Robert H. Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy is an intensely ambitious work. In it, Wiebe tackles one of the most enduring questions in American history—the nature of American democracy. Wiebe is admirably fitted for the task; he is a master historian. Earlier books such as The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (1984) and the classic The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (1967) established Wiebe’s ability to ana- lyze and synthesize materials on a grand scale. He brings his matured powers to bear in Self-Rule. The result is a fascinating study, which, while not definitively settling the issue of American democracy, will contribute to debate for many years to come.
The issue of American democracy has been central to discussions of the United States since the 1820’s. During that decade, in a torrent of electoral liberalization, the vote was extended from the propertied classes to virtually every white man. Rallying around the totemic figure of Andrew Jackson, the enthusiastic proponents of “Jacksonian Democracy” engendered a political and social revolution that would make the United States the most egalitarian state in the known world. European visitors swiftly publicized the new society taking shape in what was to them a wilderness. As early as 1835, the brilliant French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville printed the first volume of his masterwork Democracy in America, which argued that the democratic polity emerging in the United States was the vanguard of a democratic wave that would sweep Western civilization.
Just as important, Americans themselves began to see democracy as their defining national characteristic. In a development that would have shocked the Founding Fathers, for whom “democracy” was a bad word, Americans began to understand even their inherited institutions in democratic terms. During and after the Civil War, the constitutional issue of states’ rights paled in comparison with the democratic dilemma of slavery and freedmen’s rights. By 1917, so firmly entrenched was the democratic ideal in the American imagination that President Woodrow Wilson, calling the nation to war, rejected justifications involving calculations of the international balance of power or American national interests and instead urged his compatriots to make the world safe for democracy. It was in the name of democracy, rather than capitalism or republican propriety, that the American people later resisted the pretensions of fascism and communism. The collapse of the Soviet Union and of the communist regimes in its satellite states was seen by most Americans as a triumph of democracy. The Goddess of Democracy raised by Chinese students during their 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, which resembled the Statue of Liberty, seemed to symbolize the association of democracy with the United States pioneered by Tocqueville 150 years earlier.
Yet at the moment when democracy appeared to be sweeping all before it abroad, doubts were being raised about its health in the United States. Critics pointed to such phenomena as a decline in voter participation, the egregiousness of television politics, and the none too subtle power of money and interest groups to argue that U.S. democracy was in need of repair. Suggested solutions varied widely, ranging from a revival of the traditional party system to extending the list of constitutionally guaranteed rights.
While preparing his work, Wiebe read books by more than sixty critics of modern American democracy, from publicists to social scientists to philosophers. While admitting the brilliance of much of what he read, Wiebe was struck more forcibly by the dissonant quality of this literature, with differences often boiling down to special pleading for one or another cherished reform. What was lacking was a useful historical perspective. Few of these works were grounded in an understanding of the growth of American democracy that went beyond clichés.
Here is where Wiebe believes that he makes his greatest contribution to the debate: He has constructed an elaborate account of the evolution of democracy in the United States. He uses this to buttress a concluding chapter in which he offers his own proposals for the future of American democracy.
The nature of Wiebe’s historical narrative is of interest for the insights it offers into the nature of the American debate over democracy. He calls his study a “cultural history,” meaning a history of the ways people’s values informed their actions. He deliberately takes aim at the joining point between popular attitudes and their concrete expression in laws and institutions. As Wiebe is careful to make clear, his work is not a history of ideas, nor is it a traditional account of political behavior. His history records Americans’ evolving understanding of their civic standing—their sense of obligation and entitlement to one another and the state. In short, Wiebe has written something very close to an existential history of American citizenship.
Notable for its absence from Wiebe’s account is a treatment of constitutional history. Focusing tightly on the ongoing effects of democratic ideology, Wiebe virtually ignores the framework within which these...
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