American political culture contains a number of core ideals and values. Not all Americans share the same views, of course, but the vast majority subscribes to these general ideals, including liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, unity, and diversity. Political debates tend to be over how best to achieve these ideals, not over whether these ideals are worth having in the first place.
Americans today tend to define liberty as the freedom for people to do what they want. We also tend to believe liberty is essential to personal fulfillment and happiness. Nevertheless, liberty must be restrained on some level in order to create a stable society. A widely accepted principle of freedom is that we are free to do whatever we want as long as we do not impinge on other people’s freedom.
A limited government is a government that places relatively few restrictions on its citizens’ freedom. There are some things that the government cannot do, such as limit freedom of speech or impose a single religion on its citizens. A limited government usually has a constitution that defines the limits of governmental power. In the United States, the Constitution outlines the structure of government, whereas the Bill of Rights guarantees some of the citizens’ specific liberties.
For many Americans, liberty includes economic liberty. People should be free to do as they see fit in the economic sphere without government interference. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the American economy was based on laissez-faire capitalism, an economic system in which the government plays almost no role in producing, distributing, or regulating the production and distribution of goods. Today, people want some governmental intervention in the economy, but most Americans want this intervention to be limited in scope.
Although no two people are truly equal, they are considered equal under the law. Some Americans may be poorer than others, and some may have cultural backgrounds different from the majority, but all Americans have the same fundamental rights. The term equality refers to a number of ways people are treated the same.
Political equality means that everyone is treated in the same way in the political sphere. This means, among other things, that everyone has the same status under the law (everyone is entitled to legal representation, for example, and every citizen gets one vote) and that everyone gets equal treatment under the law. Everybody must obey the laws, regardless of race, creed, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, and in return, everyone enjoys the same rights.
In American political culture, political equality also commonly means equality of opportunity: All people get the same opportunities to compete and achieve in the world. Some people will succeed and some will fail, but most Americans believe that everyone, no matter what, is entitled to the opportunity to succeed.
Most Americans oppose equality of outcome. Under this system, the government ensures all people the same results, regardless of how talented or hardworking they are. Most Americans consider this unfair because this system means that talented and diligent people do not get the success they deserve.
Example: In the United States, the government tries to ensure equal opportunity among its citizens by giving everybody access to a solid public education. For example, President George W. Bush and many members of Congress championed the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, because the law aimed to give all American students a good education. A good education gives people the ability to compete for good jobs, which means that they can achieve success if they so desire.
Most Americans believe that democracy is the best form of government and therefore tend to support policies that protect and expand democracy. The importance placed on democracy in American political culture usually appears in domestic politics, but sometimes a desire to spread democracy to other countries drives American foreign policy.
Example: American foreign policy during the Cold War often aimed at supporting and spreading democracy around the world. During the 1980s, members of Ronald Regan’s administration illegally sold arms to Iran in order to raise money for the Nicaraguan contras, who were fighting the communist regime in power.
Popular sovereignty, when the people rule, is an important principle of democracy. Democracy is government by the people, so political leaders in a democratic society are supposed to listen to and heed public opinion. Democracies hold elections to allow the people to exercise their power over government.
Majority rule, the belief that the power to make decisions about government should reflect the will of most (the majority) of the people, is another important principle of democracy. In fact, American political culture relies on majority rule: The candidate who wins a majority of votes, for example, wins the race. Likewise, a bill that wins the support of a majority of members of Congress passes. Without majority rule, a democracy could not function.
The flipside of majority rule is that the majority does not have unlimited power. In a democracy, the rights of the minority must also be protected, even at the expense of overriding the will of the majority. The minority always has the right to speak out against the majority, for example. Similarly, the minority cannot be arrested or jailed for disagreeing or voting against the majority. Without minority rights, majority rule would easily evolve into tyranny of the majority, in which the majority would ignore the basic rights of the minority.
According to the concept of individualism, humans are fundamentally individuals who have the freedom to make choices and join (or not join) groups as they wish. An individual’s life belongs to no one but that individual, so people should make choices that are right for them regardless of what other people think. A true individual is unlike anyone else. Americans value individualism and respect people who make independent choices.
Rugged individualism is the quintessentially American view that we are responsible for our own lives and ultimately must rely only on ourselves. People who ignore society’s wishes and do as they choose are rugged individuals. These people make their own way in the world at the risk of being ostracized by the rest of society.
Example: Many American movie heroes are individuals who disdain authority and flout tradition. John Wayne’s characters often fit this mold, as do other film heroes such as Bruce Willis’s character John McClane in Die Hard and Clint Eastwood’s “man without a name” in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The opposite of individualism is conformism, a term used to describe the act of people trying to be the same. Over the centuries, many observers have noted that even in democracies, conformism is common. Americans, for example, frequently watch the same shows on television and read the same books. This seems to conflict with the ideal of individualism but is nevertheless an important component of any civil society.
Two interconnected ideals in American political culture are unity and diversity. Unity refers to Americans’ support of the republic and democracy, even if they disagree with one another about policies. Politicians and other leaders frequently appeal to this sense of unity, especially during times of national crisis. The name of our country—the United States—emphasizes the importance of unity to our national political culture.
Example: In the aftermath of September 11th, President George W. Bush rallied the country by appealing to common feelings of patriotism. Leaders made similar appeals after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Diversity refers to the fact that Americans have many different cultural traditions and hold a variety of values. Nearly all Americans descend from immigrants, and many of them take pride in their heritage and cultural history. Americans also hold diverse views and creeds.
Example: Many American cities hold parades and celebrations for holidays of different immigrant groups. Irish Americans, as well as others, celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every year, whereas Columbus Day parades honor the contributions of Italian and Spanish Americans.
Multiculturalism is the view that we should embrace our diversity and learn about one another’s cultures. Much of American culture derives from western European cultures (the British Isles in particular), which makes some other groups feel excluded. Learning about new cultures and respecting diversity have taken on new force in recent years. For many people, being American is about adhering to ideas and principles, not to a particular religious or ethnic identity. So one can be a patriot while still honoring one’s ancestral traditions.
Although Americans have always cherished the ideals of liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, unity, and diversity, the United States has not always lived up to them. Slavery, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and the failure to give women the right to vote for more than a century are the most glaring examples.