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The Struggle for American Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

James A. Morone
Affiliation:
Brown University

Extract

Is there an American political culture? Do Americans share a set of attitudes and assumptions powerful enough to shape their politics? A generation ago, most social scientists thought so. Important books bore titles like The American Mind (Henry Steel Commager 1950), The American Political Tradition (Richard Hofstadter 1948), or The Americans: The National Experience (Daniel Boorstin 1965). Critics occasionally damned the cultural consensus for its suffocating homogeneity (Hingham 1959), but few questioned its existence.

Today, agreement over a shared American culture has vanished. Some observers insist that it is still going strong. Americans, they argue, remain deeply committed to their core beliefs—things like individualism, equal opportunity, political rights, and government bashing. (Greenstone 1986, 1993; Huntington 1981) Others fear that centrifugal cultural forces bode serious trouble. America increasingly “belittles unum and glorifies pluribus,” writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Ethnic militancy “nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences, and stirs antagonisms…. Will the Center hold? or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel” (1993 17–18)? And still others cheer precisely the diversity that Schlesinger laments. American political culture, they argue, was more the hegemony of the powerful than any real harmony among the people. From this perspective, that “Babel” is the welcome sound of overlooked voices. (Thelen and Hoxie 1994; Fox and Lears 1993; Foner 1990)

Type
Vote For Me: Politics in America
Copyright
Copyright © The American Political Science Association 1996

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