Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy

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9780226895628: Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy

Something profoundly important occurred in early 19th century America that came to be called democracy. Since then hundreds of millions of people worldwide have operated on the assumption that democracy exists. Yet definitions of democracy are surprisingly vague and remarkably few reckon with its history. In Self-Rule, Robert Wiebe suggests that only in appreciating that history can we recognize how breathtaking democracy's arrival was, how extraordinary its spread has been, and how uncertain its prospects are.

American democracy arrived abruptly in the 19th century; it changed just as dramatically early in the 20th. Hence, Self-Rule divides the history of American democracy into two halves: a 19th century half covering the 1820s to the present, and a 20th century half, with a major transition from the 1890s to the 1920s between them. As Wiebe explains why the original democracy of the early 19th century represented a sharp break from the past, he recreates in vivid detail the way European visitors contrasted the radical character of American democracy with their own societies. He then discusses the operation of various 19th century democratic publics, including a nationwide public, the People. Finally, he places democracy's white fraternal world of equals in a larger environment where other Americans who differed by class, race, and gender, developed their own relations to democracy.

Wiebe then picks up the history of democracy in the 1920s and carries it to the present. Individualism, once integrated with collective self-governance in the 19th century, becomes the driving force behind 20th century democracy. During those same years, other ways of defining good government and sound public policy shunt majoritarian practices to one side. Late in the 20th century, these two great themes in the history of American democracy--individualism and majoritarianism--turn on one another in modern democracy's war on itself.

Finally, Self-Rule assesses the polarized state of contemporary American democracy. Putting the judgments of sixty-odd commentators from Kevin Phillips and E.J. Dionne to Robert Bellah and Benjamin Barber to the test of history, Wiebe offers his own suggestions on the meaning and direction of today's democracy. This sweeping work explains how the history of American democracy has brought us here and how that same history invites us to create a different future.

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From Booklist:

Northwestern University historian Wiebe asks: What is democracy? How did it arise in the U.S., and what is its future here? Self-Rule addresses these issues two ways: by tracing "the webbing of values and relations that enable a society to function" from 1820 to the present, and, in the book's introduction and conclusion, by judging against this history assessments of the state of democracy in the U.S. issued over the past quarter-century by 60-plus "publicists," philosophers, and social scientists. For Wiebe, the vital element of all democracy is popular self-government; individual self-determination is the defining secondary characteristic of U.S. democracy. Collective and individual self-determination generally reinforced each other in a nineteenth-century democracy limited to white men, but since the 1920s, they have increasingly worked at cross-purposes. This change, "new relations between work and authority," and the "tension between the inherently radical nature of democracy" and efforts to use democratic institutions to override equal participation are Wiebe's central themes. The key obstacles to a revival of popular democracy in the U.S., he argues, are centralization and hierarchy, which began to dominate American life in the transitional 1890^-1920 period, not individualism or group identities, which have historically coexisted with and even strengthened popular self-government in the U.S. Includes rich bibliographic essays. Mary Carroll

From Publishers Weekly:

Although American democracy in the 19th century excluded white women and all people of color from civic life, it nevertheless was a radical, progressive departure from the European experience, asserts Northwestern University history professor Wiebe. Its hallmarks were an open, popular politics; resistance to institutionalized power; and diffusion of responsibility. This populist democracy, he maintains, was swept away by America's industrial transformation between the 1890s and the 1920s, which created hierarchical divisions between a powerful capitalist "national class," a middle class fixated on local concerns and a multiethnic, unskilled lower class. Twentieth-century American democracy, in Wiebe's unsettling, profound analysis of the decline of popular self-government, has brought a proliferation of pressure groups and lobbies as well as the rise of individualism and consumerism, with millions of Americans indoctrinated to participate in their own marginalizing. To revitalize today's apathetic, atomized citizenry, he calls for "a guerrilla politics of everyday life" that would demand corporate accountability and foster groups with a hand in shaping public policy.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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