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Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy

5.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226895635
ISBN-10: 0226895637
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Editorial Reviews

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 15, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226895637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226895635
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,233 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By greg taylor VINE VOICE on February 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
Robert Wiebe has written a brilliant history of the American meaning of democracy.

Over the years, Wiebe had (he passed away a few years ago) read deeply in democratic theory whether written by philosophers, social scientists or what he calls publicists (what I would call popular commentators- people like Kevin Phillips, Robert Bellah, William Greider, Irving Kristol).

He concluded that most of their writings about democracy had been skewed by a lack of any historical foundation. Their theories had no cultural specificity and no sense of what had worked as opposed to ideas about how democracy "should" work.

This book is the result. He chose about 60 core writings (one by each author with the singular exception of Rawls who is allowed two). The introduction is a very enjoyable summing up of the some of the problems that Wiebe has with these core writings. It comes down to the fact that, whether from the left, right or middle, all of the authors feel that We the People have failed to live up to our responsibility to see it their way. (Please note that Wiebe is much more elegant about how he argues for his point).

Wiebe then launches into his historical corrective. He has three major themes about the history of democracy in this country.

The first theme is based on his assertion that, "societies organize around the rules of who works for whom, and the beneficiaries protect those rules in the name of all that is good in this world and holy in the next" (p.23). Wiebe asserts that there have been two major changes in those rules in our history and that those changes have created three major stages in our democratic history.
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Format: Paperback
Toqueville's Democracy in America brought up to date--i.e., post-Mexican War, Civil War, emancipation, Native Americans on reservations, urbanization, industrialization, Spanish War and consequent empire, national and corporate-global economy, incredible immigrations, world wars, New Deal, Cold War, Korean War, Civil Rights Movement, Women's Liberation, Reagan Revolution, Gulf War, etc.--up to the 1990's "seething discontents" and "selfish interests, oblivious to minority rights, passing unjust laws...all unchecked by an overriding vision of the public good or what it might consist of...." Decision-making and those left out of it, "a babel of narrow-minded parochial concerns." Beyond "the radical premise that something terrible had gone wrong in the world," a parade of brilliant insights and a self-help strategy.
For instance, in the 20th century--unlike the USA before 1870, say--newcomers "needn't prove themselves anyone's equal"--they couldn't. They only needed "to find their proper level."
And: Big national government focusing on the economy and military, leaving cultural and ethnic matters to local juries. Ruling opinion, i.e., "ideological habituation," having its effect, "as though instinctual."
Wiebe was a small-d democrat, a disrespecter of those holding power, who risked--knowing the risk--believing in the potential to fulfill the dreams of democracy, liberty, and justice.
Great book.
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