What is American Political Culture?

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  • 0:01 American Political Culture
  • 1:21 Liberty and Equality
  • 3:17 Democracy and Individualism
  • 4:55 Nationalism and Diversity
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The American political culture is a system of shared political traditions, customs, beliefs and values. This lesson discusses the characteristics of America's political culture and the factors that help shape it.

American Political Culture

The 'American Dream'! Are you living it? Picnics in the park, backyard barbecues, baseball, apple pie…a house in the suburbs with two cars in the garage?

This may not be your dream, but you understand the American principle that people have the right to pursue their dreams. This is 'the land of the free and the home of the brave', where a baby born in a log cabin can grow up to be president and where a college dropout can become the richest businessman in the world.

Our ideas about the American dream help shape the American political culture. Our political culture is a system of shared political traditions, customs, beliefs and values.

The American political culture describes the relationship between the American people and the American government. It's what we cherish most about our government and what we expect our government to provide for us.

American political culture includes several principles. Let's take a look at a few of the main values.

Liberty and Equality

The American political culture is, of course, based on liberty. Generally speaking, this is the right to be free, as long as another's rights aren't harmed.

Though many people believe liberty is the same thing as complete freedom, our liberty is somewhat restrained through laws and rules in order to protect other people's rights and safety. In the U.S., we have what is known as a limited government. This means that the power of our government is restricted by the Constitution. Our Bill of Rights guarantees that the government cannot infringe on certain civil liberties.

Along with liberty, comes equality. This generally means people have the same or similar opportunities to compete and achieve in this country. Note that equality doesn't necessarily guarantee equal results. By balancing liberty and equality, we actually get many different results. People are free to make different choices and achieve different results based on their personal choices. For instance, people who choose to go to medical school usually achieve a higher economic status than those who enter the workforce directly after high school.

Equality is especially important in our laws. All people, regardless of race, gender or religion, are expected to obey the laws of this country. Throughout history, constitutional amendments and new laws have been added in hopes of bringing better equality to the citizens of the U.S. For example, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.

Democracy and Individualism

Next, let's discuss democracy. A democracy is a government run by the people, through elected representatives. It's not exactly a 'majority rules' or 'winner takes all' system. The citizens of the U.S. elect the government officials, and the officials then exercise the governmental power. If the officials don't exercise the power the way the people want, then the people can impeach the officials or choose not to re-elect the officials.

Keep in mind that the original colonists came from Great Britain, where the government was a monarchy. This is a government run by a member or members of a royal family. The colonists felt the king's rules and laws were oppressive, especially those regarding religion and taxes. They wanted to have a say in the new government.

That brings us to individualism. Generally, this means the individual's rights are valued above those of the government. This principle speaks to the 'independent spirit' and free will that characterizes many Americans. Think of the early colonists and the frontiersmen who settled the lands farther west. In America, initiative and independence are prized traits.

Individualism is another value that is highly protected through the Bill of Rights. Our First Amendment, guaranteeing the right to free speech, religion and assembly, is a prime example.

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