Kentucky’s “traditionalistic” political culture

“Political culture” is somewhat of a difficult concept for political scientists to define and measure. The culture of a location does not lend itself well to representing with numbers and statistics. Nevertheless, Daniel Elazar’s tri-fold conception of political culture remains a popular, if somewhat antiquated, method of conceptualization.

Elazar theorized three dominant political cultures in the American states: individualistic, moralistic, and traditionalistic. Citizens in individualistic states view politics as a business-like free-market arena in which the government has purely utilitarian purposes. The government is not concerned with questions about the “good society” but rather exists simply to advance the interests of those who participate. Politics tends to be “dirty” and corruption is often tolerated.

Citizens in moralistic culture states view government as having intrinsic worth. Participation in politics is viewed as a way for people to develop and exercise virtue. Seeking the “common good” is the goal and government is viewed as an active vehicle to help advance the well-being of the society. Politicians are expected to seek the common good and eschew personal gain while carrying out their public duties.

The traditionalistic political culture, on the other hand, is like the moralistic culture in that it sees an active role for the government. Unlike the moralistic view, however, the primary function of government is to secure the maintenance and dominance of an existing social order, oftentimes of a very hierarchical nature. The “elites” of society (family or social class) or those expected to participate and run for office, while the “masses” are largely expected to take a very passive or inactive role toward their government and public affairs.

These three cultures, Elazar argues, originated in the colonization, settlement, and migration patterns of the United States. More information can be found here: http://www.wtamu.edu/~jrausch/polcul.html.

Professor Penny Miller, in Kentucky Politics and Government (1994), argues that “Kentucky presents the classic example of the traditionalistic political culture, allowing an active role for government, but primarily as keeper of the old social order and maintainer of the status quo. Kentucky politics does not foster major political and social change. In that sense, government usually is viewed as a negative force. Political affairs, it is felt, should remain chiefly in the hands of established elites, whose members often claim the right to govern through family ties or social position. A persistent feature of Kentucky’s traditionalistic political culture is a highly personalistic, rather than ideological, brand of politics.”

Professor Miller does allow that there are some elements of the “individualistic” political culture as well, however. She explains that the northern counties bordering Ohio tend to be more economically oriented and inject a healthy dose of “individualism” into the dominant traditionalistic culture.

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