Another Age of Acrimony
A new book reveals we’ve been through tribalism akin to today’s before—and succeeded in pulling out of it.
by Jon Grinspan (Bloomsbury Publishing, 384 pp., $21.59)
There may be no period of our history that Americans understand as poorly as we do the years between the Civil War and World War I. In the snapshot version, this fuzzy era of industrialization, immigration, and forgettable Presidents recedes in the shadow of the more prominent images of the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement.
It comes as no surprise, then, that as we look to history to understand today’s fraught political moment, we grasp at the better known eras and events. On the left, much recent ink has been spilled debating whether Joe Biden is the second coming of FDR; some on the right ponder in print whether today’s GOP is set to go the way of the Whigs, or whether Never Trumpers are a modern version of the antebellum Free Soilers. As we turn to history to understand the present, we tend to turn to the history we know.
In The Age of Acrimony, Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, shows that our weak grasp on America’s quirky post-Civil War, pre-world war period is a problem—because that era’s political maladies bear more than a passing resemblance to ours. While we occupy ourselves talking about a new New Deal or a second civil war, maybe we should think instead about how the raucous politics of the late 19th century and their subsequent early 20th-century cooling relate to the political challenges and means of mitigation that are on offer today.
After the Civil War, says Grinspan, many Americans strode into their political future with high hopes for politics. The Union was restored. Slavery was no more. “Pure democracy” promised to propel the Republic into an era of national political bliss and economic prosperity. Such hopes quickly withered in the face of a bitterly partisan reality. Postwar politics, Grinspan says, was a “democratic carnival”—“colorful and garish, accessible and insistent, tapped out to the rhythm of hard-soled boots on cobblestones.” Torchlit marches, rallies, colorful and corrupt political players, and a “speechifying culture” marked a period of intense partisanship, strikingly high voter turnout rates, and similarly striking levels of active political participation and political violence.
Partisan politics were not particularly class-centered. Americans sorted themselves into the Republican or Democratic column, much as they do today, on the basis of social identity, race, or cultural leanings: “Race, class, region, religion, occupation, ethnicity, even a style of hat or preference for whiskey or beer all indicated Republican or Democrat.” Each party housed an eclectic mix of citizens. Neither policy substance nor ideological commitment was the glue that bound partisans together. Often, the real unifier was merely animus against the other party. “Each side,” Grinspan notes, “just opposed whatever the other side stood for.”
Though the parties did relatively little to respond to the great challenges of the era, like the inequalities and social unrest unleashed by industrialization, citizens increasingly threw themselves into their partisanship. Why? Grinspan’s explanation is compelling: This was an era of immense socioeconomic and cultural disruption, he says; many Americans reacted rationally, “looking to the largest, most accessible social institutions for protection. And no institutions were as popular or as welcoming as political parties, hungry for new supporters.” In an age of atomization, partisanship offered a sense of belonging and solidarity. It also offered something else: The ideologically incoherent national political culture “refused to distinguish between politics and entertainment.”
Machine politicians and their bevies of campaign workers, ward leaders, and volunteers gave voters not just a good show but patronage jobs and other bribes, ranging from a plum post office sinecure to a free pint of beer once you’d turned in your party ticket on election day. Both parties labored to drive voters into their folds, and it worked: “Americans’ lives were so disrupted and unstable that even the small kindnesses of political machines made a great difference.” This kind of success allowed the party machines to sidestep messy disputes over actual legislation and ideology. “Politics and governing were diverging,” says Grinspan. Soon, an impulse toward political reform started to spring up.
To illustrate the path from the raucous, corrupt, wonderfully popular small-d democratic politics to a more efficient, elite-driven, sanitized public square, Grinspan tells the story of the Kelley political family. Will Kelley, a working-class Democratic kid turned Republican stalwart in the House of Representatives, embodied the popular politics of the age. Congressman Kelley, who represented West Philadelphia in the House from 1861 until his death in 1890, was a committed, consistent defender of both working-class interests and African-Americans. Now and again he flirted with third parties, but he always filtered his advocacy through the medium of conventional partisan politics.
Will’s daughter Florence was very different from her father: Florie, as she was known, came to reject her father’s political approach to social reform and instead focused her often successful efforts on advocacy outside partisan politics. Yet the intergenerational conflict reflected in the Kelleys, and the disdain for party politics and penchant for social reform embodied by Florie, were not the primary causes of the change that pushed America out of the age of acrimony into a quieter, less rambunctious, more ideologically substantive 20th-century politics. The transition was forged in large part not outside politics but through them.
“The chief battle of this era,” Grinspan notes, “was not between parties over policy but between party loyalists and reformers over whether this popular but stalled democracy should be changed at all. Politics was strangling governance.” In the 1870s, only highbrow elitists questioned the capacity of The People to rule themselves. But by the 1880s and 1890s, muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens had concluded that “politicians were expert readers of public demands, and the public had not demanded good government.” The problem wasn’t the politicians and their machines; it was the collective incapacity of The People.
The solution was not to forgo politics altogether but to privatize and sanitize it—to move politics out of the entertaining and raucous public square into quieter, more reflective private spaces. Often working through the party system, the country’s “humane antipopulist” reformers helped institute changes like the secret ballot and more “educational campaigning” and pamphleteering. “Slowly,” says Grinspan, “the democratic process was lifting away from the public square, into the halls where bureaucrats designed ballots, clerks printed political pamphlets, and clubs met privately.”
While politics became less public, not to mention less violent, and political deliberations grew more substantive and cool-headed, there was a darker side to such reforms. It is no coincidence that political participation and voter turnout by African-Americans, immigrants, and working-class and illiterate citizens plummeted in the early 1900s. Indeed, that was “part of the point:” For many reformers, a more rational and substantive democratic politics had to be a more elite-driven, whiter, richer, and more constrained politics: “Restraint defined the change more than any other value.”
Thus, America’s exit from the age of acrimony, in Grinspan’s view, entailed something of a corrupt bargain: “The well-to-do victors of the Gilded Age’s class wars chose to trade participation for civility. They restrained the old system, decreasing violence and partisanship, but diminishing public engagement along with it.”
Today the country once again suffers from an excessively entertaining, irrational, and partisan form of democratic politics. Those interested in reform may think they must accept the elitist trade-off of sacrificing popular participation for the sake of a quieter, more intellectual public square. But what if, in 2021, the path to more political rationality, substance, and civility actually lies in more participation?
In the late-19th century, citizens’ political participation and the quality of their everyday lives were tightly intertwined. The psychological and material benefits of partisan machines kept citizens highly engaged in politics, and the stakes of politics were quite tangible: Getting the patronage job or the bridge built in your section of town mattered. Citizens were willing to disregard ideological and legislative substance in politics because, in many respects, they were desperate enough so that if politics made their lives at least a little better, they weren’t going to cause a big stink about corruption or dysfunction.
Things have changed. Today, as I’ve argued in these pages, the gap between American politics and real life has widened—to an extent, indeed, that invites its own particular forms of depraved and irrational political behavior. For many of us, politics has become a spectator sport without much tangible impact on our lives, which induces us to treat it as such—as entertainment, an area of life in which we can act, well, downright silly. Meanwhile, thanks in part to the reform efforts of a century ago, politics is actually less corrupt and more ideologically substantive.
Thus, maybe there need not be a trade-off today between political participation and a more civil and substantive politics. We may not have to bring back corrupt political machines; we may simply have to think of new ways to make politics real, tangible, and relevant again, through reforms like, among others, expanding the size of the U.S. House of Representatives and localizing as much political power as we can. We can re-orient citizens’ political participation toward real-world impact and away from on-screen scrolling; we can bring politics closer to reality.
Grinspan reminds us that our political system has been beset by contempt, partisanship, tribalism, incivility, and irrationality before. The key question is how to reform our way out of our own acrimonious age. Will we make the same mistakes as past reformers, or can we make our democracy both more inclusive and better able to meet the era’s immense economic, social, and political challenges? The reality is that maybe we can’t do one without the other.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University. He will enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. Twitter @thomaskoenig98
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