• American Political Culture

    American Political Culture

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Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, featuring the motto Equal Justice Under LawThe influence of classical liberalism profoundly shapes the culture and institutions of all modern democracies. All democracies, even when governed by socialist conservative parties, accept the premise of individual rights. Most democracies now have courts dedicated to the protection of these rights. Formal political equality ("one person, one vote") and legal equality (the notion that everyone enjoys the same rights in a courtroom regardless of their identities) is pervasive in all mature democracies. The idea of democracy itself, based on the principle of formal political and legal equality, is an outgrowth of the classical liberal tradition. All democracies, though they differ tremendously in the degree of its application, accept the principle of free markets. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, democratic socialist programs promoting state management and/or state ownership of the economy have receded with the resurgence of neo-liberal economic theory. Liberalism's theme of freedom, broadly defined, constitutes a key pillar of every democratic regime.

It is in the United States and its idiosyncratic political culture, however, that classical liberalism romps like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, sending competing ideologies such as socialism scurrying like some pre-historic rodent and consigning classical conservative ideas to oblivion. In many democracies, classical liberalism competes on a more-or-less equal footing with socialist ideology. In all other democracies, classical liberalism coexists with the residual values and traditions of classical conservatism and the more robust egalitarianism of socialism. Classical liberalism enjoys hegemonic status as a political ideology, inscribed into the very fabric of the US Constitution. The values of classical liberalism may be abstract, but in the United States they assume very solid form in two significant respects: first, their effect on formal political institutions, second, in their pervasive presence in American political culture.

Shaping US Government

As for political institutions, classical liberalism's signature confronts the student of American government at every turn. It explains why our system's design is more complicated than the majority of democratic systems. Liberalism's distrust of political power is reflected in: (a) federalism, the vertical separation of powers between the national government and the states, (b) separation of powers, the horizontal separation of powers among the three branches, and (c) checks and balances, the apportionment of specific veto or dilatory powers of one branch over the others (our system of national government is more accurately described as one of separate branches sharing powers).

U.S. Capitol buildingNot content to fragment power among the federal government's three branches and the 50 states, the Constitution's framers even split the legislative branch, Congress, into two separate chambers, or bicameral, with distinct terms of service, qualifications, and institutional competencies. For example, the Senate specializes in foreign policy and appointment issues while the House initiates taxing and spending legislation. State governments mirror, and in some cases amplify, separation of powers. The Texas Constitution splits its supreme court into two bodies and fragments the executive power into several virtually independent offices. Indeed, some have characterized Texas government as classical liberalism on steroids.

The US Constitution fragments political power to an extent well beyond what most democratic states have done. As a presidential system the US is in a minority of democracies in having three distinct branches of government. Most democracies have parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are not nearly as distinct. Many democratic states do not have a third branch of government, a judiciary, empowered to strike down acts of the executive or legislative branches as unconstitutional. Finally, most democracies are not federal democracies with power constitutionally divided between the national government and regional governments. In a unitary system, authority lies in the hands of a single central government, while in a confederation, sovereign constituent governments (states) create a central authority.

Puzzle of words relating to taxationFormal institutions are only one half, and some political scientists would argue the less important half, of understanding a country's political system. Understanding a country's political culture, the shared beliefs and values of a country's citizens, is critical. Here the fingerprints of classical liberalism are unmistakable. First, consistent with liberalism's theme of limited government, Americans expect less of government, a fact reflected in the relatively small size of our government in relation to other economically advanced democracies. One measurement of a government's size is the percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) taken up by the national government's spending. At around 22 percent in 2016, US federal spending ranks among the lowest national spending by industrial nations. Another measurement is the percentage of a country's workers employed by the national government. In 2000, the federal government employed around 1.5 percent of the nation's workforce, down from 3.7 percent in 1960. In most advanced democracies, the national government employs a considerably higher percentage of the workforce. Finally, the effective tax rate of governments is often used as a proxy for government size. The relative tax burden of US citizens is significantly lower than in most industrial nations. While critics may decry big government in the United States, they are more persuasive if focusing on its absolute rather than relative size when compared with the community of economically advanced democracies.

Shaping American Political Culture

Protest sign reading, A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you haveThe relatively small size of American government, however, is not so much the direct product of classical liberalism as a symptom of the limited demands and expectations that Americans place on their government. Polling data confirms that classical liberalism shapes core political values in the United States. Americans have traditionally been more optimistic about the individual's opportunity for upward social mobility, without government aid, than citizens of other states are. They are less likely to think that it is the government's responsibility to take care of the poor. Government welfare policies reflect this national bias as the government spends comparatively little on support for the poor and unemployed. With a little help from electoral rules, popular resistance to government paternalism explains one of the more curious features of American party politics, specifically why socialism failed to thrive as a political movement in this country. The United States is the only democracy without an effective Socialist Party.

Protestors holding up sign reading, we demand marriage equalityThe United States' individualistic culture helps explain other dramatic differences between the United States and other advanced democracies. The United States is the only wealthy democracy that does not consider health care a basic right for its citizens. On a darker note, popular belief in individual responsibility illuminates why the United States is the only democracy, rich or poor, that still applies the death penalty for very serious crimes. Classical liberalism's principle of separating church and state, reinforced by the influx of persecuted religious minorities during our colonial years, has prevented the establishment of a state religion but fostered a robust market in religious freedom. Americans are distinctly more religious in their personal beliefs than citizens of most other advanced democracies. These beliefs shape electric debates over public policy, from abortion to same-sex marriage to the debate over prayer in school. The state's absence from the sphere of religious choice has paradoxically energized religious association in the United States, resulting in a dazzling variety of churches and sects. Classical liberalism's preference for liberty is also apparent in America's freedom of speech and expression. Under the aegis of the Constitution's First Amendment, the United States allows a degree of freedom in communications arguably broader than that of any other country, extending to advocacy of political violence and hate speech.

One of the most attentive students of American political culture and institutions, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1820s that the United States was an exceptional nation. He commented on the energy of its people, the ease with which they formed private associations, and their passion for social (though not economic) equality. America constituted for de Tocqueville a new species of political life offering a glimpse of the world's future. What he was witnessing was the first country where the ideas of classical liberalism took full bloom with no serious ideological competitors. As this is true of no other democracy, America remains a truly exceptional nation.

America's Exceptional Political Culture

Every country has one—a political culture comprised of attitudes, values, and beliefs about how government should operate. Understanding a country's political culture can help you make sense of the way a country's government is set up as well as the political decisions its leaders make.

Some aspects of American political culture are similar to those in other democratic nations. However, because of the philosophies and political ideologies (e.g., classical liberalism has its fingerprints all over our political culture) that guided the nation's Founders, there are aspects of our political culture that make us unique. Our political culture was born out of a revolution and stresses individualism, personal liberty, equality, private property, limited government, and popular consent.

This activity examines the uniqueness of America's political culture when compared to other democratic nations.


Virtual Roundtable 1

Political culture is a phrase used to describe popular attitudes and beliefs about the appropriate role of government in a society. Many political observers have claimed the United States is different from most other developed democracies. In a word, they describe the United States' political culture as "exceptional." To what extent is America an "exceptional" nation?

David Boaz, Executive Vice President, CATO Institute, Washington, DC


Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar, First Amendment Center, Washington, DC


Kelly J. Shackelford, Chief Council, Liberty Legal Institute


Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School


Richard Perle, US Assistant Secretary of Defense (1981-1987), Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee (1987-2004)


Joseph Nye, Professor of International Relations, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University



Virtual Roundtable 2

Religion played a significant role in the founding of the American republic and is part of the fabric of American life. Many have described the United States as a "Christian nation." Is this accurate?

Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar, First Amendment Center, Washington, DC


Sanford Levinson, Garwood Centennial Chair, Professor of Law, University of Texas School of Law


Kelly J. Shackelford, Chief Council, Liberty Legal Institute


Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church & State, Washington, DC


Jason T. Kuznicki, Research Fellow, CATO Institute, Washington, DC



Additional Resources


Democracy in America
This 1835 book by French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville is available online. For decades, political historians have valued de Tocqueville’s unique perspective on the American democratic process in the 19th century. Visit the host directory for additional historical texts made available by the University of Virginia.


The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, by Andrew Bacevich.
A former soldier and professor of international affairs, Bacevich argues that the United States since the Cold War has demonstrated an overreliance on military power to assert its influence abroad.

No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, by Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor and US presidential candidate details his vision for America. A strong believer in American exceptionalism, Romney argues that the United States should be a leader in economic and geopolitical matters.