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McCloskey and Zaller: The American Ethos

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

McCloskey and Zaller. 1984. The American Ethos.

In Brief: Democracy and Capitalism

Using lots of survey findings, the authors conclude that there are two main traditions in America: Democracy and capitalism. America's big conflicts take place either between these traditions or within one of them. There is no significant conflict with other traditions.


The libertarian tradition is America's strongest tradition. Americans support other religions and rights for others (in the abstract), though they have some problems with specific practices (e.g. flag-burning) and violations of "moral codes of conduct" (e.g. homosexuality). There are, however, episodes of intolerance (e.g. Red Scare).


America has a strong sense of equality--especially political equality (more than economic).

Cultural Foundations of Capitalism

Americans value those who work hard. (Protestant Work Ethic). Capitalism is valued for its stress on individualism and economic efficiency.

Capitalism as an Economic System

Americans have ambivalent attitudes toward business; although they strongly support capitalism, they are strongly suspicious of big business (but nobody wants to replace capitalism with anything that would endanger private property). They want regulation, but not state planning.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


McCloskey, Herbert (author)Zaller, John (author)American PoliticsDemocracyCapitalismAmerican ExceptionalismCulturePublic OpinionPolitical Values

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