Scholars from Alexis de Tocqueville to the present have found a strong continuity in core American political values since the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century.
Some of Britain's North American colonies became exceptional in the European world for their vibrant political culture, which attracted the most talented and ambitious young men into politics. Reasons for this American exceptionalism included:
- Suffrage was the most widespread in the world, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. While fewer than 20% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible. While the roots of democracy were apparent, nevertheless deference was typically shown to social elites in colonial elections. That deference declined sharply with the American Revolution.
- In each colony, elected bodies, especially the assemblies and county governments, decided a wide range of public and private business. Topics of public concern and debate included land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation, as well as oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns, and schools. Americans spent a great deal of time in court, as private lawsuits were very common. Legal affairs were overseen by local judges and juries, with a central role for trained lawyers. This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, and the dominant role of lawyers in politics was apparent by the 1770s, as attested by the careers of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among many others.
- The North American colonies were exceptional in the world context because of the growth of representation of different interest groups. Unlike in Europe, where royal courts, aristocratic families and established churches exercised control, the American political culture was open to merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other identifiable groups. Over 90% of the representatives elected to the legislature lived in their districts, unlike in the United Kingdom where it was common to have an absentee member of Parliament.
- Americans became fascinated by and increasingly adopted the political values of republicanism, which stressed equal rights, the need for virtuous citizens, and the evils of corruption, luxury, and aristocracy.
None of the colonies had political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, but each had shifting factions that vied for power.
Republicanism, along with a form of classical liberalism, remains the dominant ideology. Central documents include the Declaration of Independence (1776), Constitution (1787), The Federalist Papers (1788), Bill of Rights (1791), and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863), among others. The political scientist Louis Hartz articulated this theme in American political culture in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz saw the antebellum South as breaking away from this central ideology in the 1820s as it constructed a fantasy to support hierarchical, feudal society. Others, such as David Gordon of the libertarian, Alabama-based Mises Institute argue that the secessionists who formed the Confederacy in 1861 retained the values of classical liberalism. Among the core tenets of this ideology are the following:
- Civic duty: Citizens have the responsibility to understand and support the government, participate in elections, pay taxes, and perform military service.
- Opposition to Political corruption
- Democracy: The government is answerable to citizens, who may change the representatives through elections.
- Equality before the law: The laws should attach no special privilege to any citizen. Government officials are subject to the law just as others are
- Freedom of religion: The government can neither support nor suppress religion
- Freedom of speech: The government cannot restrict through law or action the personal speech of a citizen; a marketplace of ideas
In response to Hartz and others, political scientist Rogers M. Smith argued in Civic Ideals (1999) that in addition to liberalism and republicanism, United States political culture has historically served to exclude various populations from access to full citizenship. Terming this ideological tradition "ascriptive inegalitarianism," Smith traces its relevance in nativist, sexist, and racist beliefs and practices alongside struggles over citizenship laws from the early colonial period to the Progressive Era, and further political debates in the following century.
At the time of the United States' founding, agriculture and small private businesses dominated the economy, and state government left welfare issues to private or local initiative. Laissez-faire ideology was largely abandoned in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus, a time during which modern American liberalism dominated economic policy virtually unchallenged. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology, as explained especially by Milton Friedman, has once more become a powerful force in American politics. While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after World War II, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s. As of 2014 modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what The Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections."
Usage of "left–right" politics
The modern American political spectrum and the usage of the terms "left–right politics", "liberalism", and "conservatism" in the United States differs from that of the rest of the world. According to American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (writing in 1956), "Liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain". Schlesinger noted that American liberalism does not support classical liberalism's commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics. Because those two positions are instead generally supported by American conservatives, historian Leo P. Ribuffo noted in 2011, "what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism."
In American politics, the Democratic Party is commonly known as the well-established center-left liberal national party, while the smaller Green Party is known for being closer to the progressive anti-capitalist left-wing of modern American politics. The Republican Party is commonly known as the dominant right-wing national party, and the alternative Libertarian Party attracts some independent-leaning voters who tend to be more social liberal on social issues and fiscally conservative on economic policy.
The right of suffrage is nearly universal for citizens eighteen years of age and older. All states and the District of Columbia contribute to the electoral vote for President. However, the District, and other U.S. holdings like Puerto Rico and Guam, lack federal representation in Congress. These constituencies do not have the right to choose any political figure outside their respective areas. Each commonwealth, territory, or district can only elect a non-voting delegate to serve in the House of Representatives.
Women's suffrage became an important issue after the American Civil War of 1861-65. After the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1870, giving African-American men the right to vote, various women's groups wanted the right to vote as well. Two major interest groups formed. The first group was the National Woman Suffrage Association, formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that wanted to work for suffrage on the federal level and to push for more governmental changes, such as the granting of property rights to married women. The second group, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed by Lucy Stone, aimed to give women the right to vote. In 1890, the two groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The NAWSA then mobilized to obtain support state-by-state, and by 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
Student activism against the Vietnam War in the 1960s prompted the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, the legal age of the draft.