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Political Culture

Last Updated: 2006

The political culture of a society consists of the sum of beliefs, values, and public attitudes toward politics, and the way in which those ideas guide people’s political actions. It includes ideas about who should govern and how; what is legitimate and what is not; what is true, just, and right; and how laws must be enforced. These ideas, along with the symbols and icons that represent them, are slowly shaped by the interaction of people throughout long periods of time but can also be impacted by meaningful events such as wars or integration processes. Shortly, political culture is the way in which people do politics.

The development of culture as an area of interest to political science can be recounted in three moments. In the first moment, before World War II, culture belonged mainly to the realm of sociology, arriving only sporadically to political science in the broad descriptions of Montesquieu (1689–1755), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), and Max Weber (1864–1920). The second moment began around the early 1960’s when national character studies defined the incorporation of political culture to the core areas of political science. The bipolar equilibrium of the Cold War, the emergence of new postcolonial nations, the expansion of trade, along with the behavioral revolution and the professionalization of the discipline created, especially in American political science, the demand for understanding other cultures. The previously narrative style of cultural studies was systematized by the scientific method, developing theories, defining variables, and using surveys to measure standardized indicators as in the seminal The Civic Culture (1963) by Almond and Verba.

Daniel Elazar (1984) took such an approach in analyzing American political culture. Tracing the settlement patterns of various immigrant groups, Elazar identified three major subcultures. The individualistic subculture, found in the Mid-Atlantic states and spreading westward, views government as utilitarian, designed to meet the demands of the people. The appropriate role of government is limited primarily to promoting economic development. Politicians are professional, and some degree of corruption is tolerated. The moralistic subculture, found in New England and spreading westward, views government as a positive force for societal change. Government regulation of social and economic activity is considered legitimate. Public involvement is the citizen’s duty, and corruption is not tolerated. The traditionalistic subculture, found in the South, creates a political structure that reinforces the existing order and dominance of an elite. Participation in government is a privilege left to members of the elite of society.

The Silent Revolution (1977) by Ronald Inglehart was a pioneering work in introducing the third moment of political cultural studies. A generation of people concerned with environmentalism, feminism, and nuclear disarmament grew rapidly in the industrialized West, embracing “postmaterialistic” values and acting accordingly in politics. Terry Clark and Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot capture the continuation of these movements, describing them as The New Political Culture (1998); changes in the technology of information and in world politics in the late 1980’s favored the decline of hierarchies, consecrated democracy as a global value, and set challenges to the pivotal political structures of modernity. This new political culture, fostered by the younger, educated, affluent individuals in developed societies, redefines the left-right continuum, stresses social issues, and reassesses the welfare state in favor of the individual and the market.

The American political culture is characterized by a profound respect for the liberty and free will of the individual, and the private property and the human rights, thus restricting the state by dividing and balancing its power. The equality of people (one person, one vote) and active participation in public affairs are pillars of democracy. Political parties tend to represent the hardworking moral majority and the preservation of religious freedom and family values. On the other hand, the rigid bipartidism falls short in representing the wide complexity of American life, causing political apathy, which is reflected in low voter turnouts. Segregation, consumerism, and a broad gap between the rich and poor are also characteristics of the American political culture. An excellent depiction of the American political profile is offered by Alan Wolfe in One Nation, after All (1998).

Political culture, a comparative enterprise in nature, has consolidated as a constitutive part of social sciences, including in its domain studies such as electoral behavior, political participation, public opinion, and general studies of political motivation.

Analytically, political culture provides the subjective dimension of politics, unveiling the unexplored areas of motivation and values left behind by the objective lenses of traditional approaches such as institutionalism or econometric or rational choice. It also bridges the gap between the micro-analysis of individuals’ psychology and the macro-analysis common to history and political sociology. This is the reason why political culture can be located as embedding structures and institutions as well as influencing the behavior of leaders and citizens within those structures and institutions. Consequently, individuals are both receivers (through socialization) and agents (producers) of political culture. As a scientific tool, political culture is especially useful to capture the dynamic dimension of politics, both to describe steady changes in public preferences and collective mood as well as to portrait sharp and rapid shifts, as is the case with revolutions or electoral landslides.

From the methodological point of view, studies in political culture rapidly gained a central position in the “soft sciences.” Relying on a hermeneutic (interpretative) approach, cultural endeavors have taken the social researchers out of the departments and into the field to establish direct contact with the everyday experience of the real world. One of the peculiarities of this kind of study is the fact that the researcher encounters, in his or her objects of study, another human being with his or her own cultural background, thus creating an intersubjective exchange. In this close relation, information is collected using surveys, interviews, participant observations, storytelling, and ethno-graphies, all tools that build sensitive rapport between people and facilitate access to the true voice of the interviewees and insight into the motivations of their actions.

Critics of political culture have criticized the approach for its vagueness, the lack of precise specifications in variables and indicators, the weak theory-building power, and the difficulties in establishing reliable comparisons. Culture, because of its subjectivity, is hard to measure, to test, and to verify. Critics have argued that cultural explanations are residual strategies asserting that political culture is used to explain unexplained phenomena.


Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963); Terry Nichols Clark and Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, eds., The New Political Culture (Boulder, CO:Westview Press, 1998); Daniel J. Elazar, American Federalism: A View from the States, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1984); Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977); and Alan Wolfe, One Nation, after All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think about God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other (New York: Viking, 1998).