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To understand America's political turmoil, a historian suggests we look to the late 1800s


Editor's note: This show originally aired Dec. 20, 2021.

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress stoke election lies. Political violence, from Charlottesville to Kyle Rittenhouse, appear to be on the rise. Many experts consider this a moment of crisis for American democracy.

But this is not the first time democracy in America has faced profound challenges.

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, historian Jon Grinspan writes, the country faced an impeachment, two presidential elections “won” by the loser of the popular vote, and three presidential assassinations. Alongside racist terrorism during the Reconstruction period and suppression of labor movements, he calls this "the deadliest era in American political history."

To understand our “unprecedented” politics today, he argues, we have to look back to the explosive era of the late nineteenth century.

We sit down with Grinspan to understand another time America’s democracy was in peril and what lessons can be learned to build a stronger, more vibrant democracy than ever before.


Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History and author of “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915”

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Jesse Steinmetz is Producer of Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Before joining WFAE in 2019, he was an intern at WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut and hosted a show at Eastern Connecticut State University.