Excerpt from book: “Age of Acrimony”, or how American politics has evolved


In his book “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915”, Historian Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, writes about how today’s hyper-partisan and violent political discourse is not so different from how democracy was practiced in the aftermath of the Civil War, and how the 20th Century’s more peaceful forms of political battles represented a maturing of our democracy (or, perhaps, an outlier).

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss John Dickerson’s interview with Jon Grinspan on “CBS Sunday Morning” on October 16!


Almost every day while writing this book, I walked through the National Mall. I passed tourists wearing MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN caps and protesters waving THIS IS NOT NORMAL signs, and made my way to the secure vaults of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Beyond the recently salvaged riot shields and tiki torches, I would settle in the cool, quiet alleys that preserve the deep history of our democracy.

There, century-old objects told a forgotten drama, more passionate than anything we have seen. Midnight Rallies Torches. Partisan street gang uniforms. Stolen ballots. The passage between the restless 21st century and these furious 19th century objects began to feel like digging at opposite ends of the same tunnel, struggling to connect in the darkness. In between are the standards of political behavior that most of us grew up with, or imagine, in America’s more stable 20th century. But the objects at the other end of this tunnel seemed to scream, “Your normal was abnormal.”

In our arguments about democracy, we have missed the most vital, urgent, and relevant period in American history. Twentieth-century America’s expectations of restrained public policy were a historical aberration. This civility was an invention, the end result of a brutal struggle over the nature of democracy that raged in American life in the late 1800s. The Smithsonian artifacts are remnants of that conflict; diaries and letters stored elsewhere are battlefield reports.

We barely remember it, but it was the origin story of normal politics, the dirty story of how democracy got clean.

Americans claim that we are more divided than we have been since the Civil War, but forget that life after the civil war saw the loudest and toughest political campaigns in our history. From the 1860s to the early 1900s, presidential elections attracted the highest voter turnouts ever, were decided by the closest margins, and witnessed the greatest political violence. Racist terrorism during Reconstruction, political machines that often functioned as organized crime syndicates, and brutal repression of labor movements made this the deadliest era in American political history. The nation has seen one impeachment, two presidential elections “won” by the loser of the popular vote, and three presidential assassinations. Congressional scrutiny exploded, but neither party seemed able to tackle the systemic issues that were disrupting American lives. Driving it all, a tribal partisanship captivated audiences, bending racial, ethnic and religious identities into two warring hosts.

Critics have come to consider the “forty years of democracy of that era in the desert”, when American politics threatened America’s promise.

But it wasn’t just cartoonish “bad old times.” Those who had the right to vote did so as never before – with an average turnout of 77% in presidential elections – and those who did not have this right fought to participate. These were the years when national suffrage for African Americans and women went from utopian dreams to achievable realities. Wild rallies, bustling saloons, street corner debates, a sarcastic press and a love of costumes, fireworks, barbecue and lager have all helped turn the countryside into vibrant spectacles. The public has grown accustomed to seeing ten thousand Democrats throwing their top hats in the air at once, or watching phalanxes of Republican women dressed as goddesses float down Main Street, or listening to young girls discuss politics in the trams. Turnout was highest among working class and poorer citizens, and often incorporated recent immigrants, young voters, and newly enfranchised African Americans. Despite all the political ugliness of the time, Americans chose to participate in their government as few ever have in the history of the world.

In a time of disruption and isolation, many have found identity, friendship and meaning in this participation. The same competitive zeal that has cried out against independent thought or unleashed excruciating violence has also made politics gripping, joyful and fun. Experiencing a partisan American election, wrote one critic in 1894, was like watching two high-speed locomotives cross an open plain. Each spectator felt irresistibly compelled to applaud a train, to be “jubilant when it advances, or mortified if it falls behind. It becomes for the moment his form, his locomotive, his railroad.” Complaining about politics, Americans could not look away.

This is the fundamental paradox of their time – and perhaps of ours. Americans lamented the failure of their democracy, but also adhered to its worst habits with zealous fixation. An already overworked population has devoted incredible amounts of unpaid work to politics. Why bother? Why go out? In particular, why participate in a government that so many have agreed is broken, rigged and rotten?

How can a system be so popular and so unpopular at the same time?

This paradox has not been resolved, in part because we tend to associate this period with conspiracy politics. Fanatics back then blamed the nation’s problems on African-American Reconstruction politicians, Irish Catholic machines, German anarchists, or Jewish socialists. Since the Progressive era, many have focused on the (much more real) culpability of tycoons and lobbyists, in an age of gaping income inequality.

But this focus on conspiracy misses the fundamental importance of America’s political problems. There were, of course, a fantastic number of scams and schemes in those days, but they were outweighed by the votes and passions of tens of millions of partisan citizens that had a greater cumulative impact. The system evolved to convince citizens to care about their government, they did, and the results were infuriating. Massive public participation made it harder, not easier, to address the inequalities of their time. It is an engaged majority, not scheming minorities, that has made politics so fascinating and frustrating.

The question underlying so many late-night rallies, bar debates, parlor conferences, and chamber squabbles was whether this democracy could be reformed. And then it was. As the partisan divisions of the mid-1800s ended in a harrowing civil war, Americans managed to calm the fiery politics of the late 19th century peacefully. An incredible transformation of American politics took place around 1900, reconfiguring a public, partisan, and impassioned system into a more private, independent, and restrained one.

It was the boldest shift in political behavior since the Constitution was written, prioritizing Americans’ relationships with their government, with each other, and with themselves. How it happened is one of the greatest mysteries in our history.

It took a terrible market. The wealthy victors of the class wars of the Gilded Age chose to trade participation for civility. They restricted the old system, decreasing violence and partisanship, but decreasing public engagement with it. Turnout plummeted, dropping by nearly a third by the start of the 20th century, especially among working class, immigrants, young people, and African Americans. Our commitment has not yet recovered. In the 20th century, much of the dynamism of American public life lived outside of “capital P” electoral politics.

Instead of fixing their system, the reformers broke it in a different way, the way we have grown accustomed to. Much of what Americans value in their democracy was not passed down from the founders, but invented by moderators a century later: our views on suffrage, public service, corruption, independent journalism , partisan outrage and political violence. Few 21st century Americans would want to participate in elections as they did in 1868 or 1884. In fact, most simply could not. And the social reforms of the Progressive Era – the child labor laws, pure food laws and vaccination campaigns that made modern life livable – were only possible because a generation first calmed down their policy. But much of what is wrong with our politics is of this same origin – our lower turnout rates, our divisions based on class and race, our systemic disincentives to participation.

No era better highlights the nuanced trade-offs at the heart of the study of history, but, perhaps because of this, it has been largely forgotten. Thus, the return of angry partisanship and obsessive militancy in the 21st century seems “unprecedented”. It’s not that our problems are the same as those of the late 19th century – they are often very different – ​​but that the time in between was so unusual. As the constraints of the 1900s erode, we see old trends emerging. To understand what seems to be wrong with our politics today, we have to ask how we got to this “normal” democracy of the 20th century.

Excerpt from “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.” Copyright 2021 by Jon Grinspan. Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury.

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