Rebroadcast: Historian Jon Grinspan on the last time Americans fought for democracy
This rebroadcast originally aired on December 9, 2021.
Historian Jon Grinspan travels across the country to talk to Americans of all kinds.
“Talking to people, the thing they kept coming back to was that it didn’t feel normal to them,” he says.
The “it” being the overwhelming anger and divisiveness in American politics right now.
But Grinspan says, that’s not new:
“If you look at how politics was for most of American history, especially the late 1800s, the things that we are worried about today, the kind of anger, the rage, the frustration … [was] more severe than what we know today.”
Today, On Point: Historian Jon Grinspan on how Americans fought for their own democracy, before.
Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Author of “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy.”
On how Americans engaged with politics in the late 1800s
Jon Grinspan: “What makes this era so interesting to me, and I think so relevant for our times is you have incredible engagement — and incredible, if it’s a word, enragement — at the same time. That the good and the bad are so mixed up. This is an era when you have 80% turnout of eligible voters. And obviously a lot of people are not eligible to vote back then. All women, everyone under 21, African Americans at certain times and places. But everyone, even those people who can’t vote, are still going to these rallies, going to these midnight spectacles, and marching, and reading the newspapers and arguing the issues.
“And you can see schoolgirls on the trolleys arguing about the best candidate for them. And there’s really a grassroots engagement with democracy, especially among working class people, that the political system has higher turnout and higher engagement from people who are poorer and less well-educated at that point. It’s really good at getting people to care about their democracy, at drumming up participation. And getting people in the streets, getting people to vote, getting people to really care deeply about the governance, which is one of the goals of democracy.
“But all that participation often comes at the sacrifice of civility, at the same time. I mean, this is an era when three of the four presidential assassinations in our history happened. When a congressman is murdered every seven years during this era. When these elections are incredibly high turnout, but also the closest in our history, and are often stolen or go to the loser of the popular vote. So one of the reasons I find this era so fascinating is because you have the good and the bad, and what we want and what we don’t want for democracy, so viscerally mixed up together.”
You mentioned diaries and letters. What were people saying, from saloon keepers to schoolgirls, about American politics?
Jon Grinspan: “At the Smithsonian itself, we mostly have physical material stuff. So what you have from the era are things like torches from midnight rallies. We have hundreds of ballots from different campaigns, because the parties printed their own ballots back then. And ballots from these dirty and stolen elections. We have uniforms from these kind of youth partisan marching clubs that verge on kind of gang sometimes, or paramilitary organization.
“There is this wealth of material object demonstrating this kind of vibrant, forgotten past. And to go through the units, and the cabinets, and the drawers in the Smithsonian, you can see how how vivid and vibrant politics once was. … As you move along into the 20th century, the objects seem a little calmer, and a little more restrained and a little more peaceful. And then when you dig into the diaries and the letters of people engaged in politics or just observing that are stored elsewhere, [questioning] Is democracy a failure? is often the thing people kick around in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s.
“Has democracy failed us? Can democracy be saved? Does universal suffrage work? Is this normal? … [Are questions] they kicked around a lot back then, in which we hear all the time today. What does a normal democracy look like? Is it one where people turn out in high numbers and engage, but also, you know, bash each other’s heads in in the street? Or is it one where people are restrained and calm, but maybe don’t participate at the same level?”
On how partisanship marks the the late 19th century political climate
Jon Grinspan: “We can see in our own era and back then that inequality correlates the kind of partisanship, aggression. All these things can be charted on kind of a big U-curve. Where they’re really high in the late 19th century, calm in the 20th century and have increased in our own time. And it just makes sense on the ground. If you look at the lives of 19th century Americans, many of them are really disrupted. They’re living in an era of incredible change, in the Gilded Age.
“Or, you know, people who are born on farms are working in factories and cities. People who are born in Ireland or Russia are living in Chicago or San Francisco. People who grew up in communities, attending churches, synagogues and participating in folk traditions are completely up-rooted and living in different worlds. People who were born in slavery, trying to make freedom for themselves. There’s a lot of disruption, and some of it are ultimately forces for good. But a lot of people feel let loose, disrupted, unstable, lacking allies or institutions.
“And the two institutions that really want people in the 19th century are the political parties. They need votes. They need people to do all the hard work of campaigns. They need thugs to go throw bricks at the other side. These parties want people, more than the billionaires do, more than the corporations do, more than most other institutions in society. And so if you’re a young person moving to America, join the Democratic Party, you can go to the saloon, you can sing the songs, you can vote for them.
“If you were born in Georgia and you move to California, the Republican Party is waiting for you, to embrace you and introduce you to a community. So in their own era and in ours, disruption, instability, just simple loneliness connects people with parties. These parties need something, and there’s an exchange going on. And so I think one of the reasons we’re seeing engagement politics the way we are today that’s similar to back then is we’re living in a similar age of disruption and inequality.”
What is the lesson that you draw from that crashing of participation?
Jon Grinspan: “If there is a positive lesson, an optimistic lesson of this era, it’s that people were able to look at their democracy, and identify the flaws and make fundamental change to how people were behaving. Now, some of that was good. And partisanship falls, violence falls. In a lot of ways, I’d rather vote in the 20th century than the 19th century, right? Like this is a system that gave us the norms we know and we’re worried about defending today. And a lot of that was bad. It does involve disenfranchisement, suppression.
“But what’s really important, I think, to take away in the 20th century is that deliberate, self-conscious change is possible. It’s not that we’re inevitably hurtling toward Civil War and Armageddon, and that’s kind of the only outcome here. People can self-consciously form movements, so dramatically change politics, based really on changing the political culture. And not that many laws change in the late 19th century. Some do, but they’re not huge, and not enough to explain the huge cultural change.
“Reformers are able to change how people talk about democracy, how people engage with democracy and really remake, in some fundamental ways, our political system successfully. So I think if there’s anyone we want to look at … showing us lessons for today, it’s not the changes they make, but that they were able to do it at all.”
We have the problem of technology spreading the very kind of passions and language that can work against the calming of democracy. So what do we do?
Jon Grinspan: “I think it’s going to come from our culture. I think you’re exactly right. Neither party is going to solve this problem. There’s no landslide victory that’s going to calm everyone down. There’s no campaign. There’s no candidate that’s going to do it. And … there are legal fixes we can make to make things better. But that’s not how you fundamentally change a political culture.
“I think it’s going to come from how we talk to each other, how we engage, how we talk about politics, think about politics, deal with each other. I think one of the things that working on this book has [bore] out to me is that democracy is bigger, and more receptive and responsive in some ways to popular culture and how we deal with each other than I thought it was. And we can actually reform our political system by changing how we, as individuals … participate in it.”
From The Reading List
New York Times: “What We Did the Last Time We Broke America” — “What happened to normal politics? I’ve spent the past five years commuting between two centuries, trying to find out.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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