In her newly published seventh book, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, BC Professor of History Heather Cox Richardson examines the long, intricate path to today’s fraught, dysfunctional American political state of affairs.
Zeroing in on the role of a small group of wealthy people that, down through the years, has weaponized language and promoted false history to create a disaffected population all too willing to embrace authoritarianism at the expense of democratic ideals, Richardson shows how the United States has long struggled to live up to and maintain the principles on which it was founded—and how, time and again, marginalized Americans have played a key role in helping the U.S. renew, and expand, its commitment to democracy.
In the following Q&A, she discusses the story behind Democracy Awakening—and the question of whether America can recover its true ideals.
How did Democracy Awakening come together?
The evolution of the book has been a little odd. It began as an attempt to write a number of short essays to explain the questions everyone asks me on what is pretty much a daily basis: When did the parties switch sides, how does the Electoral College work, what was the Southern Strategy, how did we get here, are we really in danger of losing our democracy, how do we save it? But as I wrote those essays, it became clear I was making a larger argument about how we got here, where “here” is, and how we get out of this moment.
After finishing a draft, I put it away for a few months, and when I came back to it, I found a very different argument in it than I had set out to write. What had emerged was a story about the use of language and a false history to undermine democracy and how marginalized people have expanded our democracy by insisting on the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence: the right to be treated equally before the law and the right to have a say in our government.
So I threw out the first draft and rewrote about 80 percent of it, telling the story of how a small group of people used rhetoric and false history to undermine our democracy; how former President Trump and his supporters used an authoritarian history to claim there was a perfect past to get back to, and the only way to do that was to follow timeless laws Trump’s opponents refused to honor; and how we can reclaim and expand our democracy by recognizing true history—democratic history— acknowledging that democracy is always under construction and that we have been able to preserve and expand it in the U.S. because marginalized Americans have always kept the Declaration of Independence front and center.
The timeline for the book goes about to the end of 2022. It must’ve been tempting to wait a little longer to see what would happen next. If you could’ve added an “epilogue,” what developments would you’ve touched on?
Almost all of what we are seeing around us is foreshadowed in the book because it is just a continuation of stories that have been going on for a very long time. What I wish I could have written about—and absolutely would in an epilogue—is the importance of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement “I don’t need a ride; I need more ammunition,” and the significance of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion. In conjunction with that, I would write about what seems to me to be an emergence of a movement here in the U.S. of workers, young Americans, suburban women, and so on, pushing back against the conditions under which those populations have fallen behind over the past 40 years.
The more one reads about the Civil War’s aftermath, the more it seems that the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to set a course for enduring racial/social equality. Was this inevitable? Could the U.S. have achieved both accountability and reconciliation with the former Confederacy?
Absolutely. The problem in the aftermath of the Civil War was that the government never held anyone accountable for their attempt to destroy the United States. When President Andrew Johnson, who took over after John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln, pardoned all but about 1,500 of the leaders who launched an insurrection and tried to create their own nation, and then welcomed them back into Congress to make laws for the people whom they had been shooting at just months before, he made their ideology acceptable. That ideology has been behind anti-American sentiment ever since. Virtually any other president would have prosecuted the ringleaders and, as they say, made treason odious. That would have changed the Reconstruction dynamic—and, for that matter, the dynamic of the rest of American history—dramatically.
“I do think it’s interesting that many people read into my work political positions that are not actually the ones I hold. Acknowledging that something has happened and explaining how it works does not mean you are in favor of it or against it. You are just saying it happened.”
The latter half of the 19th century sometimes seems a missing piece in the collective American memory, except perhaps for the settlement of the Old West and the general industrialization of the U.S. Might that account for confusion about how “we won the Civil War” yet civil rights continued to be an issue a century later?
That’s a little hard for me to answer just because my work centers on the late 19th century, so it certainly seems everywhere to me. I will note that at least until recently, that period tended to be written in textbooks by theme—industrialization, the West, reform movements—rather than chronologically, as the other periods are. That, I think, made it hard for people to have a clear story in their heads of what was actually going on. I mean, it is crucially important that the Supreme Court decides the Minor v. Happersett case saying that citizenship does not necessarily give people the right to vote in 1875, opening the way for white Southerners to keep Black Americans from voting in 1876. But since Minor was about women’s suffrage and “redemption” was about Black rights, they often weren’t included in the same narrative, so it was hard to understand the period as a national story, rather than as a bunch of different stories.
One of the many threads running through Democracy Awakening is the gradual change and recasting of the Democratic and Republican parties. Do contemporary Americans grasp this evolution, and its significance?
I actually think the important transformation between the parties comes in response to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. When the Democrats under FDR and then especially under Harry S. Truman begin to move toward civil rights, racist southern Democrats become homeless. Led By South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, they swing behind the Republicans when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater runs for president in 1964, but it is not clear they’ll stay there. In 1968, Republican candidate Richard Nixon courts Thurmond, promising he’ll back off on federal protection of desegregation. That’s the Southern Strategy, and it injects old southern racism into the Republican Party, a poison from which it has never recovered.
After 1965, the Democrats, in contrast, move to embrace democracy, including Black voting. That process is messy and operates by fits and starts, but it never stops, with the 1993 so-called Motor-Voter Act making it easier to register to vote a sign of that continuing process. The Biden administration seems to me the one that has finally begun to grapple with the reality of what multiracial democracy means, yielding an administration with more women than men in it, and with more Black Americans and people of color in administration positions than in any administration in history. It’s a fascinating moment.
You’ve encountered your share of criticism, and accusations of biased analysis and selective use of source material. How do respond to such views?
One of the things about my work that I think is hard to argue with is that it is deeply researched and I provide links to sources. Indeed, this book was my first work ever that was intended not to have any notes—and if you look you can see what my version of “not any notes” looks like.
I often encounter people who are very angry about what I say, but my answer is always, “OK, great! This is how fact-based argument is supposed to work! Show me your sources—and they must be reputable—and we’ll talk about them.” They virtually never respond, or else they become obsessed with sending me right-wing screeds, unfortunately. I usually get along fine with actual scholars, even those from the far political poles, because we are all working in fact-based history. I have learned a lot from those people, although I am not always convinced by their arguments any more than they are by mine. Those scholars from both sides have definitely led me into scholarship I would not have otherwise discovered.
What does happen, though, is that people—usually not pundits, but ordinary people who follow the news—point to things I do not discuss, and suggest those things complicate what I write. The funny thing is that I usually agree with their identification of things I don’t talk about very often, and more often than not I agree with them that it’s an important point. But I focus on people in power or who are changing society, so I often leave those complications unexplored.
For me, that’s the more interesting issue. What we cannot see is what each generation later discovers and uses to build on our work. There are at least two younger scholars out there right now who are implicitly criticizing some of my early work because they have found entirely new ways to look at the world. Honestly, I think they’re right, and I find that very exciting. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
It seems that this criticism goes to the whole question of what exactly an historian is, and does.
History is the study of how and why societies change, and historians examine societies closely to explain that change. But I think what you’re asking is for me to explain the link between what I do and history. There are two ways to think about how historians should inform the public about modern politics. One, embraced by people like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., says that historians should use the past to advocate for the policies of an administration. The other, articulated by the great historian John Hope Franklin, says that historians should use the past to illuminate the present, without regard to a specific political stance. I try to do the latter, with the obvious position that I am a fervent defender of democracy. Right now, the leadership of the Republican Party has abandoned democracy, which means I am often standing against that party.
I do think it’s interesting that many people read into my work political positions that are not actually the ones I hold. Acknowledging that something has happened and explaining how it works does not mean you are in favor of it or against it. You are just saying it happened.
One point you make in the book is that American history is full of landmark events precipitated by those who were disenfranchised or disadvantaged because of their ethnicity, gender, national origin, poverty, or other factors: Wong Kim Ark, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Quanah Parker. Does this give you confidence for the future of America?
I will say that I have huge faith in our young people, whose experience of the world is entirely different than someone of my generation: hiding during active shooter drills; fearing climate change; using the Internet instinctively; and understanding race and gender entirely differently than older Americans. I have every expectation they are going to do great things.