This isn’t our only Age of Acrimony

If you think the current political period is divisive, consider the era following the Civil War. It was a time when some thought our very democracy was broken. The trauma of war was followed by economic and technological disruption, and many turned to extreme partisanship. The result was an increased voter turnout in the closest, most violent elections in our history. Reforms were finally instituted by the turn of the century, bringing more order to the process, but at the price of loss of interest as voting participation dropped.

William D. Kelley

This tale of the rise and fall of unruly politics is told in The Age of Acrimony by historian Jon Grinspan ( Grinspan’s storytelling vehicle is a political dynasty — the radical congressman William D. Kelley and his daughter Florence Kelley. Kelley earned the nickname “Pig-Iron” for his support of high tariffs to protect his state’s iron and steel industries, and Florence was a progressive social reformer. The story of our political system in crisis and how democracy essentially reinvented itself can be followed through their lives.

Considering what this country has been through in the past — a War for Independence, a second war of independence (War of 1812), Civil War, two World Wars, a Cold War, the Great Depression and a half dozen serious financial panics — we’ve survived pretty well. Making through our current Age of Acrimony shouldn’t be that big a deal after all — we’ve done it before. We just have to remember how.

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