SELF-RULE by Robert H. Wiebe


A Cultural History of American Democracy
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 A historian celebrates America's democratic past with an overview of fundamental changes in American culture. Wiebe (History/Northwestern Univ.; The Opening of American Society, 1984, etc.) admires the raucous hurly-burly of 19th- century American popular politics. Conceding that it was a white male democracy, he documents brutality to Native Americans, the subjugation of slaves, and the exclusion of women from public life. But Wiebe finds value in the political process itself aside from its outcomes and deficiencies. He is at his best when he allows himself to become indignant at 20th-century middle-class and professional elites as they strip away the political rights of the lower class with such disparate strategies as professional municipal government, legal barriers to immigration, restrictions on black and lower-class voting rights, and red-baiting. Setting this book off from Wiebe's earlier histories, which tell a similar story, is his attempt to engage the ideas of 60 recent authors- -publicists, philosophers, and social scientists--who have attempted to define democracy. Never really coming to terms with their arguments, Wiebe asserts that these writers misunderstand American democracy because they do not appreciate the intrinsic value of popular self-rule, but he fails to use his story to sustain or even illustrate that argument. Worse, his writing often lapses into a colorless style: The American people are lumped together into abstractions--like ``a distinctive bourgeoisie'' or ``a differentiating process''--that interact in history like balls on a billiard table; and with little faith in the ability of individuals to make a difference, Wiebe frequently resorts to a passive voice that drains the story of any personal reality. Democracy arrives; open conventions emerge; social insurance never materializes. A good idea, executed in a manner that will reinforce the widely held opinion that history is boring.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-226-89562-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1995