, a high degree of pluralism, an extraordinary emphasis on individual rights, and a pronounced separation of the political and economic spheres.

Although the ideals of American political culture are often inexact and conflicting, they have had a powerful effect on what generations of Americans have tried to achieve politically for themselves and others. For example, due to its ideal of individualism the United States has spent less on social welfare programs compared to the nations of Europe.

The chapter describes the concept of a "political system" along with five "encompassing" tendencies of American politics--enduring cultural ideals, fragmentation of governing authority, competing interests, stress on individual rights, and sharp separation of political and economic spheres.

Politics in the United States takes place within a pattern of both conflict and consensus. Conflict is rooted in scarce resources and differing values. The government tries to resolve problems by promoting consensus. Fortunately, the rules governing the political process--democracy, constitutionalism, and capitalism-- are generally accepted by the vast majority of Americans. Public policies--be they broad or narrowly-based--may be explained according to the majoritarian, pluralist, or elitist model.

Finally, the political system is a useful instructional tool. The systemic model is based on demand and support inputs, the institutions of government, and outputs, i.e., binding decisions (public policies) on society. Aside from instructional approaches, the most important question to consider in the American heritage and democratic life is: "What is the relationship of the people to their government?" The remainder of the text should eventually provide you, the student, with a reply to this question.

Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:

Identify the core principles that constitute the American political culture. Discuss the influence of these beliefs on American politics.
Explain why politics is a "struggle for control," and define the relationships among power, authority, and policy.
Discuss constitutionalism, capitalism, and democracy as rules guiding the play of politics in the United States. Also, explain how American politics involves the elements of conflict and consensus.
Explain the concept of a "political system."
Review and explain majoritarianism, pluralism, and elitism.
List and briefly explain the "five encompassing tendencies" of American politics.

The American DemocracyOnline Learning Center

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