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  • History by Affirmation: The End of Democracy
  • Olivier Zunz (bio)
Robert H. Wiebe. Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. x + 321 pp. $25.95.

After twenty-nine years and thirty-four printings of his Search for Order, 1877–1920, Robert Wiebe is putting forward, in his newly-released Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, a new interpretation of the consequences of “centralization,” “hierarchy,” and the creation of a “national class” a century ago. Wiebe’s dichotomy between local and national life is familiar. His rendition of it is new. In Search for Order, Wiebe concluded that the reformers and experts of the new national class were “fresh to the task,” and longing for “an opportunity to build.” In Self-Rule, he turns them into agents of destruction. With the huge uncertainties of our own time looming in the background, Wiebe wants us to reckon with the “constraints” the national class imposed on American democracy.

Analyzing a big change is one thing; passing final judgment on its promoters another. Consequently Wiebe is taking the long view to sustain his devastating attack on the “metamorphosis” of 1890–1920 which, he says, radically jeopardized our democracy. As he describes it at length, a diffused and exceptional nineteenth century in which democracy sustained Americans’ “faith in the People” was replaced by a “centralized twentieth century,” that destroyed that faith and deactivated citizens (p. 113).

Wiebe’s indictment is a familiar one. Among critics, however, Wiebe is unusual in embracing the problem in its historical depth. He therefore opens Self Rule by pointing to most competing accounts’ presentism—“their crises are almost always unprecedented” (p. 3)—and vagueness—“democracy is too important not to define it” (p. 1). Wiebe himself, however, is hard to pin down, and his almost total disrespect for quantity and scale often gets in the way of sound judgment. The saving grace of both his book and the many he seeks to correct is that democracy resists artificially clear definitions. Understanding its workings comes rather from the slow cumulative impact of reasoned historical evidence.

While I applaud the project, admire its scope, and cherish the author’s [End Page 299] craftsmanship in recapping major transformations in pithy phrases, I should also point out that Wiebe has written a highly personal, openly judgmental, and often ill-tempered book-length essay for which he makes no apology. It is therefore only fair for me to ask whether his vision, opinions, and tone are justified by the historical record, as I understand it.

Wiebe is at his best in his learned description of the workings of democratic self-rule in the nineteenth century. He builds on Tocqueville’s insight that, however dull, barbaric, and violent Americans may have been in the eyes of Europeans, they were democratic because they rejected hierarchy. And he stresses Frederick Jackson Turner’s vision that “democracy did not produce barbarism”; rather, “barbarism produced democracy” (p. 60). Much of Wiebe’s own slant is a celebration of anarchy and of the kind of leveling of authority best seen on the nights of nineteenth-century elections. For American white males, “adulthood” was the only prerequisite for full democratic participation. As Wiebe sums it up, “the way to get into American democracy was to get into it” (p. 68).

Despite the beauty of this “cardinal principle,” entering democracy took a little more than simply “getting into it.” By Wiebe’s own account, white men had first to join a lodge. It was therefore from the “innumerable little worlds” (p. 79) of lodge politics that they participated in the unbounded democracy that Wiebe takes as his model.

Excluded groups—wage earners, African Americans and white women—could apply pressure only “at the margins” (p. 104) of this white-male preserve. Indiscriminately lumping together these three groups as victims of white males, however, is hardly satisfactory. Such compounding blinds the author to the much more severe obstacles African Americans suffered at the hands of white society. It blinds him to the ways middle-class women responded to exclusion by forging alternative but influential forms of public life under their own control. It blinds him...

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pp. 299-303
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