Studying Political Pessimism in the Past Actually Makes Historian Jon Grinspan Optimistic About the Future

Columnist David Brooks interviews the political historian about what we can learn from negative political engagement in our country’s history

Jon Grinspan studies the especially rage-driven time in our political history between the end of the Civil War and the year 1900 or so. It may seem contradictory, but focusing on the political pessimism of our past actually makes him rather optimistic.

“The thing I find optimistic about studying this era is that you see that it ends,” says Grinspan, who is a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. The New York Times columnist David Brooks interviewed him on stage at this year’s “The Long Conversation,” an annual event that brings together more than two dozen thinkers for an eight-hour relay of two-person dialogues at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

For Grinspan, becoming a historian was a portal into human empathy. When he comes across an old document describing a stolen election or a riot, he is really overwhelmed by the sense that Americans were able to confront frustrations with their political system and resolve them.

“Americans managed to right themselves,” he says. “They pull out of the downward spiral of frustration and rage and come up with many of the norms we are used to in American democracy today. [...] And it was driven, really, by optimism.”

Perhaps his steady sense of positivity is encompassed in an artifact that recently crossed his desk: a wooden staff once owned, not by a past president or decorated army general, but by an average New Hampshire citizen who inscribed every election he participated in for decades, from around 1860 to 1904.

“You can see democratic engagement inscribed in paint on wood,” Grinspan says. “This is the beauty of this stuff. Here is this one human being’s experience, and it’s boiled down into one physical object.”

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