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Smithsonian's John Grinspan on Histories of Americans Fighting For Democracy

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."

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

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."

Read entire article at WBUR