Political Culture and Good Citizenship

How They Shape the Way People Relate to Their Government

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz debating during the 2016 presidential election campaign
GOP Presidential Candidates Trump and Cruz Debate. Getty Images Staff

Political culture is a widely shared set of ideas, attitudes, practices, and moral judgments that shape people’s political behavior, as well as how they relate to their government and to one another. In essence, the various elements of a political culture determine the people’s perception of who is and is not a “good citizen.”

To an extent, the government itself can use outreach efforts like education and public commemorations of historical events to shape political culture and public opinion. When taken to excess, such attempts to control the political culture are often characteristic of the actions of totalitarian or fascist forms of government.

While they tend to reflect the current character of the government itself, political cultures also embody the history and traditions of that government. For example, while Great Britain still has a monarchy, the queen or king has no real power without the approval of the democratically elected Parliament. Yet, while doing away with the now largely ceremonial monarchy would save the government millions of pounds per year, the British people, proud of their tradition of over 1,200 years of being ruled by royalty, would never stand for it. Today, as always, a “good” British citizen reveres the Crown.

While political cultures vary greatly from nation to nation, state to state, and even region to region, they generally tend to remain relatively stable over time.

Political Culture and Good Citizenship

To a great degree, political culture implies the characteristics and qualities that make people good citizens. In the context of political culture, the traits of “good citizenship” transcend the government’s basic legal requirements for attaining citizenship status.

As Greek philosopher Aristotle argued in his treatise Politics, simply living in a nation does not necessarily make a person a citizen of that nation. To Aristotle, true citizenship required a level of supportive participation. As we see today, thousands of lawful permanent resident aliens and immigrants live in the United States as “good citizens” as defined by the political culture without becoming fully naturalized citizens.

Traits of Good Citizens

Good citizens, in their daily lives, demonstrate most of the qualities considered important by the prevailing political culture. A person who lives an otherwise exemplary life but never works to support or improve the community by taking an active part in public life may be considered a good person but not necessarily a good citizen.

In the United States, a good citizen is generally expected to do at least some of these things:

  • Take part in the representative democracy by registering to vote and voting in elections.
  • Run for elected office or volunteer to serve on appointed governing boards.
  • Obey all federal, state, and local laws.
  • Show up for jury duty if called.
  • Be knowledgeable of the basic freedoms, rights, and responsibilities contained in the U.S. Constitution.
  • Pay all applicable federal, state, and local taxes.
  • Remain knowledgeable about political issues and government policy.
  • Volunteer to take part in community improvement programs.
  • Take part in patriotic observances and traditions, like standing for the National Anthem and knowing the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even within the United States, the perception of political culture — thus good citizenship — may vary from region to region. As a result, it important to avoid depending on stereotypes when judging a person’s quality of citizenship. For example, people in one region may place more importance in strict observance of patriotic traditions than those in other regions.

Political Culture Can Change

Though it often takes generations to happen, minds — and thus political culture — can change. For example:

  • Since its colonial period, America has seen periods during which the dominating political culture favored a policy of isolationism from foreign affairs, particularly foreign wars. In each of these cases, threats that foreign wars might directly threaten American lives and freedoms resulted in rapid reversals of the isolationist political culture.
  • As part of President Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping Great Society social reform initiative, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Passed after generations of post-Civil war racial discrimination, the law authorized the use of federal troops to supervise elections in several Southern states in order to protect the voting rights of black Americans. Forty years later, fearing that the racially-charged political culture in the South might still be a threat to the political freedom of blacks, Congress and President George W. Bush enacted the Voting Rights Extension Act of 2006. Today, multi-racial voting coalitions exist throughout the nation and Black-Americans are commonly elected to federal, state, and local offices.

While some political cultures can be changed by the passage of laws, others cannot. In general, elements of a political culture based on deeply-seated beliefs or customs, such as patriotism, religion, or ethnicity are far more resistant to change than those based simply on the government’s policies or practices.

Political Culture and US Nation Building

While it is always difficult and sometimes dangerous, governments often try to influence the political culture of other nations. For example, the United States is known for its often-controversial foreign policy practice called “nation-building” — efforts to convert foreign governments to American-style democracies, often through the use of armed forces.

In October 2000, President George W. Bush came out against nation-building, stating, “I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” But just 11 months later, the September 11, 2001 terror attacks changed the president’s perspective.

As an outgrowth of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has attempted to establish democracies in those nations. However, political cultures have hindered those U.S. nation-building efforts. In both countries, years of long-standing attitudes toward other ethnic groups, religions, women, and human rights shaped by years of tyrannical rule continue to stand in the way.