4.1—American Attitudes About Government & Politics

Our nation is experiencing profound political divisions, reminiscent of some of the most contentious periods in our history such as the years leading up to the Civil War. The extent of this divide is alarming to many and has implications for our ability to address critical issues like climate change and economic stability. The way in which we increasingly prioritize defeating the “other side” is crippling our ability to govern and solve problems we face as a nation. This unit aims to build an informed understanding of our political atmosphere, and begins with 5 “core values” that shape American politics, the attitudes we have about the role of government, and the relationship we have with one another.

What you need to learn

How do our core values & beliefs shape our attitudes toward the role of government, our relationship with government, and our relationships with each other?

The 5 Core Values


-Equality of Opportunity

-Free Enterprise

-Rule of Law

-Limited Government

American Attitudes About Government & Politics

Understanding the Right/Left, Liberal versus Conservative Spectrum

One of the foundational concepts in American politics is the ideological spectrum. At a basic level, it measures how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ one’s political beliefs are. These are general terms and there’s a broad range of beliefs within each, but they serve as helpful categorizations:

  • Liberal (Left-leaning): Often supports the need for governmental intervention to achieve social justice and tends to be open to new ideas and social reforms. Liberals usually emphasize the need for the government to solve people’s problems.
  • Conservative (Right-leaning): Emphasizes limited government intervention in daily life, prefers traditional values, and believes in personal responsibility. Conservatives often believe the role of the government should be limited and that society’s problems can be best solved through individual and private sector efforts.

The 5 Core American Values

  1. Individualism: The belief in the unique worth of each individual. This means that everyone has the right to freedom, independence, and the pursuit of happiness.
  2. Equality of Opportunity: Not everyone will end up in the same place, but everyone should have an equal chance to make the best of their lives.
  3. Free Enterprise: The economic system should be left to the private sector with little intervention from the government.
  4. Rule of Law: We govern by the rule of law, and everyone is subject to the law, regardless of their status. It implies that every person is equal under the law.
  5. Limited Government: The power of the government should be restricted by law, often through a constitution, to protect individual rights.

Divergent Interpretations: Conservative and Liberal Views

1. Individualism

  • Conservatives believe in the importance of individual liberty without too much governmental intervention. This means reduced regulations and a focus on personal responsibility. Example: Conservatives might oppose welfare programs, arguing they discourage individual initiative.
  • Liberals stress that individual rights can sometimes only be fully realized with government support. Example: Liberals might support welfare programs, believing they provide necessary support to individuals who face systemic challenges.

2. Equality of Opportunity

  • Conservatives often see this as ensuring everyone has the same starting line without guaranteeing the same finish line. This might mean opposing affirmative action, viewing it as reverse discrimination. Example: Opposition to policies that might favor one group over another in college admissions.
  • Liberals believe the government should play a role in leveling the playing field, especially when systemic barriers exist. Example: Support for affirmative action policies as a way to address historic systemic discrimination.

3. Free Enterprise

  • Conservatives lean towards a laissez-faire approach to the economy with minimal government interference. Example: Opposition to high corporate taxes or regulations that might hinder business operations.
  • Liberals believe in certain government interventions to ensure businesses act ethically and protect workers, consumers, and the environment. Example: Support for higher minimum wages and strict environmental regulations.

4. Rule of Law

  • Conservatives emphasize strict interpretation of laws and might oppose judicial decisions they see as ‘activist’ or not directly supported by the constitution. Example: Opposition to court decisions that recognize rights not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.
  • Liberals might believe in a broader interpretation of laws, viewing the Constitution as a living document that changes with societal needs. Example: Support for court decisions that recognize rights like privacy, even if not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

5. Limited Government

  • Conservatives tend to take this value quite literally, advocating for reduced government size and reach. Example: Support for tax cuts and reduced federal programs.
  • Liberals might see the value in certain government expansions to address societal issues, while still respecting constitutional boundaries. Example: Support for a larger government role in healthcare or education.