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American attitudes about government and politics: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the values that make up American political culture.  
Equality of opportunity, the rule of law, limited government: these are core values that most Americans across the ideological spectrum say they believe in.
But interpretations of what these values mean can vary wildly, and different citizens place more weight on some values over others. These differences in interpretation and relative importance of values shape citizen beliefs about the role of government, and play a role in determining which party people side with in major elections.

Key terms

American political cultureThe values that influence individuals’ attitudes and beliefs about the relationship between citizens and the federal government.
equality of opportunityThe belief that each person should have the same opportunities to advance in society.
free enterpriseThe belief in the right to compete freely in a market government by supply and demand with limited government involvement.
ideologyThe beliefs and ideas that help to shape political opinion and policy.
individualismThe principle of valuing individual rights over those of the government, with a strong emphasis on individual initiative and responsibility.
limited governmentA political system in which there are restrictions placed on the government to protect individual rights and liberties.
rule of lawThe principle that government is based on a body of law applied equally and fairly to every citizen, not on the whims of those in charge, and that no one is above the law, including the government.

Key takeaways

Interpretations of core values affect attitudes about the role of government: Different Americans may have very different interpretations of certain core values, leading to differing opinions on the role of government.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Desiree interprets individualism to mean that the government should have no interference in the economy or the social habits of American citizens. Meanwhile, Yuki thinks that individualism means the government should not interfere with rights protected under the Bill of Rights, but should absolutely get involved if businesses or states infringe on those rights.
Many American citizens also support the idea of free enterprise, but differ when it comes to what they believe about it. For instance, some people believe it’s the federal government’s responsibility to regulate free markets and guarantee that no business is taking advantage of workers. Others believe the federal government should leave markets and workers to figure things out for themselves, and that regulations harm the economy by limiting productivity and profitability.
These interpretations of core values can lead to the development of different political ideologies. Political parties use political ideologies to inform their stances and to encourage citizens to vote for their candidates. If you believe the government should regulate free markets, vote for Candidate A! If you believe the federal government should have no involvement, vote for Candidate B!
Competing ideological differences can also lead to tension in policymaking. For example, a proposal for universal, government-sponsored health care is likely to cause tension between the competing values of equality of opportunity (everyone should have the opportunity to be healthy, regardless of their family income) and limited government (the government should not involve itself in citizens' health; that would give it too much power over their private lives).
Check your understanding
Which of the following policies is most likely to cause tension between the competing values of free enterprise and rule of law?
Choose 1 answer:

How political scientists use core values: Political scientists don’t measure how much Americans believe in values; rather, they measure the attitudes people form about these values. For instance, political scientists won’t create a survey question that asks “how much do you believe in equality of opportunity?” Instead, they’ll measure the extent to which people agree with a statement like “Federal benefits don’t go far enough to help poor people live decently and bridge opportunity gaps.”

Review questions

What are two different interpretations of equality of opportunity? How can the difference in interpretation lead to conflict between American citizens?
Think of an example of two recent presidential candidates whose different interpretations of a core American value aligned them with different political ideologies concerning the role of the federal government. How did these ideological differences impact their campaigns?
What is one research question a political scientist might come up with that would measure different interpretations of limited government?

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Ishan Khare
    What is the difference between equality of results and equality of opportunity?
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew Chen
      Equality of result is focused on what ends up happening. For example, affirmative action is meant for equality of result; colleges want all races to have the same probability of being accepted regardless of how great they are academically. Equality of opportunity is more about the process; for example, everyone is allowed to start a business but there's no guarantee that it will succeed.
      (5 votes)
  • mr pants green style avatar for user Cash Pruitt Gravitt
    Q2: Donald Trump V. Joe Biden
    Trump ran as a Republican, (or conservative,) candidate with one core value involving taxes, which was that he wished to cut taxes for many individuals and small businesses, whereas Biden, (the Democratic, or Liberal candidate,) wished to raise taxes on the rich and many businesses. These views could have had an enormous effect in this area of the election, where more entrepreneurs and businesses may have voted for Trump, as opposed to Biden.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user schultze858
    Do people have to earn their rights or are we born with them?
    (1 vote)
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