A political culture is a set of attitudes and practices held by a people that shapes their political behavior. It includes moral judgments, political myths, beliefs, and ideas about what makes for a good society. A political culture is a reflection of a government, but it also incorporates elements of history and tradition that may predate the current regime. Political cultures matter because they shape a population’s political perceptions and actions. Governments can help shape political culture and public opinion through education, public events, and commemoration of the past. Political cultures vary greatly from state to state and sometimes even within a state. Generally speaking, however, political culture remains more or less the same over time.

Example: The United States and Great Britain are both democracies, but each has a distinct political culture. The American government derives its powers from a written constitution drafted by men who feared monarchs and strong central governments, which is why they divided the federal government into three distinct branches. Also, the American political system is dominated by two political parties. Great Britain, in contrast, has a long history of monarchy and has never had a written constitution. Even though the current monarch holds the official title of head of state, her powers are nominal, leaving Parliament—the legislative body—as the dominant element of the government. And unlike the United States, Great Britain currently has nearly half a dozen political parties that regularly seat candidates in Parliament.


Political culture is connected to notions of citizenship because political culture frequently includes an idea of what makes people good citizens. A citizen is a legal member of a political community, with certain rights and obligations. Because each country has its own requirements for citizenship and attendant rights, the definition of “citizen” varies around the world.

Example: Not surprisingly, different countries have different criteria for citizenship. France automatically bestows cit-izenship on anyone born in French territory via jus soli (Latin for “right by territory”). Germany grants citizenship via jus sanguines (Latin for “right by blood”) to people who have a German parent. Israel’s Law of Return, meanwhile, allows any Jew to move permanently to Israel and become a citizen. The United States grants citizenship rights both to people who are born in American territory and to people who have an American parent.

Characteristics of Good Citizens

A good citizen lives up to the ideals of the regime and embodies much of what a particular political culture considers important. An American who lives an exemplary life but who does not work to help the community will probably be viewed as a good person but not as a good citizen. Instead, Americans expect good citizens to help others and to make the community a better place through active participation in public life. In the United States, a good citizen is often expected to do some or all of the following:

  • Vote in elections
  • Obey all local, state, and federal laws
  • Pay taxes
  • Be informed about political issues
  • Volunteer to help less fortunate people
  • Demonstrate patriotism by respecting the flag, singing the national anthem, and knowing the Pledge of Allegiance
  • Recycle
  • Help the community when needed

Political Culture and Change

Political culture changes over time, but these changes often happen slowly. People frequently become set in their ways and refuse to alter their attitudes on significant issues. Sometimes it can take generations for major shifts to occur in a nation’s political culture.

Example: One example of the ways in which American political culture has been slow to change concerns the rights of minorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized federal troops to supervise balloting in federal elections in the South in order to protect the voting rights of black Americans. Even though the bill passed forty years ago, many government officials fear that racial tensions in the South could still threaten the political freedoms of blacks, which is why Congress and President George W. Bush reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

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