Political culture of the United States

The political culture of the United States has been influenced by the various European nations which colonized the Americas from the 15th century onwards. During the colonial era of American history, European settlers began emigrating to Colonial America, influencing the political culture in each region they settled in. These influences continued to play a major role in the politics of the United States after the American Revolution and the establishment of the U.S. as an independent country.

Research on the political culture of the USEdit

The political scientist Daniel J. Elazar identified three primary political cultures, generally consistent with those[example needed] of Alexis de Tocqueville. Moralistic political culture evolved out of New England and is characterized by an emphasis of community and civic virtue over individualism. Individualistic political culture arose from Dutch influence in the Mid-Atlantic region; it regards multiculturalism as a practicality and government as a utilitarian necessity. Traditionalistic political culture arose in the South, which elevates social order and family structure to a prominent role. It accepts a natural hierarchy in society and where necessary to protect society, authoritarian leadership in the political and religious realms. [1]

The formation of traditionalistic political culture is often thought to have arisen principally out of Virginia, the first and most populous southern colony. Virginia was also the most politically powerful state after the American Revolution: pursuant to the first census of the United States in 1790 it held a greater percentage of congressional representatives than any other state has ever enjoyed up to the present day. Nevertheless, others argue that South Carolina had the greater influence as a result of its Grand Model enabling slaveholders from Barbados to establish a durable aristocracy. That unique convergence produced a slave society with a majority black population rigidly controlled by the plantation elite. Maintaining such a society required intense political resolve and the development of a mythology of white racial supremacy. The South Carolina hybrid model ultimately spread across the Deep South and was unwavering in its promotion of southern culture, whereas Virginia and other Upper South states were less comfortable with the region’s “peculiar institution” of slavery.[2]

The political scientist Richard Ellis identified egalitarianism, individualism, and hierarchy as defining cultures in American political culture. These principal categories correspond closely with Elazar’s classification. According to Ellis, each of these cultures lays claim to the ideals of equality and liberty articulated by John Locke, but what they are claiming is an only a piece of Locke, and one that is not necessarily consistent with the whole.[3]

Popular authors have found similar divisions within American political culture. Colin Woodard identified eleven “rival regional cultures,” while Joel Garreau identified nine.[4][5]

The social psychologist Peter J. Rentfrow led a research effort that generally supports Elazar's theory of political culture, while finding that psychological variables allow for a more fine-grained geographical analysis. His research on “psychological topography” was based on multiple samples of more than a million respondents. The researchers found “overwhelming evidence for regional variation across the United States on a range of key political, economic, social, and health indicators.”[6]

Appalachian and frontier political cultureEdit

Many settlers who populated the South took to the backcountry, eventually crossing the Appalachians. Of these, the Scots-Irish originating from the Plantation areas of Ireland and the border region between England and Scotland were among the largest and most influential. A Hessian officer reported during the American Revolution that "Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion."[7] While they might be considered a distinct political culture in colonial times, they eventually developed a symbiotic relationship with the Southern planter elite. As W. J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South, “the tradition of aristocracy met and married with the tradition of the backwoods.”[8]

The Frontier Thesis advanced by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 argued that American culture, including political culture, was forged as Americans expanded westward. It was violent and individualistic and yet contained a primitive form of egalitarianism. In Elazar’s view, however, it was the South that acquired these traits most and carried them west to Missouri, Texas, and eventually as far as Southern California.[9]

Lockean liberalism and political cultureEdit

In another unifying thesis about political culture that, like the Frontier Thesis, some have argued that Lockean liberalism is a central underlying explanation of American political culture. Notably, the political scientist Louis Hartz argued that the nation’s founding principles, which were largely drawn from Locke, created a new political culture that was unique to the United States. The nation “begins with Locke,” he wrote, and it “stays with Locke.” He found that Alexis de Tocqueville was first to recognize this when he saw that the nation was the first to create its own democratic future without having to endure revolution.[10]

Urban-rural divideEdit

Political culture can be seen as bifurcated by urban and rural geography. The United States was largely a rural nation until 1920. When the census that year revealed that urban Congressional Districts would exceed those of rural areas, rural congressmen refused to approve reapportionment, the only time that has happened.[11] A cultural divide remains to the present with rural areas often associating with traditionalistic political culture, while urban areas are more often aligned with moralistic and individualistic political culture.

Re-aggregation of political cultures in metropolitan areasEdit

Researchers Dante Chinni and James Gimpel identified twelve cultural communities found throughout the United States, with varying degrees of geographic concentration. The categories are derived from analysis of statistical data, and they offer a more realistic portrayal of the geographically discontinuous cultural fabric of the nation than blanket state and regional categories.[12] In physical space, as in cyberspace, people increasingly sort themselves into communities of choice. That is, people chose where they will live and who they will communicate with. The opportunity to make such choices appears to reinforce political culture.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Elazar, American Federalism, pp. 93–102.
  2. ^ Wilson, The Ashley Cooper Plan, pp. 142–81.
  3. ^ Ellis, American Political Cultures, pp. 1–3, 28–29, 42–44.
  4. ^ Woodard, American nations
  5. ^ Garreau, Nine Nations.
  6. ^ Rentfrow, et al., “Divided We Stand,” pp. 996–1009.
  7. ^ Leyburn 1962, p. 305
  8. ^ Cash, The Mind of the South, p. 72.
  9. ^ Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, pp. xv–xvi
  10. ^ Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America, pp. 6, 35.
  11. ^ Martis and Elmes, Historical Atlas of State Power.
  12. ^ Chinni and Gimpel, Our Patchwork Nation.
  13. ^ Bishop, The Big Sort

Further readingEdit

  • Bishop, Bill. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
  • Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South. Introduction by Betram Bertram Wyatt-Brown. 1941. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  • Chinni, Dante, and James Gimpel. Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America. New York: Gotham Books, 2010.
  • Dochuk, Darren. From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.
  • Elazar, Daniel J. The American Mosaic: The Impact of Space, Time, and Culture on American Politics. Boulder: Westview, 1994.
  • Elazar, Daniel J. Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics. New York: Basic Books. 1970.
  • Ellis, Richard J. American Political Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Garreau, Joel. The Nine Nations of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
  • Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. Orlando: Harcourt, 1955.
  • Key, V. O., Jr. Southern Politics. New York: Vintage Books, 1949.
  • Kincaid, John ed. Political Culture, Public Policy and the American States. Philadelphia: ISHI Press, 1982.
  • Leyburn, James G. Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1999; ISBN 0-8078-4259-1)
  • Martis, Kenneth C. and Gregory A. Elmes. The Historical Atlas of State Power in Congress, 1790–1990. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993.
  • Meinig, D. W. Continental America, 1800–1867. Vol. 2 of The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Rentfrow, Peter J., et al. “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (October 14, 2013): 996–1012.
  • Wilson, Thomas D. The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.
  • Woodard, Colin. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. New York: Viking, 2011.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

External linksEdit