Cover image of "Democracy Awakening," a history of today's Republican Party

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As Heather Cox Richardson notes in the foreword to her new book, Democracy Awakening, “Democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint.” And since that prospect faces us later this year, the story she tells of the decades-long campaign by so-called conservatives to turn the clock back to the antebellum era couldn’t possibly be any more timely. Richardson is an historian, a scholar who has written several previous books about the evolution of the Republican Party. In fact, she calls herself a Lincoln Republican. But there is nothing of Abraham Lincoln visible in today’s Republican Party. And if the United States is truly exceptional, as so many say, we are about to prove it all over again with a radical right turn at the polls toward authoritarianism.

A succinct portrayal of our political crisis today

Here’s the gist of what Richardson is about in Democracy Awakening. “This is a book about how a small group of people have tried to make us believe that our fundamental principles aren’t true. They have made war on American democracy by using language that served their interests, then led us toward authoritarianism by creating a disaffected population and promising to re-create an imagined past where those people could feel important again. As they took control, they falsely claimed they were following the nation’s true and natural laws.” Rarely have I seen our political crisis today so succinctly described.

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson (2023) 304 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of right-wing mob assaulting the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, a vivid picture of today's Republican Party
Anybody in the world who was paying attention to the news on January 6, 2021, is well aware of what’s going on in this picture. Donald Trump caused this outrage, and as of this writing he has not been forced to account for it. Image: Jose Luis Magana/AP – CNN

Familiar events woven into a compelling story

For anyone reasonably well versed in US history, the events Richardson cites in her new book will be familiar. The Civil War and the short-lived period of Reconstruction that followed. The passage of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive activism against the fearsome power of the trusts. The New Deal and the virulent conservative reaction to it. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. And the Reagan years, when the gap between rich and poor grew wide. But Richardson weaves together the strands of this complex story into a compelling narrative that brings home forcefully just how dramatically our lives have been affected by the steady accretion of right-wing policies that have shaped today’s Republican Party.

Here’s how Richardson sums all that up. “Republicans had been ramping up the rhetorical techniques of dividing the country and demonizing their opponents since the 1960s, but they did not want an apocalypse; they wanted an end to business regulation and social services and the taxes they required. Trump had risen to the presidency thanks to their machinations, but he went far beyond them, making the leap from oligarchy to authoritarianism.” And now we are paying the price for the unintended consequences of Republican policies designed to make it easier for businessmen to make a buck. Because the Republican Party has long since ceased to be the party of business alone.

Is “democracy awakening?” Let’s hope so.

Nearly half of Richardson’s book chronicles the efforts of people throughout the past century and a half to fight back against the fast-moving drift toward the right. It all boils down to a debate between those who look to the Declaration of Independence as a guide to the nation’s values and those who find those values in the original language of the Constitution, shorn of later amendments.

Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts grounded their politics in the Declaration of Independence. So has the modern Democratic Party. But, like the Southern elite of the nineteenth century, today’s Republican Party looks the other direction, imputing to the Founders religious views that few of them held. In a real sense, we’re viewing today a return to the debates over first principles that rocked the nation in the years leading up to the Civil War. And Heather Cox Richardson does a stellar job spelling it all out for us.

About the author

Photo of Heather Cox Richardson, author of this history of today's Republican Party
Heather Cox Richardson in 2016. Image: Wikipedia

Heather Cox Richardson teaches history at Boston College, where she joined the faculty after leaving the faculty of MIT and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But she is best known for the widely read Substack daily newsletter, Letters from an American (to which I have subscribed for the past year). Democracy Awakening is the most recent of her seven books. According to Wikipedia, citing stories in the New York Times and NPR, “Richardson has described herself as being a Lincoln Republican, and having no affiliation with any political party.”

Richardson was born in Chicago in 1992 but raised in Maine, where she lives with her husband, a Maine lobsterman. She holds both a BA and a PhD from Harvard University.

Check out Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn (America’s first existential election).

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