John Colson: We did it once before, can we again?
The present moment in the history of our country, as many of us recognize and worry about, is fraught with the kinds of divisions, animosities and general ill will concerning so many things that it is becoming harder and harder to find solid ground to stand on.
It’s true with health care in general and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s true with our tottering national educational system. It’s true with regard to guns, the environment, abortion rights (and women’s rights overall), race relations, immigration, and the list goes on and on.
A short time ago, I read a report on current COVID-19 cases in the U.S. that said Colorado at one point ranked eighth among the 50 states in terms of rising numbers of COVID infections.
On Monday, I turned to online site Statista.com, and read that our state currently (as of Oct. 29) was ranked 24th out of the 50 states, in terms of the total overall cases nationwide — Colorado was cited as reporting nearly 735,000 cases, where California, which stood at No. 1 on the list, was reported at just over 4.9 million.
The spread between those reports might explain why so many people have given up understanding the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Instead, an awful lot of U.S. citizens are choosing to simply believe what they want to believe, or what they are told by their favorite news source, which often comes to the same thing and often is inaccurate at best or harmful at worst.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in our socio-political views, as individuals more and more descend into tribal rhetoric and violent opposition to any opposing or simply different views from their own.
I think most of us are aware that this country, and much of the world beyond our borders, both are in deep trouble, perhaps worse trouble than any of us currently alive can remember.
But, at least in terms of the American experience, I’ve recently been reading about a period of our history that was eerily similar to what we’re going through right now, a time when people distrusted one another in extreme ways, did not speak or act civilly toward one another, and generally seemed more ready to have a fistfight or a gun battle than to sit down to try to figure things out calmly and rationally.
A man named Jon Grinspan, who is a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, earlier this year published a book titled, “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.”
I haven’t read it yet, but I mean to soon.
Meanwhile, in an op-ed in The New York Times, Grinspan wrote about the parallels between the era he described in his book, and what we are going through as a nation today.
Setting the stage for his fitness to examine both eras, he wrote of “heading into the Smithsonian’s secure collections” to study that century-past era, as well as his explorations into our national political landscape today.
“I have attended protests, talked politics at Bernie Sanders rallies and with armed Ohio militiamen,” and found that “again and again, 21st-century Americans wonder at a democracy that looks nothing like the one they grew up with,” Grinspan writes in the Times.
His take on it is expressed in the title of his essay in the Times: “The Last Time America Broke.”
Grinspan writes that the similarities between the U.S. of today and the nation in the late 1800s reflects such concerns as “ballots from stolen elections. Paramilitary uniforms. Diaries and letters … of senators and saloonkeepers and seamstresses, all asking: Is democracy a failure?”
He maintains that, over the course of the 20th century, Americans were treated to a deliberately toned-down level of rhetoric, a creatively calmed political atmosphere, engineered in response to the national chaos of the flawed Reconstruction program following the Civil War, the terrors of the Jim Crow laws in southern states and a host of other socio-political calamities.
“The partisan combat of that era politicized race, class and religion but often came down to a fundamental debate about behavior. How should Americans participate in their democracy? Were fraud, violence and voter suppression the result of bad actors, or were there certain dangerous tendencies inherent in the very idea of self-government?” Grinspan asks.
His answer was that, “ultimately, Americans decided to simmer down.”
Politics in the early 1900s, under the urging of “a movement of well-to-do reformers,” created the kind of “normal” politics that held sway for “over a century of relative peace, politically speaking,” with the establishment of guides of behavior that are now being shattered and ignored in favor of partisanship and social warfare.
I found the essay interesting, and I hope Grinspan’s book can lead me to a better understanding of where we are and where we need to be in the future if our great experiment in representative democracy is to survive and move into the future.
And I hope others read it, too, and, whether through this or other exhortations to step back and take a breath, find a willingness to talk rather than shoot, to learn rather than dictate. Because we’ve got to figure out a way to pull our nation back from the brink of self-destruction, yet again.
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