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.
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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
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