American democracy has had a rough few years. We seem to have worn out the word “unprecedented.” Even if the pace of the news out of Washington has slowed in the Biden era, the respite still feels precarious.
But if you look back further in history, American democracy has seen some crazy before. In fact, in the years between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, U.S. politics was far more unruly, violent and corrupt than it’s been before or since, for politicians and ordinary Americans alike. It was a period of mass participation, but also mass outrage. Even as millions turned out to vote, march and fight, many agreed with the populist newspaper the Nonconformist when it grumbled, “we are the worst governed country on the face of the earth.”
It might be hard to accept that the political worries of a nation of mutton-chopped Rutherfords could feel as urgent as our own. But the volume of politics in the late 1800s drowns out anything any living American has experienced. For one thing, that era saw the highest turnouts in U.S. history. Imagine if, instead of the impressive 66 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls this past November, the 2020 election drew a turnout of 82 percent, as in 1876. Or if, instead of being decided by hundreds of thousands of votes in half-dozen swing states, elections were won, as in 1884, by just 1,047 voters in one state. Or if, instead of lies about widespread fraud, tens of thousands of votes really were stolen at each election.
Imagine a 2020 every four years, for 40 years.
Or consider living in an age when, instead of individual incidents of political violence, the news contained so many outrages that the papers could barely list them all: Black voters murdered during Reconstruction, organized labor crushed with brute force, urban machines warring like gangs, regular “knockdowns” and “awlings” — when campaigners actually stabbed people with awls to keep them from voting for the opposition. Literally thousands of people died in political warfare. These were the years, after all, that saw three of the four presidential assassinations in American history.
There’s value in revisiting this era beyond making us feel better about our own political dysfunctions. America ultimately got out of that messy phase, offering us lessons about political reform and the tradeoffs that sometimes come with it. In what we might call the “Great Quieting,” Americans after 1900 managed to restrain the worst aspects of their political culture; our standards for “normal” democracy come from this forgotten revolution. But we lost some of the good with the bad, as political participation and enthusiasm crashed in the 20th century.
As we debate how to rein in our own political chaos today, this history reminds us that we might sacrifice something vital in the process.
How did 19th century politics get so broken? It began with optimism. With the end of the Civil War, many Americans hoped they were heading into an era of “pure democracy,” freed from old limitations and elitist hierarchies. Since the founding, more and more people of all classes had started to participate in politics. And with the defeat of the aristocratic Southern slave power, as well as the possibilities of Black voting rights and maybe even women’s suffrage, it looked like a populist alliance of Northern laborers, Southern freed slaves and new immigrants might eradicate what one hopeful New Hampshire preacher dismissed as “class government.”
Minority rule had governed most societies for most of history, but in America after 1865, as the flamboyant New York boss Roscoe Conkling put it, “the will of the majority must be the only king; the ballot-box must be the only throne.”
The result was a carnival of public, partisan, passionate politics. Although today we wince when we see men with torches marching in the night, this was how nearly every campaign hyped up voters in pre-election rallies from the 1860s through the 1890s. Citizens grew used to watching thousands of torch-waving, uniformed young partisans streaming through their towns and cities, surrounded by crowds of cheering, jeering, fighting, flirting onlookers. This style predominated nationwide, burning the brightest in swing districts, big cities, the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest—basically wherever the political fight was hottest. And each successive campaign upped the ante, turning out banners and broadsides, whiskey and lager, barbecues and clambakes, brickbats and revolvers.
European visitors were stunned. Many wrote home about the wild spectacle of an American election, watching “people living as far asunder as the population of Paris is from that of St. Petersburg” simultaneously break out in political debate. To Europeans, it looked like a festival of diversity, anchored by working-class young white marchers and filled out by clubs of African Americans, Cubans or Italians, all joining “the motley crowd — American, Irish, Mexican, and Chinese,” as one stunned London correspondent reported out of San Francisco. Other travelers marveled at America’s women, denied the right to vote but still fiercely opinionated. Tourists never got used to watching schoolgirls argue politics on the streetcars.
A Swedish immigrant wrote home, proud of his new country, where “both the millionaire and the poor working man” seemed ready to break out in a compelling political speech, where “[a]ll work with both hands and feet to get the party they belong to on top.”
Those parties defined everything. When one immigrant in Pennsylvania was asked, during his naturalization test, to explain the structure of the U.S. government, he famously responded that it was “two-sided.” That about summed it up, with Republicans and Democrats locked in a perpetual war. The parties became identifiers for something larger than policies, two tribes using politics to fight over race, class, religion, immigration, inequality and more. As today, many Americans could tell, at a glance, who was a Democrat and who a Republican.
And no wonder so many gravitated toward these parties: There was little else to anchor their lives. In a booming, diverse, disrupted nation, filling with new immigrants and new factories and new cities, the parties were rare institutions that offered stability. Tammany Hall Boss Richard Croker (himself once jailed for an Election Day stabbing) claimed his machine was the Republic’s “great digestive apparatus,” turning rough, foreign-born paupers into the nation’s fuel. Drink at the party’s saloon, march in the party’s rallies, curse the party’s enemies, and suddenly an isolated individual had a tribe. Party offered identity, for good and for bad.
Such public, partisan campaigns fired up the nation’s passions. Thousands of newspapers stoked a steam-punk outrage machine, cranking out verbose insults and sarcastic accusations. There was no assumption of objectivity — fewer than 5 percent of papers identified as “independent” —keeping most readers locked in their partisan bubbles. Such heated emotions drove what one unimpressed political scientist called “government by indignation.”
“The law of everything,” explained Roscoe Conkling, the U.S. senator in love with the new doctrine of survival of the fittest, “is competition.”
By the 1870s, the optimism of the post-Civil War era was turning into a public acknowledgement that what made American politics exciting also made it maddening. Neither party passed decisive legislation; presidents did next to nothing. Yet the fight for their office turned into what Teddy Roosevelt called “a quadrennial Presidential riot.” Party bosses, like Manhattan’s George Washington Plunkitt, found it easier to rile up voters if he avoided the topic of legislation altogether, preferring culture war fodder or free booze and free jobs. “I don’t trouble them with political arguments,” Plunkitt smiled.
At first, thought leaders and barroom grumblers blamed the politicians. The well-to-do heaped scorn on the working-class politicos who had won so much power, and who were caricatured as thieving vultures, “shifty-eyed, dribbling tobacco, badly dressed,” in the words of Henry Seidel Canby, a wealthy Delaware Quaker. There were plenty of easy targets, men with nicknames like Boss Tweed and Lord Roscoe, Pig Iron Kelley and Black Jack Logan, Bill the Butcher and Bathhouse John. Other Americans assigned fault to a widening circle of real culprits — the parties, the press, the monopolies — and also scapegoats like Black voters, Catholic immigrants and Jewish socialists.
But some argued that democracy itself was the problem. By the late 1870s, a class of bitter elite intellectuals — tired of being drowned out in America’s working-class democracy — argued that majority rule and human equality were nothing but schemes to siphon power from “superior to inferior types of men.” The Boston historian Francis Parkman made this case in a famous screed titled “The Failure of Universal suffrage,” in which he accused the voters of being “a public pest,” wielding “promiscuous suffrage” against their betters.
Elite “reformers,” both Northern and Southern, pushed back against the widening of democracy. In the South, white Democrats attacked African American voting rights. Moving from election day terrorism to a campaign of lynchings to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement, they suffocated a generation of Black politicians, born as slaves but elected as members of Congress, senators and governors. After new state constitutions were introduced, such as in Louisiana, the number of registered Black voters there crashed from 130,000 to just 1,342 in just eight years. In the North, “reform” was subtler. When New York’s elites moved to disenfranchise the 69 percent of the electorate of New York City that didn’t own much property, organized labor rebelled, filling the streets, threatening violence and scuttling the scheme.
Three-quarters of a century of democratic gains couldn’t be taken away, but maybe the carnival could be quieted? By the 1880s, sneering aristocrats had given way to a bigger bloc of upper-middle class reformers, who felt trapped between upstart millionaires and agitated masses, what Josiah Strong, a notoriously bigoted Protestant minister and popular author, called “the dangerously rich and the dangerously poor.” This rising coalition set about making politics more respectable. Some operated with the “secret cause” of shutting down mass democracy, but others legitimately wanted to clean up government, or rationalize politics, or win women suffrage. They mixed the highest and the lowest of motivations, agreeing only a new style. The problem with democracy was that it was too loud, too busy, too convulsive. Instead of suppressing the vote, what if they could just make participating less compelling?
This new generation launched a revolution for boring politics.
The resulting changes looked small, but they fundamentally reframed democracy. Cities introduced permit requirements to end those raucous public marches. They closed saloons on Election Day in order to guarantee sober voters. “Educational campaigns” printed sheafs of dense pamphlets about issues like tariffs or the currency. Parties replaced on-the-ground volunteers with paid organizers. And voting itself grew calmer. Previously, voters had gathered in noisy crowds to cast party-printed, color-coded paper ballots. After about 1890, individuals were isolated in new polling booths, “alone with their conscience,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, to select candidates from text-dense, government-printed secret ballots.
The changes made voting more thoughtful and less open to fraud or intimidation — but also more isolating, harder for illiterate or non-English speakers, and a lot less fun.
The results were predictable. Turnout crashed. Up through 1896, presidential election turnout averaged 77 percent. But after 1900, it fell consistently in election after election across 20 years, until fewer than half of eligible voters bothered to participate. Even the rise of women’s suffrage didn’t stop the free-fall. Participation crumbled most among voters who were working class, young, Black or immigrants, leaving an electorate that was whiter, older and wealthier. These are the years when wealth and education first began to correlate with turnout.
This Great Quieting also pulled government away from the public. The number of members in Congress, which had always increased with population, froze permanently in 1911. Even though the nation has tripled in population since then, we’re still stuck at 435 representatives, who are by necessity more distant from their constituents. At the same time, elections became less competitive, with more landslides, safer seats and more incumbents. Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson seized more power, as did administrators and federal agencies. These changes helped to enable a wave of Progressive legislation, improving Americans’ lives in immeasurable ways. But they also put new distance between the people and their politics.
As one muckraking journalist wrote in 1903, while the 19th century often meant “politics without government,” the 20th century would be the age of “government without politics.”
It was no longer polite to talk politics at the dinner table. Tribal partisanship withered, until by mid-century, political scientists noticed that voters really couldn’t distinguish between the two parties. And people restrained the raucous energies politics had once unleashed. Political violence declined. In the late 1800s, one congressman was murdered every seven years, on average; in the 20th century, it was one every 25.
This is the origin story of “normal” politics — the style that has been under “unprecedented” assault over the past few years. As old restraints crumble, Americans have seen a new heat seep back into politics. It’s not entirely a bad thing, pushing up engagement, turnout and ownership again. Youth participation is up, and the era of shrugging, don’t-talk-politics-at-the-dinner-table apathy is over. But that old vitriol has risen, too.
This history seems to suggest that we must choose: “politics without government” or “government without politics”? Now that we have made it through 2020, can we enjoy the benefits of popular, participatory democracy without ugly, tribal, violent consequences? Our past shows the alternative, the tragic overcorrection, the culling of the best aspects of a political culture along with its worst tendencies. It’s a mistake we should remember as we fight to fix our democracy again today.