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.