Political culture is that set of ideas which Americans share widely about who should govern, for what ends, and by what means. Values are shared ideas about what is good. Beliefs are shared ideas about what is true. Beliefs often provide a foundation for values. For instance, the belief that God endowed humankind with rights to life, liberty, and property is a foundation for giving these concepts the status of values in our political culture. Subcultures also exist, such as those based on religion, race, or ethnic identity, holding different, or even deviant beliefs and values.
Actual conditions (for example, slavery before the Civil War) may contradict cultural values (for example, equality), creating pressures for political action. The existence of a shared political culture does not prevent conflict over pressures to reconcile actual social conditions with desired cultural values, or one value with another.
Classical liberalism, which asserts the dignity of individuals and their rational ability to control their own destinies, is central to American political culture.
It derives from Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the heritage of European feudalism such as:
*John Locke (natural law implies limited government, rather than absolute monarchy)
*Jean-Jacques Rousseau (social contract, rather than the divine right of kings)
*Adam Smith (free markets under capitalism, rather than mercantilism)
America's Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, drew directly from the thinkers of the Enlightenment when writing the Constitution.
The cultural value of equality means that, in the abstract, Americans believe no person is better than anyone else. This applies especially to legal equality, where every citizen is supposed to have equal rights before the law, such as the right to a speedy trial.
Political equality trailed the development of legal equality, with constitutional amendments not guaranteeing the vote for ex-slaves until 1868, women until 1920, and voting rights...