Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy by Robert H. Wiebe. University of Chicago Press, 321 PP.
September 18, 1995        

In the blighted environment of contemporary American political debate, historical understanding is an endangered species. “Democracy,” for example, occupies a preeminent place in the American political vocabulary. Yet the notion that democracy has not by any means looked or felt or been conceived the same way in all phases of American history, and that something invaluable has been lost -- perhaps permanently lost -- on the way to the present, is entirely foreign to both popular and elite conscious ness. The historian Robert Wiebe has written a book that aims to bring these notions home. Self-Rule charts -- and explains -- the vicissitudes of popular government in America since the 18th century. Descriptively and analytically, it is a brilliant success; in drawing a moral from the story, less so.

According to Wiebe, the Revolution did not establish, or even seek to establish, a full-fledged democracy. “To the Revolutionary generation, democracy was a minor matter.” Large landowners, merchants, and bankers dominated the economy; dependent labor, including indentured servitude, was widespread. On the whole, deference and hierarchy remained the rule politically and morally. A change in sovereignty had not been accompanied by a change in social structure or political culture.

The first half of the 19th century did, however, see a radical change. The country’s westward expansion entailed the creation from scratch of many a local polity and economy. A chronic labor shortage and an abundance of available land made economic independence possible for virtually all white males. The result of this unprecedented degree of economic self-determination was an unprecedented degree of civic equality and political participation. Government was small; taxes were low; elections were frequent; campaigns were vigorous; oratory was abundant; parades and rallies were numerous and boisterous; and turnout was high. Political clubs and lodges were ubiquitous; nearly all white men were affiliated with one or another of them. It all sounds gloriously alive and colorful, at least in Wiebe’s account. Of course women and blacks were outside the charmed circle. But among white males -- even immigrants, for the most part -- the political process was astonishingly open and inclusive; class divisions and social hierarchy were notably absent; and manners were unconstrained and egalitarian to a degree that dumbfounded European visitors.

Then, roughly between 1890 and 1920, twin blows fell on “the old collective hurly-burly” of 19th-century democracy from which it never recovered: the closing of the frontier and the concentration of capital. New land had always underwritten American economic individualism. It was bound to run out eventually, and by the end of the 19th century, it did. But even more important, Wiebe writes, was “an interrelated set of changes in the meaning of work and the sources of authority.”

"With what was customarily called industrialization came hierarchies that sharpened invidious distinctions, especially by differentiating people’s work, and sought out ways to regiment subordinance, sometimes through government and sometimes outside of it: more differences to measure, more rules to issue, more rules to follow. Everybody belonged, everybody had a place. Whose rules determined whose prospects in these hierarchies expressed the broadest of all changes accompanying industrialization: changes in class structure."

Wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers increased, and status differences multiplied. Unemployment remained high after the depression of the 1890s, especially for the unskilled. Employer violence escalated, aided by a judiciary hostile to labor militancy. The defeat of the Populists and the Knights of Labor had far-reaching effects: demoralized workers and farmers, and an aroused, class-conscious corporate elite, newly aware of the importance of controlling both public opinion and the agencies of government repression -- lessons it has never forgotten.

The work process was intensively rationalized, segmented, and supervised; a cult of “efficiency” and “expertise” justified ever-increasing managerial control. As a cultural parallel to the growth of differentiation and hierarchy in industry, an ethos of “respectability” enforced attention to new, nationally advertised standards in consumption as well as behavior. A fortunate stratum of labor -- tool and dye workers, machinists, steamfitters, and others -- achieved respectability; the rest joined blacks, women, and the newer Southern and Eastern European immigrants in a lower class whose economic and political fortunes sank in the early 20th century.

At the same time the lower class was sinking, Wiebe argues, two classes were taking shape above them. Industrial and financial consolidation produced a national class distributed among the big cities. Centered in transportation, steel, chemicals, finance, and other concentrated industries, they were distinct from the local middle class found in agriculture, retail, real estate, services, etc. Their spheres of governmental influence were different: the local middle class “did better at the state than at the national level, in the House of Representatives than in the Senate, with Congress than with the executive branch, with the federal executive than with the federal judiciary.” Culturally, there was a similar divide, between the secular, cosmopolitan ethos of the urban elites, with their preference for professional credentials and impersonal expertise, and the local middle class’s affinity for religious and geographical rootedness and face-to-face transactions. The national class established national bar, medical, and banking associations; the local middle class gathered in fraternal organizations: the Lions, Elks, Rotary, Kiwanis.

This “three-class” model does a good deal of explanatory work for Wiebe, particularly in his description of “the compromise of the 1930s,” whereby “national- and local-class leaders traded support and reaffirmed realms of authority. National government would increase its economic assistance for local America; local politicians would remain loyal to the existing national parties. Members of the national class would set broad economic policy; members of the local middle class would set the rules in their own localities, including many of the decisions about how federal monies would be allocated.” In Wiebe’s nuanced account, this serves as an illuminating approach to the New Deal and to the interest-group politics of the postwar period.

Wiebe’s overriding interest, however, is in identifying a change in the character of American democracy between the 19th and the 20th century. For this purpose, he develops a suggestive contrast between self-determination, the guiding principle of 19th- century democracy, and fulfillment that of 20th-century democracy. The vast, unprecedented scale of both the economy and the state induced feelings of boundless possibility and, at the same time, of vulnerability and insignificance. The quality of American individualism changed, from the assertive, outward-turning, gregarious 19th-century norm to a more socially and psychologically sophisticated but often more isolated and ambivalent self. Broadly speaking, Wiebe writes, 19th-century democrats “counted on character, not expertise, on bedrock values, not accumulated information, on innate good sense, not scientific reasoning.”

The political upshot of this new individualism was a new relation between the citizen and the state, a change from “the People governing” to “people being governed.” Nineteenth-century American politics was above all an arena of group affirmation, in which associated white males competed for “the whole stakes.” The twentieth century produced a new emphasis on defending the individual’s precarious autonomy against the corporate and governmental leviathan, on the one hand, and local prejudices, on the other. A new emphasis, that is, on rights; or as Wiebe puts it provocatively, on “individual rights without political competition.”

This last formulation is meant as a friendly admonition to the left, and it brings the contemporary relevance of the book into focus. Wiebe is a subtle and judicious scholar, interested above all in historical understanding; but he is nonetheless a partisan, plainly aggrieved by the passing of the active, self-confident, face-to-face popular politics of 19th-century America. The left’s focus in recent years on winning rights through litigation and regulation rather than legislation, signifies, he hints -- it is not much more than a hint -- a lack of faith in the majoritarianism whose robust l9th-centuy version he has so vividly and affectionately recreated here.

It is a reasonable misgiving, an honorable grief; but, it would seem, unavailing for all that. Like the late, deeply lamented Christopher Lasch, Wiebe provides an attractive portrait of American democracy before the fall -- before industrialization and political centralization -- and a plausible account of how it was undermined. What he fails to do -- again like Lasch -- is provide any reason to believe that this historic defeat can be reversed.