Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

A Look at the Most Contentious Presidential Elections in History

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In these tense times, looking to the past may provide important insight into the endurance of American democracy.

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It’s Election Day 2020 and after a long and contentious campaign, tensions are running high. It feels like the country is the most divided it has been since the Civil War. Some are worried that the current climate of political instability could jeopardize the country’s democratic process.

Though this election cycle is certainly unprecedented, it isn’t the first contentious election in America’s history. What can we learn from previous fraught elections and how the country endured after them?

Listen: Lessons from America’s history of contentious elections. 


Marc Kruman, founding Director of the Center for the Study of Citizenship and Professor of History at Wayne State University, says that the current election feels very different and is very different from those in recent history. “This is the most contentious presidential election of my lifetime,” says Kruman. He adds that the erosion of trust evidenced throughout this election cycle makes it a uniquely anxious event.

I think that if we are going to compare it, it would probably be to the election of 1876,” says Kruman, adding the caveat that the 1876 election was far tenser than the lead up to 2020.

The current climate of division, though anxiety-inducing, may actually be necessary according to Kruman. “Contentiousness actually has led to greater voter participation and greater enthusiasm and that speaks to the health of our democracy,” says Kruman.

Detroit Today associate producer Clare Brennan wrote this article.

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2020 Voter Information Center

This post is a part of 2020 Voter Information Center.

2020's federal, state and local elections are unprecedented in many ways, most significantly the expected surge in absentee voting in Michigan due to the coronavirus pandemic. 101.9 WDET is committed to offering trusted, accurate information on voting, ballot access and key issues. 

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