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How To Fix a Democracy: Lessons From an Age of Acrimony

Evening Program on Zoom (Session 2 of 2-Session Series)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1L0396
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Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Jon Grinspan (Photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke)

Save when you purchase the How To Break (and Fix) a Democracy series!

Americans may claim we are more divided than we’ve been since the Civil War but forget that the lifetime after that conflict saw the loudest, roughest political campaigns in our history. Presidential elections from the 1860s through the early 1900s produced the highest turnouts, the closest margins, and the most political violence: The period was marked by three presidential assassinations, two presidents who won the White House while losing the popular vote, and one impeachment. Widespread political participation and frustration went hand in hand until the reforms of the early 20th century traded that participation for civility.

Join Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, for a two-part series in which he delves into the deep and sometimes wild history of American democracy to uncover a period of extreme division in the late 1800s.

Session Information

How To Fix a Democracy

The concepts of civil politics accepted as “normal” in the 20th century were not designed by the Founders but invented around 1900 to rescue a seemingly broken democratic experiment that many worried was failing. Grinspan introduces the reformers and cranks who replaced the public, partisan, passionate campaigns of the 1800s with a more private, independent, restrained style. In the process Americans managed to reduce violence and division, but sometimes at the expense of participation and access. This quiet revolution upended the lives of the Kelley family dynasty and created the political world whose rules most of us know. Grinspan finds it both an optimistic story that reveals political reform is possible and a cautionary tale about the cost of a calmer, cleaner but more distant democracy.

Grinspan’s book, The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 18651915 (Bloomsbury) is available for purchase.

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