What are the beliefs and values most commonly found in American politics? It is important to know these beliefs and values if one is to understand the political psyche that exists in America and which have percolated into the executive, legislative and judicial systems that makes up America’s political structure.
This political culture does change and modify as a result of several complex processes such as socialisation and feedback from the political system. Individuals may develop political beliefs from their parents, friends etc. (socialisation) or they may develop in response to certain political issues and/or political responses (feedback).
In 1996, a much higher percentage of Black Americans voted for Bill Clinton than Bob Dole presumably as they felt that one through his experience of being president was better able to deliver than the other who had no experience of executive power. Likewise, far more women voted for Clinton than Dole. In 2000, this trend continued with a significantly higher number of women voting for Gore and 90% of Black Americans also voting for Gore. A much larger number of men voted for Bush and what are classed as small towns and small cities voted in much higher numbers for the eventual winner – Bush.
Why have these patterns occurred?
The political culture in America effectively supports the political structure and as a result there is very little likelihood of the structure changing. There are radical social scientists like Katznelson and Kesselman who believe that America’s political culture is imposed from the top in an attempt to legitimise the political structure. This belief is known as the “dominant ideology” and those who support this theory believe that its logic is to instill in the people that the political system in America is the only one possible and that any change could do enormous damage.
Samuel Huntington in his book “American Politics” summarised America’s political culture as “liberty, equality, individualism, democracy and the rule of law under a constitution.”
Research has indicated that Americans are very keen to support free speech when associated with general statements e.g. “People who hate America’s way of life should still have a chance to express their views and be heard.” However, there would appear to be a much lower level of support for specific statements e.g. “This book which contains unacceptable political views cannot be a good book and does not deserve to be published.” Research indicates that about 80% of Americans would agree with the first statement but only 50% would support the second one.
In 1954 only 37% of those surveyed in America believed that people had the right to make atheistcomments. By 1972, this had increased to 65% and by 1991, to 72%.
In 1954, 27% of those surveyed in America believed that people had the right to state their support forcommunism. By 1972, this had increased to 52% and by 1991, to 67%.
In 1954, 17% of those surveyed in America believed that people had the right to express racist views. By 1976, this had increased to 61%, and by 1991, to 62%.
Research from the above study also indicated that support for specific freedom of beliefs was much higher among the educated “elite” as opposed to the mass public.
The belief in freedom of speech and thought is not uniquely American and there have been times in America’s history where they have not been upheld – such as during the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s and the attitude of some white southerners during the civil rights campaigns in the 1960’s. The expression of “un-American” views during the protests during the Vietnam War brought a similar response. However, in general, America has moved towards greater social tolerance and the above statistics would seem to bear this out. But these same statistics could provide other interpretations.
If in 1991, 67% of those surveyed believed that people had the right to express their support for communism, then 33% either were neutral on this issue or believed the opposite. With an adult population of 200 million, this would represent a sizeable figure if such a sentiment is true for the whole of America and if the sample group for this survey was truly reflective of American ideals.
Regardless of this, Americans do enjoy considerable legal rights that protect the rights of freedom of speech and thought etc. Likewise, within the confines of the law, the media and the newspapers enjoy a great deal of freedom to investigate and publish or produce. It was a newspaper investigation by the “Washington Post” that started the proceedings that lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon.
If problems occur with regards to freedom of speech it is frequently a problem on a local arena as opposed to a national one, though with the growth of communications throughout America, any violation of individual freedoms at a local level can be quickly dealt with by higher authorities…….at least in theory.
Equality is another belief that is ingrained into the American psyche. Early visitors to America such as de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens commented favourably with regards to this and both noted that each American had a tendency to treat everybody as an equal regardless of education, occupation or social class. “Equality” was one of the rallying cries of the American Revolution ; though this was more a comment on equality of opportunity rather than equality of condition. The theory was that if everyone (except slaves) was granted equality under the law, every individual would be capable of achieving self-fulfilment and their best.
Those who support the dominant ideology claim that the constant stress on equality of opportunity helps to legitimise what is a very unequal society.
Equality before the law and equality of dignity are both highly developed in America and the legislation that is in place to protect citizens from other people or authorities is far-reaching and enforced. In recent years discrimination against women and racial minorities has been the focus of these laws “but the idea that all citizens, irrespective of background, should be treated equally is deeply entrenched.” (McKay)
Individual action remains a very important belief in America. The apparent rejection of collective action has lead to trade union membership remaining low. Self-reliance remains a very strong value and there is no great public support for what are called “welfare scroungers”. Private institutions run by those with a vested interest in them are far more preferred than public ones.
Americans are antipathetic to government provision in general but research shows that there is a greater level of support for specific provisions such as education and health which is probably the result of a much higher government involvement in such issues in recent years.
Economic individualism remains an important belief and explains the great support for capitalism. The development of America as a nation is essentially explained by the expansion of capitalism and its needs. America has however, witnessed occasional lapses into collective action such as McCarthyism in the 1950’s and the growth of fundamental Christian churches in the 1980’s where individuals went with the masses.
The whole issue of the importance of the individual does clash with the belief in equality of opportunity. Positive discrimination has made it more possible for certain groups such as the disabled, Black Americans etc. to become more involved in American society. Some colleges in ethnically mixed areas have to put aside a certain number of student places for ethnic minorities at the expense of other groups. This approach obviously mitigates against the individual who in this case loses out to another because a ruling states that this is what should be done. This clash continues to cause tension in American society and in 1996, voters in California voted to ban positive discrimination.
This belief in individualism has lead to less support in America for government action which would impact the individual over certain issues when compared to other countries. The following table shows the percentageof people in America, Great Britain and Germany who agree that……
|Agree government should……..||USA||Germany||Britain|
|control wages by legislation||23||28||32|
|reduce working week to create more jobs||27||51||49|
|provide health care||40||57||85|
|finance job creation projects||70||73||83|
|spend more on old age pensions||47||53||81|
|reduce differences between those with a high and low income||38||66||65|
|impose seat belt wearing||49||82||80|
|ban smoking in public places||46||49||51|
The Republican Party has usually been associated with laws that seek to respect the individual while the Democratic Party has been associated with supporting disadvantaged groups.
The vast bulk of America supports the concept of democracy. Thus the results of elections are well respected and the support of majority opinion has lead to some curious policies being followed by politicians as they were known to enjoy majority support. The “Three strikes and you’re out” policy enjoyed great public support despite people being put in jail for life for what would appear to be the most trivial of reasons. One petty thief was sentenced to life in prison for his third conviction of theft – stealing a pizza on a Californian beach. But the rule’s popularity meant that it came in as it had majority support.
Research by Almond and Verba in the 1960’s indicated that 82% of Americans supported a system of government based on the Constitution. There is still evidence that supports their findings though the figure may be somewhat down. Very few Americans seek to emigrate or openly criticise the system based on the Constitution. However, far more people are now disillusioned with the party system, the presidency and federal bureaucracy.
Research between 1960 and 1992 clearly indicated that there had been a decline in the support the federal government could expect to get on issues such as whether it cared about the people, did it care only about a few interest groups, did it waste money etc. Confidence took a battering over such issues as Vietnam, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis. Support for the federal government increased under the presidency of Reagan but appeared to slide once again under Clinton. His eight years in office will always be blighted by the fact that he had to admit publicly that he lied about his adultery. He faced more vocal opponents from the Democrats in Congress than from Republicans as they felt that Clinton have severely damaged the standing of the president and as he represented the Democrats, this would tarnish the party in the eyes of the American people.
However, the public was not alienated by the system – only by institutions and/or individuals. Democracy appears to be a highly respected concept – as is the rule of law. It may well be the case that the trouble that has tainted politics in America in recent years which culminated in Clinton appearing in front of a grand jury and in over 70% of Americans believing that he had lied over the Lewinsky issue (before he had to admit it) has made them more sophisticated with regards to their understanding of politics and that the traditional respect that politicians expected from the public now has to be seen to being earned rather than just being taken for granted.
Very few challenges have emerged from America’s society that have threatened the system in America. Issues such as civil rights and Vietnam have all been accommodated by the existing structure and any new parties at national elections have received only minority support. Samuel Huntingdon simply refers to this as “Americanism” in his book “American Politics”.