Political culture refers to the ideologies, values, beliefs, norms, customs, traditions, and heroes that shape political behavior. In the United States, certain core values are said to be a part of the “American creed.” Those values include support for individualism, democracy, and political equality, though a full accounting would also include less positive tendencies, as well, as political scientist Rogers Smith has noted in his multiple-traditions account of American civic ideals.
Political culture is passed on from generation to generation through a process of political socialization. That process involves “agents” of socialization that communicate key values and beliefs. Some of the actors involved in this dynamic process include parents, teachers, friends, coworkers, church associates, club members, sports teams, mass media, and popular culture in general.
Public opinion is related to political culture but typically refers to specific (sometimes fleeting) attitudes and beliefs about particular issues and personalities of the day. One important measure of democratic health is the degree to which public opinion influences the creation of public policy. As we have seen, that relationship is a problematic one given the growth of inequality and the uneven distribution of political resources.
There is disagreement about the extent to which political leaders should take the public’s views into account compared with the advice of experts. The average citizen tends not to have a good understanding of issues and related policies. That said, elites do not have a particularly stellar record of policy-making, either. Deliberative polling is an attempt to give people the opportunity to become more informed about issues and to contemplate policy options in the hope that an informed democratic process can emerge.