.Now and Then

Heather Cox Richardson on democracy’s past, present and future

Heather Cox Richardson is hot on history. During a phone interview to talk about her new book, Democracy Awakening, Notes on the State of America, the Boston College professor is most animated by a question about a conversation we might have in 2024, perhaps six months or one year from now: What will our focus be?

“I love this question! I have no idea, which is exactly why I’m a historian,” Richardson says. “I’m a prophet of the past and not the future.”

To make her point, Richardson invites me to imagine that we had spoken in January 2022. “What would we have thought were the real issues?” she asks. “We probably would not have thought it would be the Ukrainians standing up to Vladimir Putin and thereby changing the entire global equation. Putin, one of America’s seemingly greatest geopolitical foes, is now literally having to beg North Korea for weapons.”

She goes on to say we would not have thought the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision would have been a game changer in American politics. We might have predicted it wouldn’t happen, and would not have foreseen what occurred in response to it: Democrats over-performing by eight points in every special election held since then. 

“So, what are we going to be talking about one year from now?” Richardson asks. “I have absolutely no idea, except, front and center will be something you and I cannot foresee, which is what makes it so much fun.”

Richardson has been having “much fun” with history for a long time, not only in the classroom, but in award-winning books and essays that often focus on the Civil War, Reconstruction, the American West, the history of the Republican Party and other topics. She is the co-host of the Vox podcast Now & Then. In 2019 she began writing a Facebook essay that brought her trademark clarity to the flood of daily news—about politics, rising autocracy, threats to democracy, global health crises and more. The posts evolved and became Letters from an American, a newsletter that today has more than two million readers.

Having captured America’s ears and able to cleanse confusing news stories of hyperbole, rhetoric, skewed facts and outright lies, Richardson in her new book turns her keen eye on the past, present and future of democracy. Democracy Awakening spans decades, telling the story of how a small group of wealthy people—mostly white men—weaponized language, encouraged and continuously reinforced false history about America, and prevented marginalized Americans from representation and participation in the country’s narrative.

Richardson is no doomsayer. In her steady, subtle but forceful style, she marches with determination towards optimism and hope, largely by re-illuminating America’s founding principles and stories about people who have, throughout history, never abandoned the dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

“The book is about how we got here, where ‘here’ is, and how we get out of it,” she says. “The overarching theme argues that the reason we’re in a place where our democracy is in danger is because a small group of radicals on the right weaponized our language and our history to divide us and create the conditions for authoritarianism. Former President Donald Trump took those elements and melded them into a movement.”

She adds, “The final section is designed to be a way to help Americans get out of this moment and reclaim our historical democracy. People always ask me how we got here, what to be watching in the present and how to get out. That’s exactly what I wrote.”

Richardson actually set out to write a book answering some of the questions she’s often asked: general inquiries about government or about how the Republicans and Democrats switched sides—with the early Republican Party moving from revolutionary to conservative and the comparatively conservative Democratic Party flipping to become the liberal left. She set the manuscript aside for four months. Upon returning, she recognized the book’s true story, rewrote or threw out about 80% of the original work, and says the first section is now American history told by that early radical right group and focuses on the “Great Man Theory.”

The middle section continues with those actors, but new voices enter to challenge their vision. “The third section makes the argument American democracy is about people demanding their inclusion in the principles of the Declaration of Independence,” she says. “That section has some brand-new stories people might not have heard about. Their stories say that when you pull the curtain back, America is not just a few people; it’s a whole lot of people making arguments for democracy, and they are ultimately what matter.”

Perhaps the constant revising comes from her upbringing. “I grew up in a small town that didn’t have much connectivity in terms of television or radio, but history was all around us,” Richardson says. “We used to go to people’s houses just to hear them tell stories. People say I’m a good storyteller, but I am not being modest when I say to you, I’m not even in the top 10 of those old people telling stories. The history wasn’t always accurate and that mattered, because you’d hear different stories told by different people.”

Richardson was a good student in terms of grades, but impatient and uncomfortable in classrooms and libraries—ironic, given her career choice. “The night when I actually became a historian was in college,” she says. “I hated being stuck in a classroom, hated the confines of a university. I was in a Civil War class and had to write a term paper about the Civil War. I went down to the basement of the library at Harvard, which was government documents, and it was cold down there—dark, underground. I was the only one back by the microfiche machines, the kind of machines you stuck your head in and turned [a knob] to flip pages.”

She continues, “To find a topic, I started to read the Chicago Tribune, from the beginning of the war. I stayed all day, didn’t have lunch, didn’t have dinner. The paper was only four pages and a few of those pages are ads, so it’s not so heroic as it sounds.”

But it was transformational, especially the moment when Richardson turned the crank, read that Lee had surrendered; turned it a second time, and saw a page bordered in black that said Lincoln had been assassinated. “I knew the story, but in that moment I understood it was all about people and how we had become who we are,” she says. “I went home and wrote to my mother and said, ‘This is it, this is what I’m going to do.’ After she died, I found the letter in her possession. I still have it.”

One thing led to another and eventually, Richardson learned not only about her interests and American history but about people’s expectations and listening styles. She insists her writing is not slanted to persuade people to listen or change minds, but aims at logic.

“I like lanes and not lumping things together,” Richardson says. “When we talk about American history and what people want to know about it, we tend to lump people together. All across the political spectrum, I hear, ‘People love the old history.’”

“I don’t think that’s true. People want accuracy,” she adds. “They want to hear the bad things in American history, but also the good things. What I was trying to capture in Democracy Awakening was that American democracy, founded on a principle, is a story of triumph. It’s the triumph of marginalized people demanding inclusion and the right to be treated equally by the law and have a say in their government.”

Most people, she believes, want to hear what actually happened, or as close as possible to the truth, without theoretical discussions. They want to believe they have agency to say: My country isn’t what I want it to be, so I’m going to change it. “You’re never going to change everybody’s mind,” she says. “That’s a mistake people make. They look for people with right- or left-wing reactionary identities and then say, ‘How do I change those minds?’ The answer is, you don’t.”

Which doesn’t mean remaining mum or inert. Especially when encountering people who love their country and know that things are far from perfect, but might not know where to start when it comes to activism or moving toward bipartisanship.

“I start from the premise democracy is good,” Richardson says. “It has always had problems; it’s never been perfect, but that’s the whole point. We can sit down and work on it. You don’t start by talking about the Declaration of Independence, you start by talking about things we all agree on. A vast number of us agree on things, but we’re deliberately polarized by politicians who are trying to get power. For example, 86% of Americans want the government to be able to negotiate pharmaceutical prices. Imagine, 86%! You can’t even get 86% of people to agree on what time to go to lunch.”

There is also agreement on gun safety regulation, reproductive rights with some outer limits and other matters. She says most American people avoid demonizing each other—when the emphasis in discussions is on civic identity and accuracy, or common ground is the starting point. “I go back to Lincoln because most people revere him,” she says. “They think he was a good president, did a lot for the country—and is a touchstone. That’s not a bad place to start rebuilding support for American democracy.”

Richardson’s instincts are reinforced by letters received that suggest people feel they’re not in control, as if things will be done to them rather than them having the ability to do things. “That’s not just about politics,” she says. “It’s economics, work life, customer service, the rise of monopoly power since the 1980s. We have gone through 40 years of American life that is its own zeitgeist that makes people feel they are powerless. That’s changing now, in a lot of different areas.“

Even so, some things seem firmly entrenched—like not foreseeing consequences. “We suck at it,” she says. “What did Winston Churchill say?” Paraphrasing an oft-quoted phrase attributed to Churchill—”Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else”—she says, “Sometimes we luck out, sometimes we don’t. Most of the time it’s a grind to get us to a place where people have the right to be treated equally by the law and have a say in their government.”

“It’s frustrating, as a historian, that we see patterns and recognize when we’re going down a bad path,” Richardson continues. “But people don’t want to think about it. They’re worrying about putting food on the table or if they can afford a new car. They’re not worrying about the larger contours and whether democracy is under threat. Way back in the 1980s, we saw the dangers that have come to fruition now. It used to be a joke about me being one of those naysayers. It’s not satisfying to say, ‘I told you so’ when what I really wanted was for us to stop this drift, at least by the year 2016.”

Even so, for all the horrible blunders, Richardson believes Americans “move the ball forward and work together in unexpected ways.” Returning to expectations, she asks, “Who would have thought some of our most horrific moments, like the Birmingham bombing of the 16th Street Church that 60 years ago killed four little girls and blinded a fifth, would have ended up with an extraordinary extension of civil rights in this country? That’s not to say it was worth it or it wasn’t a tragic loss.”

A second example has her telling a story gleaned from old newspapers about jewelry-laden women attending an opera and a man who committed suicide due to financial trouble the night before the stock market crashed in 1929.

“He obviously felt he couldn’t go on,” Richardson says. “I looked at that and I’m saying, ‘Dude, hang on for just 24 more hours. In 24 more hours you’re going to find that all those people who were at the opera are right where you are.’”

“That stuck with me,” she adds. “Sure, you look at all the terrible things around you and worry. But then I think, I don’t know how it’s going to come out. Isn’t that the fun of our history and our lives? To throw up your hands and say, ‘It’s awful, I’m done’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hanging in and working to change things might be one also, in a very different way.”

Heather Cox Richardson presents ‘Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America’ in conversation with Rebecca Solnit at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland at 2619 Broadway, Oakland, on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 7pm. Tickets are currently sold out but more seats may become available. 415.863.8688. www.booksmith.com/event/heather-cox-richardson

1 COMMENT

  1. For a historian, Cox-Richardson refers to herself a great deal, even calling herself a “prophet of the past,” which is awkward because she insinuates that she is bringing “truth” to her readers. Her dubious story about finding information in the dusty, dark vaults of the Harvard basement sounds more like a trite scene in The Da Vinci Code.

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