The American political culture’s distinctiveness.
The American political culture’s distinctiveness owes to the special circumstances that gave rise to the nation’s core values—the wilderness society that marked life in the American colonies and was a sharp contrast with European society, with its ruling families and feudal order. Ideas of liberty, equality, individualism, and self-government emerged almost naturally from Americans’ colonial experience, and were at odds with the values of the Old World. These ideas were not the sole cause of the American Revolution but they were, as the Declaration of Independence indicates, its animating ideals. These ideals proved appealing to a wide spectrum of Americans, which contributed to their persistence. With time, they also became the foundation of America’s national identity—the connecting glue in a nation of immigrants.
Like the cultural values of other people, Americans’ core values affect how they think about politics, and the choices they make. The effect of individualism on Americans’ thinking can be seen, for example, in policy areas such as social welfare (the United States is almost alone among industrialized nations in not having a universal system of government-paid health care) and taxation (the United States has nearly the lowest income tax rate among industrialized nations).
As you can see from our reading this week from the Pew Research Center, “How do Americans stand out from the rest of the world?” individualism takes as exaggerated form in the United States. As the study shows:
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Fifty-seven percent of Americans disagreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than most other nations and far above the global median of 38%.
The survey also showed that Americans are more likely to believe that hard work pays off. When asked, on a scale of 0 to 10, about how important working hard is to getting ahead in life, 73% of Americans said it is was a “10” or “very important,” compared with a global median of 50% among the 44 nations.
Your question for this week focuses on American individualism and public policy.
Do you believe that success in life is determined by forces outside your control or does hard work pay off? Based on these views, do you think the government should play a bigger or smaller role in the lives of Americans? For example, should the government provide universal health care? Or should the government ensure that all children get an equal education?