The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter One
THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT

NEW DIRECTIONS IN AMERICAN POLITICAL HISTORY

MEG JACOBS AND JULIAN E. ZELIZER

WE ARE NOW in a moment when American political history is flourishing. The contributors in this volume, who are all part of this exciting revitalization of the field, focus on two central questions. The first concerns the relationship of citizens to the government in a context where suspicion of a powerful state has been the overriding theme of American political culture. The second addresses the continually evolving mechanisms of democratic participation. As this volume shows, democracy in America has come alive in political contests over these two issues. Most modern democratic polities have confronted the need to legit- imate the exercise of political authority, but that fact poses particular problems in the United States, where a fear of centralized power has left a distinctive mark on American political culture and institutional arrange- ments. From the beginning, Americans have fought protracted struggles over the exercise of strong central state authority. Given the institutional and cultural manifestations of antistatism, constructing a strong federal government was never easy. At the same time, the basic questions of who would be granted representation and how remained up for grabs. Despite the fact that America is the oldest democracy in the world, the means and extent of participation have never been settled. Although the founders articulated clear ideas about what representative government should be, the forms political power would take were constantly contested and trans- formed. The mechanisms linking enfranchised citizens to political leaders and the right to representation remained fluid. In essays that go from the founding through the late twentieth century, the authors offer a fresh historical examination of the political problems posed by democratic gov- ernment and their complex resolutions.

Antistatism has operated as a powerful force in the history of American democracy. Having a long Anglo-American tradition, antistatism became concrete and institutionalized in the United States in battles over slavery, the rise of industrialized capitalism, and the centralizing and standardiz-

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