Political culture is a part of a society for which shared attitudes and beliefs establish a unique identity with regard to public and private governance. In the United States, at least three political cultures took root during the colonial period. They were formed in New England by religious refugees from England, in the Mid-Atlantic region by Dutch settlers, in Virginia by English adventurers seeking fortune in the New World, and in Carolina by English investors who envisioned a model constitutional society. In Virginia and Carolina, and later elsewhere in the South, Scots-Irish settlers influenced the cultural hearth that created the American South. Each began with established cultures of the British Isles and the Netherlands, evolving into unique cultures that remain in existence today in the United States.
The political scientist Daniel J. Elazar identified three primary political cultures, generally consistent with those of Tocqueville. Moralistic political culture evolved out of New England and is characterized by an emphasis of community and civic virtue over individualism. Individualistic political culture arose from Dutch influence in the Mid-Atlantic region; it regards multiculturalism as a practicality and government as a utilitarian necessity. Traditionalistic political culture arose in the South, which elevates social order and family structure to a prominent role. It accepts a natural hierarchy in society and where necessary to protect society, authoritarian leadership in the political and religious realms.
The formation of traditionalistic political culture is often thought to have arisen principally out of Virginia, the first and most populous southern colony. Virginia was also the most politically powerful state after the Revolution: pursuant to the first census of the United States in 1790 it held a greater percentage of congressional representatives than any other state has ever enjoyed up to the present day. Nevertheless, others argue that South Carolina had the greater influence as a result of its Grand Model enabling slaveholders from Barbados to establish a durable aristocracy. That unique convergence produced a slave society with a majority black population rigidly controlled by the plantation elite. Maintaining such a society required intense political resolve and the development of a mythology of white racial supremacy. The South Carolina hybrid model ultimately spread across the Deep South and was unwavering in its promotion of southern culture, whereas Virginia and other Upper South states were less comfortable with the region's "peculiar institution" of slavery.
The political scientist Richard Ellis identified egalitarianism, individualism, and hierarchy as defining cultures in American political culture. These principal categories correspond closely with Elazar's classification. According to Ellis, each of these cultures lays claim to the ideals of equality and liberty articulated by John Locke, but what they are claiming is an only a piece of Locke, and one that is not necessarily consistent with the whole.
The social psychologist Peter J. Rentfrow led a research effort that generally supports Elazar's theory of political culture, while finding that psychological variables allow for a more fine-grained geographical analysis. His research on "psychological topography" was based on multiple samples of more than a million respondents. The researchers found "overwhelming evidence for regional variation across the United States on a range of key political, economic, social, and health indicators."
Many settlers who populated the South took to the backcountry, eventually crossing the Appalachians. Of these, the Scots-Irish originating from northern Ireland and the border region between England and Scotland were among the largest and most influential. They were militantly Christian and inured to violence. While they might be considered a distinct political culture in colonial times, they eventually developed a symbiotic relationship with the southern plantation elite. As W. J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South, "the tradition of aristocracy met and married with the tradition of the backwoods."
The Frontier Thesis advanced by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 argued that American culture, including political culture, was forged as Americans moved west. It was violent and individualistic and yet contained a primitive form of egalitarianism. In Elazar's view, however, it was the South that acquired these traits most and carried them west to Missouri, Texas, and eventually as far a Southern California.
In another unifying thesis about political culture that, like the Frontier Thesis, some have argued that Lockean liberalism is a central underlying explanation of American political culture. Notably, the political scientist Louis Hartz argued that the nation's founding principles, which were largely drawn from Locke, created a new political culture that was unique to the United States. The nation "begins with Locke," he wrote, and it "stays with Locke." He found that Alexis de Tocqueville was first to recognize this when he saw that the nation was the first to create its own democratic future without having to endure revolution.
Political culture can be seen as bifurcated by urban and rural geography. The United States was largely a rural nation until 1920. When the census that year revealed that urban Congressional Districts would exceed those of rural areas, rural congressmen refused to approve reapportionment, the only time that has happened. A cultural divide remains to the present with rural areas often associating with traditionalistic political culture, while urban areas are more often aligned with moralistic and individualistic political culture.
Researchers Dante Chinni and James Gimpel identified twelve cultural communities found throughout the United States, with varying degrees of geographic concentration. The categories are derived from analysis of statistical data, and they offer a more realistic portrayal of the geographically discontinuous cultural fabric of the nation than blanket state and regional categories. In physical space, as in cyberspace, people increasingly sort themselves into communities of choice. That is, people chose where they will live and who they will communicate with. The opportunity to make such choices appears to reinforce political culture.