Surveys of American Public Culture

Preface: Politics and Political Culture: The Critical Difference

James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman

Following politics is like following the weather. We focus on the day’s forecast, project only a few days into the future, and consider the past week distant history. Like weather forecasting, making predictions about long-term election outcomes is risky business, but great sport all the same. Indeed, as with the weather, the only constants in the realm of politics are complexity and endless change. The problem, however, with following politics in the way that one might follow the weather is that one risks missing dramatic changes in the patterns of climate—that is, the cultural milieu in which political action takes place.

Thus, in public life, politics is to the weather what political culture is to the climate. That is, if politics is the manipulation of power, political culture is the normative context within which these manipulations take place. This context includes the ideals, beliefs, values, symbols, stories, and public rituals that bind people together and direct them in common action. Political action emanates from political culture, is a reflection of that culture’s ideals, and, in turn, reinforces that culture’s normative boundaries. Needless to say, the politics of a society may change and change a lot, but the normative context—the political culture—of a society will change only very slowly, and when it does change, its changes will be of great consequence. Political culture provides the boundaries of political legitimacy and the horizons of political possibility. Changes that take place within political culture portend much about the future ordering of public life.

By and large it is the philosopher and the social theorist who have been most interested in political culture. Observers like Jürgen Habermas, Peter Berger, Richard Sennett, the late Christopher Lasch, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert Putnam, Michael Sandel, among others, have written poignantly about the fragmentation of civic culture, about the erosion of the moral foundations for citizenship, about the political significance of new class divisions, and about the loss of legitimacy for key public institutions. Their warnings are ominous, substantiated repeatedly by anecdote, but rarely tested against empirical data.

Surveys on contemporary politics abound. “If you were to vote today, who would you vote for?” “Do you favor or oppose such and such legislation?” And so on. These surveys have their place. We, however, are not primarily interested in political polling. Rather, we are interested in political culture in general. Our survey has attempted to provide a bridge between the theorist and the empiricist, and to compensate for their mutually reinforcing bad tendencies—endless abstraction and mindless number crunching. To be sure, we are under no illusion about the limits of our data. Public opinion surveys touch upon only certain kinds of information about the culture. Though they can never provide the final word on any topic, they are nevertheless important components in any broad analysis of political culture. This survey seeks to bridge the empirical and theoretical, and enables us to speak, even if provisionally, with greater care and specificity about the “climatological” political and cultural changes taking place across America.

Who We Are

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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