Political Culture: Individualism vs Populism

The basis of American political culture is built upon five main principles: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, laissez-faire, and populism. Each of these aspects outlines a certain ideology that is, what most people believe, crucial to the political culture of America. However, I was surprised to find that when these elements are closely analyzed, they have conflicting views. In particular, I would like to delve into the clashing ideas of individualism and populism and how that clashing is reflected in the daily American life.

Individualism is the principle that everyone in America can make it on their own without government interference. Many immigrants have come to the United States because they want to escape heavy government interference and live their own life. Populism is the principle that general citizens have control over the government, rather than a small group of wealthy elite controlling everything. These elements conflict because one is implying that the government is a separate entity that everyday citizens are not part of, and that individuals are responsible for their success. The other principle, populism, states that the regular people are the government, and that recognizes class differences, especially the lower class struggle against the elite. The conflict can even be seen in the root of each word: individualism emphasizes the individual, while populism derives from the Latin word for people. Individualism implies that there are “other people” in government who shouldn’t have too much influence on the regular population, which populism states should be a part of the government.

The individualism vs. populism clash can be seen in day to day life. For example, an unprivileged student at a public school gives effort but doesn’t think about getting into college because the school has poor counseling and doesn’t inform the student of scholarship opportunities. They follow in their parent’s footsteps, becoming part of the struggling working class. This continues for generations because no change is made in the education about college in each student’s life. Individualism and populism both have different approaches to this situation. Individualism would emphasize that the student should have taken responsibility to discover scholarship opportunities and pave their own individual path. However, the populist approach would be that the government and school needs to inform the unprivileged student of ways to make their way in life.

The theory of the five principles of American political culture suggests that we, as Americans, believe in both the ideas of populism and individualism — that we believe both in individual control without government interference and being a part of the government of the people. Whether or not each individual American believes in both of these elements, they are both part of our political culture standards. To quote Hamilton during his conversation with Burr about the Constitution, independence is full of contradictions. Whether you lean towards individual success without government interference or a government for the people by the people, you are affected every day by these political culture principles.

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