Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule and American Democracy

I criticized Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven for reductionism, and in turn commenter Tocqueville criticizes me for reductionism. I think in the reductionism sweepstakes, it’s hard to beat a line like this:

The growing tolerance of profanity, sexual display, pornography, drugs, and homosexuality seemed to indicate a general collapse of common decency.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

By the seventh or eighth time Lasch lists his grab-bag of decadent bugaboos, he really pushes credibility. For comparison, Lasch only mentions Vietnam about three times in the entirety of Heaven, which is fairly ridiculous for a book claiming to explain American culture during the 60s and 70s.

For a better, less-blinkered look at the 60s, the times which caused Lasch so much heartbreak, consider Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden, which is ambivalent toward the movements of those times, but acknowledges their partial strengths and, more importantly, the logic of their evolution and collapse.

And for a better history of democracy and class in America, consider Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, which addresses many of Lasch’s points in far more nuanced fashion.

Comparing the annotated bibliography’s of Wiebe and Lasch’s books is instructive. While Wiebe lists dozens if not hundreds of works of history and documentary, Lasch tends to focus on theoretical and ideological work. There are a couple exceptions, such as Lasch’s detailed list of works on 19th century populism and syndicalism. These were his areas of expertise in his younger years, and indeed he displays a far richer understanding of them than of the FDR and LBJ eras.

As one barometer, while Wiebe has read Lasch, Lasch has not read Wiebe, whose The Search for Order was already considered a classic at the time Lasch wrote Heaven. Lasch preferred to stick to Carlyle and Emerson, despite their being absurd elitists themselves.

Wiebe, in contrast, has comprehensively studied the entirety of American history in reasonably rigorous fashion, and it shows. Even when his conclusions are debatable, they do not seem to have arisen out of abiding prejudice.

Wiebe’s central thesis, like Lasch, revolves around the loss of popular involvement in American democracy, but Wiebe doesn’t blame it on the hippies and feminists. For Wiebe, Lasch’s beloved populists and syndicalists represented a dying breath rather than an invigoration. Wiebe points to the period of 1890 to 1920 as one in which the “people” started to drop out of democracy. During this time, he claims, the two-class system of enfranchised white men and the disenfranchised everyone else gave way to a three-class system of national elites, the local middle-class, and the lower class.

The history of the 20th century becomes the history of the first two of those new classes coming into increasing conflict while both ignored the lower class.

What emerged with industrialization in the United States was a three-class system, conflictual but not revolutionary: one class geared to national institutions and policies, one dominating local affairs, and one sunk beneath both of those in the least rewarding jobs and least stable environments–in the terminology of my account, a national class, a local middle class, and a lower class. New hierarchies ordered relations inside both the national and lower middle class; both of those classes, in turn, counted on hierarchies to control the lower class.

Like Lasch, Wiebe bemoans the national elites trying to assist the lower class without bothering to raise their civic awareness or solicit their votes, but Wiebe’s point is that this technocratic policy machine was in place long before the dirty hippies and the Warren Court showed up.

Turn of the century labor and suffragette movements fought for increasing political influence while tacitly accepting the emerging class divisions. The sheer homogeneity of white men and their nepotistic political clubs had helped form an egalitarian, populist sensibility amongst them that necessarily could not survive the enfranchisement of minorities and women. Wiebe of course has no nostalgia for those days, but he identifies in them a sense of white men’s investment in civics that has never been restored to the American people since.

Further fissures emerged around the time of the Great War. Popular support for the war convinced many intellectuals and policymakers that the “people” could not be trusted to act on their own behalf, and so they embraced a more centralized technocratic regime. By the time of FDR, Wiebe can point to a figure like government antitrust lawyer Thurman Arnold, whose Folklore of American Capitalism (1937) “derisively dismissed the very thought of popular rule.”

This system held stable to a point, but with the increasingly liberalized, top-down stance of the national class (at least domestically) and the increasingly visible consequences of those policies, the conservative local middle class grew antsy and alienated, leading to “Reagan Democrats” and the eventual reactionary shifts that then followed.

I think Wiebe underestimates the mostly unfortunate role that the media played in controlling the discourse from the late 70s onward, but his point that neither the local middle class nor the national class could claim popular legitimacy is well-taken, and it continues to be a genuinely serious problem for any national progressivism. This of course is Lasch’s point too, but Wiebe shows that Lasch has completely mistaken its origins.

The book turns more speculative at its end, where Wiebe prescribes a loose, multi-level communitarianism as a panacea for Americans’ alienation from their government. Far less draconian than the visions of Alastair MacIntyre or even Michael Sandel, his vision is a bit too diffuse to be convincing, as though the depths of the difficulties and conflicts he has just chronicled have overwhelmed him, a sign that he realizes that things have become too complicated and huge to make the reinclusion of the lower classes an easy thing. But I take this ultimately to be a sign of the strength of his historical account.