Introduction
The reason we employ the term “political culture” in the title of this work is to rec-
ognize that a subject as rich and exasperating as American politics is to be found not
just in politics or political institutions per se but also in the culture. Thus, we examine
here, along with traditional “political” topics such as political parties, public opinion,
interest groups, constitutional questions, and campaigns and elections, various “cul-
tural” elements and constituencies, including the media, religious groups, cultural
symbols, ideologies, and historical influences. The materials we look at consist of
political speeches, news accounts, opinion forums, memoirs, political rituals, films,
and televised debates, among others. “Culture,” as used here, refers not simply to
the arts (though these are discussed) but to the ways in which society makes mean-
ing of and interprets its own actions (Geertz 1973). The ways, say, that one responds
to political figures—the feelings they evoke, the reactions they invite, the meanings
they embody—are not the result of categorical imperatives or “natural” impulses but
rather the stuff of political upbringing (political socialization) and experience. All of
us import our values and experiences into our perceptions of the world. The images
we form, the understandings we hold, regarding leaders, current events, economic con-
ditions, and so on, shape and spur our political actions. From an external viewpoint,
making sense of those actions entails capturing the ideas and understandings people
have about their political world. In the present work, we accomplish that goal largely
by throwing a wide net over American society and politics, seeing both as always al-
ready enmeshed in a cultural reality.
Development of the Concept of Political Culture
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which some call the first study
of political culture (although Tocqueville did not use that term), the author describes
voluntary associations and how they shape (and are shaped by) the attitudes of their
members. Tocqueville saw government itself as a kind of human association, an effort
to come together—democratically, in the case of the United States—to order societal
affairs. Tocqueville stressed the place of religion, individualism, and egalitarianism
in the making of American political culture. He did not see these as “clear and dis-
tinct ideas,” in the manner of many thinkers of his era. Rather, he understood each
component or element as being in tension with others: religious faith was in tension
Previous Page Next Page