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What the Gilded Age Can Teach Us About Addressing Today’s Crisis of Democracy

Drawing on lessons from the Gilded Age and other periods of American history, Mr. Grinspan joined Tim Bartl in a conversation on politics, democracy, and the role employers can play in providing a sense of community and stabilization in an otherwise chaotic time.

Nervous people make nasty politicsComparing 19th and 20th century experiences to today’s political disruption, Mr. Grinspan noted that at the time of the Gilded Age, people were experiencing considerable changes in how people live in communities—many left behind their community and traditions in their home countries and became isolated. Isolation led people to seek out anchors in their life and for many, the political system became a very strong anchor for those in need of community. While civic engagement is positive, the tribalism that tends to follow increased civic engagement means that many only care about “winning,” causing the other side to always be seen as an enemy of sorts. 

The first step to reform is recognizing a problem at mass scale: A common feeling that things are broken can motivate and drive large groups of people to want to fix whatever is broken. Millennials and Gen Z are two groups that are starting with the assumption that our politics are broken and need fixing. Mr. Grinspan noted that while divisiveness can seem to lead to gridlock in Washington, in many ways it is the starting point to significant change driven by an evolvingculture. 

Work can be a stabilizing force in a time of disruption: Mr. Grinspan closed by arguing that work and company culture can play an important role in democracy by providing a key anchor for people. In fact, the rise of associations and other workplace groups occurred during the 20th century when political activity was low and people were looking for something else to anchor them. By playing a stabilizing role in people’s lives, work can provide a sense of community and remove the anxieties that often create tribalism and chaos in politics.

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Authors: Margaret Faso

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