United States Government: Shared Political Culture and Civic Engagement

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the importance of citizens engaging with or accessing their government
  • Discuss shared beliefs, values, and political culture
  • Describe the primary ways Americans can influence and become engaged with government
  • Discuss factors influencing people’s willingness to become engaged with government

Participation in government matters. Although people may not get all they desire, they can achieve many goals and improve their lives through civic engagement. The pluralist theory asserts government cannot function without active participation by at least some citizens. Even if we believe the elite make important political decisions, participation through voting may change which elites are in powerful positions of authority. Whether individuals think elites, groups, or people control government, many share beliefs about American political culture that affect their level of civic engagement/participation with government.

SHARED POLITICAL CULTURE: VALUES AND BELIEFS

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of a shared political culture are values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs.

GOVT 2305 Government Agents of Socialization Chart

Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, Americans commonly believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is good and important.

GOVT 2305 Government Elements of Shared Political Culture Chart

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided. Consider the value that the United States places upon egalitarianism or the belief that everyone should be treated equally by the government regardless of other factors such as age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc.  The United States also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individualism and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value.  Americans tend to value populism or the belief that the people are in control of the government and the government should protect our liberty/freedoms whether political, social or economic.  Additionally, most Americans think capitalism or a market based economy is the best economic system.

Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It is easy to value good health, but it is hard to quit smoking. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the United States, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not accurately reflect how people do behave. Values portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices.

One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviors by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and nonsupport. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. From a criminal justice perspective, properly used social control is also inexpensive crime control. Utilizing social control pushes most people to conform to societal rules, regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.

When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers.[1] A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.

Two male soldiers in uniform are shown from behind walking and holding hands.

In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, it is considered normal for men to hold hands in friendship. How would Americans react to these two soldiers? (Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott/Wikimedia Commons)

Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It is rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in the United States where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light when people reacted to photos of former president George W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries great symbolic differences across cultures.

POPULISM: HOW DO PEOPLE GET INVOLVED?

If Americans value populism and want the people rather than elites in charge of the government, why are fewer people today active in politics than in the past? Political scientist Robert Putnam has argued that civic engagement is declining; although many Americans may report belonging to groups, these groups are usually large and impersonal. People who join groups such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace may share certain values and ideals with other members of the group, but they do not actually interact with these other members.[2] Putnam argues that a decline in social capital—”the collective value of all ‘social networks’ [those whom people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”—accompanies an observed decline in membership in small, interactive groups.[3]

link to learningTo learn more about political engagement in the United States, read “The Current State of Civic Engagement in America” by the Pew Research Center.

 

Civic engagement can increase the power of ordinary people to influence government actions. Even those without money or connections to influential people can influence the policies affecting their lives and change the direction of government. U.S. history is filled with examples of people actively challenging the power of elites, gaining rights for themselves, and protecting their interests. Slavery was once legal in the United States and large sectors of the U.S. economy were dependent on this forced labor. Slavery was outlawed and blacks were finally recognized as possessing citizenship and individual rights–resulting from abolitionists’ pressure. Although some abolitionists were wealthy white men, most were ordinary people including men and women of both races. White women and blacks were able to actively assist in the campaign to end slavery despite the fact that, with few exceptions, they were unable to vote.

A print from 1870 that shows several scenes of African Americans participating in everyday activities. Under the scenes is the text

The print above, published in 1870, celebrates the extension of the right to vote to African American men. The various scenes show legal rights denied to African Americans.

The rights gained by these activists and others have dramatically improved the quality of life for many in the United States. Civil rights legislation did not focus solely on the right to vote or to hold public office; it also integrated schools and public accommodations, prohibited discrimination in housing and employment, and increased access to higher education. Activists for women’s rights fought for and won greater reproductive freedom for women, better wages, and access to credit. Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and intercourse between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in many states.

Activism may also improve people’s lives in less dramatic ways. Working to make cities clean up vacant lots, destroy or rehabilitate abandoned buildings, build more parks and playgrounds, pass ordinances requiring people to curb their dogs, and ban late-night noise greatly improves people’s quality of life. The actions of individual Americans can make their own lives better and improve their neighbors’ lives as well.

Government cannot work effectively without the participation of informed citizens. Engaged citizens familiarize themselves with the most important issues confronting the country and with the plans different candidates have for dealing with those issues. They vote for the candidates they believe will be best suited to the job, and they may join others to raise funds or campaign for those they support. They inform their representatives how they feel about important issues. Through these efforts and others, engaged citizens let their representatives know what they want and thus influence policy. Only then can government actions accurately reflect the interests and concerns of the majority. Even people who believe the elite rule government should recognize that it is easier for them to do so if ordinary people make no effort to participate in public life.

PATHWAYS TO ENGAGEMENT

People can become civically engaged in many ways, either as individuals or as members of groups. Some forms of individual engagement require very little effort. Awareness is the first step toward engagement. News is available from a variety of reputable sources, such as newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the New York Times; national news shows, including those offered by the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio; and reputable internet sites.

Another form of individual engagement is to write or email government representatives. Filing a complaint with the city council is another avenue of engagement. City officials cannot fix problems of which they are unaware. Responding to public opinion polls, actively contributing to a political blog, or starting a new blog are all examples of active engagement.

Voting is a fundamental way to engage with government. Individual votes do matter. City council members, local judges, some local law enforcement officials, mayors, state legislators, governors, and members of Congress are all chosen by popular vote. Although the president of the United States is not chosen directly by popular vote but by a group called the Electoral College, the votes of individuals in their home states determine how the Electoral College ultimately votes. Registering to vote beforehand is necessary in most states and many states allow registration online.

An image of a large group of people lined up along a sidewalk.

Voters line up to vote early outside an Ohio polling station in 2008. Many who had never voted before did so because of the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. (credit: Dean Beeler)

Individuals may engage by attending political rallies, donating money to campaigns, and signing petitions. Starting a petition of one’s own is relatively easy, and some websites that encourage involvement provide petitions that can be circulated through email. Participating in a poll or survey is another simple way to make your voice heard and be counted.

Young Americans are often reluctant to become involved in traditional forms of political activity. They may believe politicians are not interested in what they have to say, or they may feel their votes do not matter. However, this attitude has not always prevailed. Indeed, today’s college students can vote because of the activism of college students in the 1960s. Most states at that time required citizens to be twenty-one years of age before they could vote in national elections. This angered many young people, especially young men who could be drafted to fight the war in Vietnam. They argued that it was unfair to deny eighteen-year-olds the right to vote for the people who had the power to send them to war. As a result, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age in national elections to eighteen, was ratified by the states and went into effect in 1971.

Some people prefer to work with groups when participating in political activities or performing service to the community. Group activities can be as simple as hosting a book club or discussion group to talk about politics. Coffee Party USA provides an online forum for people from a variety of political perspectives to discuss issues of concern to them. People who wish to be more active often work for political campaigns. Helping with fundraising efforts, handing out bumper stickers and campaign buttons, helping people register to vote, and driving voters to the polls on Election Day are all important activities that anyone can engage in. Individual citizens can also join interest groups promoting causes they favor.

Getting Involved

There is ample opportunity for average citizens to become active in government, whether through a city council subcommittee or another type of local organization. Civic organizations always need volunteers, both short and long term.

For example, Common Cause is a non-partisan organization seeking government accountability. It calls for campaign finance reform and paper verification of votes registered on electronic voting machines. Voters would then receive proof that the machine recorded their actual vote. This would help to detect faulty machines that were inaccurately tabulating votes or election fraud. Common Cause has also advocated that the Electoral College be done away with and that presidential elections be decided solely on the basis of the popular vote.

Check out some other groups…

An image of several people working together to build the wooden framework of a building.

After the Southern California wildfires in 2003, sailors from the USS Ronald Reagan helped volunteers rebuild houses in San Pasqual as part of Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity builds homes for low-income people. (credit: Johansen Laurel, U. S. Navy)

More active and direct forms of engagement include protest marches and demonstrations, including civil disobedience. Such tactics were used successfully in the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and remain effective today. Other tactics, such as boycotting businesses of whose policies the activists disapproved, are also still common. There are now “buycotts,” in which consumers purchase goods and services from companies that give extensively to charity, help the communities in which they are located, or take steps to protect the environment.

FACTORS OF ENGAGEMENT

Many Americans engage in political activity on a regular basis. A 2008 survey revealed that approximately two-thirds of American adults had participated in some type of political action in the past year. These activities included largely non-personal activities that did not require significant interaction with others.[4]

An image of three people behind a table. On the table are serval large open containers of food. A crowd of people is in the background.

Volunteers fed people at New York’s Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protest in September 2011. (credit: David Shankbone)

Americans aged 18–29 were less likely to become involved in political activity than older Americans. A 2015 poll of more than three thousand young adults by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics revealed that only 22 percent claimed to be politically engaged, and fewer than 10 percent said that they belonged to any type of political organization or had volunteered for a political campaign. Only slightly more claimed they had gone to political rallies.[5] However, although Americans under age thirty are less likely than older Americans to engage in traditional types of political participation, many remain engaged in activities on behalf of their communities. One-third reported that they had voluntarily engaged in some form of community service in the past year[6]

GOVT 2305 Student Resource Policy Making Diagram

Why are younger Americans less likely to become involved in traditional political organizations and a more traditional policy making path? One answer may be that as American politics become more partisan in nature, young people turn away. Committed partisanship, which is the tendency to identify with and to support (often blindly) a particular political party, alienates some Americans who feel that elected representatives should vote in support of the nation’s best interests instead of voting in the way their party wishes them to. When elected officials ignore all factors other than their party’s position on a particular issue, some voters become disheartened while others may become polarized. However, a recent study reveals that it is a distrust of the opposing party and not an ideological commitment to their own party that is at the heart of most partisanship among voters.[7]

Young Americans are particularly likely to be put off by partisan politics. More Americans under the age of thirty now identify themselves as Independents instead of Democrats or Republicans. Instead of identifying with a particular political party, young Americans are increasingly concerned about specific issues, like same-sex marriage.[8]

The likelihood that people will become active in politics also depends not only on age but on wealth and education. In a 2006 poll, the percentage of people who reported that they were regular voters grew as levels of income and education increased.[9]

Questions to Consider

  1. What kinds of people are most likely to become active in politics or community service?
  2. What political activities can people engage in other than running for office?
  3. Is citizen engagement necessary for government to function? Explain.
  4. Which is the more important reason for being engaged: to gain power or improve the quality of life? Why?
  5. Are all Americans equally able to become engaged in government?
  6. What factors make it more possible for some people to become engaged than others? What could be done to change this?
  7. Are there problems with allowing interest groups to exercise influence over government? Explain.
  8. Are you engaged in or at least informed about actions of the federal or local government?
  9. Are you registered to vote?
  10. How would you feel if you were not allowed to vote until age twenty-one?

Terms to Remember

beliefs–the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true

capitalism–economic system, a market based economy, free markets

egalitarianism— the belief that everyone should be treated equally by the government

ideal culture–the standards society would like to embrace and live up to

individualism–independence of the individual, each individual has value regardless of any factor of birth or circumstance

liberties–freedoms possessed because an individual is a human being with reasoning capabilities; life, liberty and property; basic freedoms

partisanship–strong support, or even blind allegiance, for a particular political party

populism–belief that the people are in control of the government

real culture–the way society actually is

values–a culture’s standard for discerning or determining what is good and just in society


  1. Singh v. Baidwan (2016) http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/memoranda/2016/06/02/14-16287.pdf
  2. Robert D. Putnam. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 75.
  3. ———. 1995. "Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6: 66–67, 69; "About Social Capital," https://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/about-social-capital (May 2, 2016).
  4. Aaron Smith et al., 1 September 2009. "The Current State of Civic Engagement in America," http://www.pewinternet.org/2009/09/01/the-current-state-of-civic-engagement-in-america/.
  5. Harvard Institute of Politics, "Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service," Survey, October 30, 2015–November 9, 2015. http://www.iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files_new/pictures/151208_Harvard_IOP_Fall_2015_Topline.pdf
  6. Keller, "Young Americans are Opting Out."
  7. Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph, "Why Don’t Americans Trust the Government?" The Washington Post, 30 January 2014.
  8. Keller, "Young Americans are Opting Out."
  9. 18 October 2006. "Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why," http://www.people-press.org/2006/10/18/who-votes-who-doesnt-and-why/.