Understanding Political Culture

What contributes to political culture and what are its effects?

Passionate people shouting political slogans through megaphones
Passionate people shouting political slogans through megaphones.

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Political culture is the set of commonly-shared beliefs, feelings, and values held by a population regarding its country’s political system. Rather than referring to attitudes toward specific officials, such as presidents or governors, political culture denotes how people view the political system as a whole and their belief in its legitimacy, efficacy, and ability to endure challenges. In daily life, political culture serves as a link between the people and their government.

Key Takeaways: Political Culture

  • Political culture is the set of opinions held by a country’s population regarding its political system
  • Rather than the opinions of specific officials, political culture denotes how people view the political system as a whole.
  • Political culture takes into account the attitudes, values, and beliefs that people in a society have about the political system, including standard assumptions about the way that government works.
  • It denotes how people view the political system and their belief in its legitimacy, efficacy, and ability to endure challenges.
  • Political culture helps build community, facilitates communication, and serves as a link between the people and their government.


Types of Political Cultures 

In a 1963 study of five democratic countries (Germany, Italy, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States), political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba identified three basic types of political culture, which can be used to explain why people do or do not participate in political processes.

In a “parochial” political culture, like that of Mexico, citizens are largely uninformed and unaware of how their government works and have little interest in participating in the political process. In a “subject” political culture, such as those found in Germany and Italy, citizens are somewhat informed and aware of their government and occasionally participate in the political process. In a “participant” political culture, like the United States and the United Kingdom, citizens are more highly informed and motivated to actively participate in the political process.

Other theories of political culture address how political culture takes root and is transferred from generation to generation through political socialization—the lifelong process by which people develop an understanding of their political identities.

For example, American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset's “formative events” theory, describes the long-lasting effects of key events that took place when a country was founded. American political scientist and influential liberal proponent of the idea of American exceptionalism Louis Hartz's “fragment” theory, explains the long-lasting effects of colonialism and imperialism on countries and societies. American political scientist specializing in comparative politics Roger Inglehart's “post-materialism” theory, explains the long-lasting effects of childhood economic and social conditions on political culture and nationalism.

Daniel Elazar, a political scientist known for his seminal studies of the political cultures of the U.S. states, developed an altruistic framework of a “moralistic” political culture that sees the government as a means to better society and promote the common good. Political officials are assumed to be honest in their dealings with others, put the interests of the people they serve above their own, and commit to improving the area they represent. The political process is seen in a positive light and not as a vehicle tainted by corruption. Citizens in moralistic cultures have little patience for corruption and believe that politicians should be motivated by a desire to benefit the community rather than by a need to profit financially from service.

In Elazar’s framework, citizens from moralistic states should be more likely to vote and donate their time and resources to political campaigns. This occurs for two main reasons. First, state law is likely to make it easier for residents to register and vote. Second, citizens who come from moralistic states should be more likely to vote because candidates will be less likely to run unopposed and more likely to face genuine competition from a qualified opponent. According to Elazar, the heightened competition is a function of individuals’ belief that public service is a worthwhile endeavor and an honorable profession.

In contrast, people in states that align with Elazar’s more realistic and common “individualistic” political culture see the government as a means for addressing issues that matter to individuals and for pursuing individual goals. People in the individualistic culture expect the government to provide goods and services they see as essential, and the public officials and bureaucrats who provide them expect to be compensated for their efforts. The focus is on meeting individual needs and private goals rather than on serving the best interests of everyone in the community. New policies will be enacted if politicians can use them to garner support from voters or other interested stakeholders, or if there is great demand for these services on the part of individuals. \

Finally, Elazar argues that in individualistic states, electoral competition does not seek to identify the candidate with the best ideas. Instead, it pits political parties that are well organized and compete directly for votes. Voters are loyal to the candidates who hold the same party affiliation they do. As a result, unlike the case in moralistic cultures, voters pay far less attention to the personalities of the candidates when deciding how to vote and are less tolerant of third-party candidates.

In 2013, American political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart observed that from 1973 to 1987, given nationalities consistently showed relatively high or low levels of a “civic society”—a coherent combination of personal life satisfaction, political satisfaction, interpersonal trust, and support for the existing social order. Those societies that rank high on this syndrome are much likelier to be stable democracies than those that rank low.

National Political Culture 

A few countries that have developed particularly strong national political cultures include the United States, China, and India. The experience of these countries helps to point out the relationship between political culture and national identity.

United States

American political culture can be defined by some basic and commonly shared beliefs, such as a commitment to democracy, equality, capitalism, and individualism. Concepts of individual rights, nationalism, and reliance on a representative legislative body, instead of an individual ruler, are also unique to the U.S. political culture.

The historical origins of American political culture can be traced to the American Revolution and the desire for liberty. Some key events and programs that affected Americans’ sense of achievement and nationalistic pride include the Industrial Revolution, World Wars I and II, and the events of September 11, 2011. Government programs related to cultural beliefs in equality include the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Society of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

China

With its people indoctrinated into the collectivist perspective of the Chinese Communist Party as children, the political culture of China is tied closely to political socialization. This early teaching is thought to explain the delayed growth of secularism in Chinese culture, especially during the Chinese Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Chinese political culture views the relationship between government and citizens to be a hierarchy. Because of this, there is little pushback from individuals during policy and regulatory changes. The political culture also shows a trend against confrontation, which decreases the frequency of social conflict.

Both of these qualities stem from traditional Chinese values embedded during the age of Confucianism. When the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1948, Mao Zedong unsuccessfully attempted to remove these traits from the culture, instead opting for revolutionary values and priorities. 

India

India’s years of colonization by the British Empire influenced the country’s modern political culture by introducing Western ideals that had not been present before. The ideals include democracy and parliamentary systems, two institutions that stood ideologically opposite of the hereditary caste system that had dictated Indian society for more than 2000 years. Because of India's multicultural demography, the political culture varies by group and region. As a result of democratization, political power in India is now shared by the urbanized and well-educated class who focused on national appeal, as well as more traditional, rural, and lower-class political players. The ancient Indian class system is slowly breaking down, with members of lower classes now entering higher political and economic positions. This is especially true for lower-economic-class women, who had historically been excluded from political activity. 

Political culture often leads to the formation of different viewpoints of people towards their national identity—the sense of one’s belonging to the nation and the extent to which people believe being a member of that nation is important. Extensive research has found that citizens’ relationships with their nation overlap to varying degrees with their political views. 

What makes the members of a given society assume a unique identity for themselves, is mainly their culture and its symbolic aspects.

Since Sidney Verba wrote The Civic Culture in 1963, national identity has been considered to be a central component of political culture. Irish political scientist Brian Girvin, for example, asserts that political culture is split into three levels: the “macrolevel,” consisting of a core of national identity and rarely questioned; the meso-level consisting of long-term but contested political “rules of the game,” such as limited government, free markets, low taxes, individuality, and self-determination; and the micro-level, at which “normal political activity,” such as elections, occurs.

Elements of Political Culture

Young woman shouting while protesting for rights.
Young woman shouting while protesting for rights.

Maskot / Getty Images

As political scientist, W. Lance Bennett wrote in his 1980 book News: The Politics of Illusion, the elements of political culture can be hard to analyze. “They are rather like the lenses in a pair of glasses: they are not the things we see when we look at the world; they are the things we see with.”

Political culture can be thought of as a nation’s political personality. It encompasses the deep-rooted, well-established political traits that are characteristic of a society. Political culture takes into account the attitudes, values, and beliefs that people in a society have about the political system, including standard assumptions about the way that government works. 

Political culture helps build community and facilitate communication because people share an understanding of how and why political events, actions, and experiences occur in their country.

In his 1994 book The American Mosaic, Daniel Elazar wrote that political culture includes formal rules as well as customs and traditions, sometimes referred to as “habits of the heart,” that are passed on generationally. People agree to abide by certain formal rules, such as the country’s constitution and codified laws. They also live by unwritten rules: for example, the willingness of people in the United States to accept the outcomes of elections without resorting to violence—the so-called “peaceful transition of power.” Political culture sets the boundaries of acceptable political behavior in a society.

Aspects of public life that contribute to a country’s political culture and national identity go beyond voting in elections and include working on political campaigns, donating money to candidates or causes, contacting public officials, petitioning, protesting, and working on issues with other people.

Sources

  • Almond, Gabriel Abraham and Verba, Sidney. “The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations.” Princeton Legacy Library; 1963; ISBN: 9780691651682.
  • Inglehart, Ronald F. “Democratization.” Oxford University Press; February 21, 2019; ISBN-10: ‎0198732287.
  • Weisband, Edward. “Political Culture and the Making of Modern Nation-States.” Routledge; June 30, 2015; ISBN-10: ‎1612057845.
  • Bennett, W. Lance. “Public Opinion in American Politics.” Harcourt College Pub; January 1, 1980; ISBN-10: ‎0155738100.
  • Elazar, Daniel J. “The American Mosaic.” Westview Press; January 25, 1994; ISBN-10: ‎0813309484.
  • Bennett, W. Lance. “News: The Politics of Illusion.” University of Chicago Press; September 14, 2016; ASIN: ‎B01JULGSGY
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Longley, Robert. "Understanding Political Culture." ThoughtCo, Jan. 9, 2023, thoughtco.com/understanding-political-culture-6832806. Longley, Robert. (2023, January 9). Understanding Political Culture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-political-culture-6832806 Longley, Robert. "Understanding Political Culture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-political-culture-6832806 (accessed February 2, 2023).