Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America

Image of Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America
Release Date: 
September 26, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Heather Cox Richardson’s Democracy Awakening demonstrates the indispensable role that historians can and should play in times of ongoing crisis."

In The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, historian Jill Lepore recalls an encounter with a Tea Party activist who told her, “I don’t read books. I read blogs.”

Lepore's book contemplates historians' place in public discourse, and the consequences of ceding their civic role to political opportunists determined to hijack the past. That particular anecdote underscores the uphill battle historians face when working in their traditional longform mode, and writing for a large, non-academic audience. This problem becomes particularly apparent when an author sets out to provide a coherent, and necessarily complex counter-narrative to the New (and newer) Right’s efforts to whitewash history and recast it in its own image.

Few historians have worked more diligently in recent years to bridge the gap between academia and a general public desperate to arrive at a deeper understanding of America’s disturbing drift, and to reach readers who don't necessarily seek answers in books than Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson’s “Letters from an American” substack newsletter provides a daily dose of rich, relevant, and eminently accessible historical insight that invariably meets its broad cross-section of readers right where they are. Rather than simply aiming to arm its audience with an alternative set of talking points, “Letters from an American” teaches with a clarity, energy, and generosity that invariably leave readers informed and inspired, even as they wonder how Richardson finds the bandwidth to deliver the goods day in and day out.

A typically rich and resonant recent entry opens with a lede that could serve as a statement of purpose for the entire enterprise: “Two major stories today seem to bring together both the past and the future of the country to chart a way forward.”

That opener might nearly serve as a blueprint for Richardson’s well-argued and profoundly resonant new book, which tells three stories that converge at the country’s current crossroads: first, the circuitous road the Republican Party traveled to undermine democracy since veering off Abraham Lincoln’s nation-saving middle path and redefining conservatism in the long Reagan era (also the primary subject of Richardson’s brilliant 2014 book To Make Men Free); second, the Trump era's disastrous dalliance with autocracy; and third, the country’s parallel history of working toward a fulfillment of the democratic model established in the Declaration of Independence, and its ongoing expansion in the ascendancy of women, people of color, and other once-marginalized groups who have struggled for inclusion.

None of this story, as Richardson tells it, is as simple as we might like it to be or as the alternative facts peddled by history's hijackers and suppressors. As she argued in To Make Men Free and also contends here, the emphasis on Americans’ unalienable right to receive equal treatment under the law and choose their government—and to rely on government to protect those rights—is counter-balanced by the Bill of Rights’ preoccupation with the hands-off-what’s-mine elevation of property rights as the country’s defining principle. It is the tension between these two points of emphasis, and the ongoing battle between those who insist that one trumps the other, that accounts for the country’s perpetual push-and-pull in one direction or the other, and the ongoing (and often opportunistic) debate over the proper role of government in American life.

The third story Richardson tells—how America’s founding fathers, mostly slave-holding white men, envisioned a nation founded on democratic principles, and how today’s hard-won pluralism-in-progress has fulfilled and advanced that vision—achieves a more convincing “this is who we really are” affirmation than one might expect after reading the book’s middle section on the rise of Trump, which chronicles democracy's near-obliteration.

And the book arguably presents a more optimistic take on America’s potential to redeem and build on the promise of the Roosevelt-era New Deal than, say, Jefferson Cowie’s The Great Exception, which nearly pins all of the country’s future hopes on revisiting a vanished moment (albeit one that lasted nearly four decades) that stands as a shining anomaly in our collective past, rather than the fulfillment of a founding premise or promise.

Richardson takes none of this for granted. And much of this book is as bleak and discouraging as you might expect, with chapters on Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Ronald Reagan’s civil rights rollback and demolition of the waning liberal consensus, and the Trump administration’s well-executed efforts to destabilize the government through the systematic elimination of anyone qualified to serve in it by criteria other than absolute loyalty to the president.

Yet Democracy Awakening is no polemic, no anti-Republican screed. It’s far more balanced than that. Unlike the estimable Rick Perlstein and most other contemporary chroniclers of the rise of the New Right from Barry Goldwater to the enduring age of Reagan, Richardson consistently refers to the brand of conservatism that revolted against then overran the Republican party by its chosen name, “Movement Conservatism.” As in To Make Men Free, this bit of nomenclatural fidelity serves the dual purpose of recognizing this movement as the radical revolt against liberal values and the perceived tyranny of the majority that founding movement conservatives like William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell and early standard-bearers like Barry Goldwater believed it to be.

Richardson also carefully distinguishes it from the earlier incarnations of conservatism with which, she argues, it doesn’t align (any more than the party of Reagan or Trump shares the values of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or even Eisenhower, whose alleged capitulation to the era's prevailing liberal consensus Movement Conservatives rose up against).

Regardless of what the majority believed, depended on, or voted for, Movement Conservatives argued, “Government must stand firm behind what they called ‘free enterprise’ and ‘religion’; those values were not negotiable,” Richardson writes. “Buckley and Bozell acknowledged that they were trying to overturn the shared belief system that had stabilized the country and that they were doing so on the basis of ideology. This was the opposite of true conservatism, which Edmund Burke had conceived to stand against ideologically based government.”

Richardson’s analysis of how modern conservatism began, and the foundations of its disregard for such egalitarian or democratic notions of majority rule is both sobering and sober. She doesn’t aspire to Perlstein’s dense and dizzying interweaving of political and cultural history; nor does she approach her subject with the cutting humor and fired-up jeremiads of Thomas Frank.

Democracy Awakening doesn’t set out to awaken, enrage, entertain, or convert the reader so much as to inform and teach. Even as she writes primarily for non-academic audiences, Richardson is first and foremost an educator, committed to helping her readers make sense of their world by illuminating it with the lessons that history alone can teach. And she does so with fluid, lively, and lucid prose that opens up her subject to her readers in a way that frees them to draw their own conclusions alongside hers.

Perhaps the most comparable contemporary historian reliably and prolifically delivering trade books that so effectively and powerfully put present concerns in historical context is Carol Anderson, author of the widely read recent works White Rage, The Second, and One Person, No Vote. Like Anderson’s critical texts and the daily doses she delivers via “Letters from an American,” Heather Cox Richardson’s Democracy Awakening demonstrates the indispensable role that historians can and should play in times of ongoing crisis. It effectively models their essential place in our national conversation, via book or blog or wherever the concerned and the curious may seek the answers they need.