Democracy awakening Notes on the state of America

Heather Cox Richardson

Book - 2023

"From historian and author of the popular daily newsletter LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN, a vital narrative that explains how America, once a beacon of democracy, now teeters on the brink of autocracy -- and how we can turn back. In the midst of the impeachment crisis of 2019, Heather Cox Richardson launched a daily Facebook essay providing the historical background of the daily torrent of news. The essays soon turned into a newsletter and, spread by word of mouth, its readership ballooned to more than 2 million dedicated readers who rely on its plainspoken and informed take on the present and past in America. In Democracy Awakening, Richardson crafts a compelling and original narrative, explaining how, over the decades, a small group of we...althy people have made war on American ideals. By weaponizing language and promoting false history they have led us into authoritarianism -- creating a disaffected population and then promising to recreate an imagined past where those people could feel important again. She argues that taking our country back starts by remembering the elements of the nation's true history that marginalized Americans have always upheld. Their dedication to the principles on which this nation was founded has enabled us to renew and expand our commitment to democracy in the past. Richardson sees this history as a roadmap for the nation's future. Richardson's unique talent is to wrangle our giant, meandering, confusing news feed into a coherent story that singles out what we should pay attention to, what the historical roots and precedents are, and what possible paths lie ahead. Writing in her trademark calm prose, she manages to be both realistic and optimistic about the future of democracy. Richardson's easy command of history allows her to pivot effortlessly from the Founders to the abolitionists to Reconstruction to Goldwater to Mitch McConnell, highlighting the political legacies of the New Deal, the lingering fears of socialism, the death of the liberal consensus and birth of "movement conservatism." There are many books that tell us what has happened over the last five years. Democracy Awakening explains how we got to this perilous point, what our history really tells us about ourselves, and what the future of democracy can be"--

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[New York] : Viking [2023]
Main Author
Heather Cox Richardson (author)
First edition
Physical Description
304 pages ; 23 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Part 1. Undermining Democracy
  • Part 2. The Authoritarian Experiment
  • Part 3. Reclaiming America
  • Conclusion: Reclaiming our country.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this muddled survey, Boston College historian Richardson (To Make Men Free) analyzes the history of the United States from its origins through the present day, reframing many of the nation's major internal conflicts as part of an ongoing clash between "liberal democracy" and emerging "authoritarianism." Richardson touches briefly on such events as the Civil War, the political fight over the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, arguing that these were moments when authoritarianism was thwarted by defenders of democracy who drew political strength from the liberal Enlightenment-era principles in the country's founding documents. But according to Richardson, from the 1950s onward authoritarianism has been on the rise (she cites McCarthyism and the Reagan administration as big steps in that direction), culminating with the election of Donald Trump. At one point, Richardson acknowledges that her argument amounts to a relabeling of "conservativism" as "authoritarianism": She explains that political opponents of the New Deal, who rallied behind a document called "The Conservative Manifesto" in the 1930s, were misappropriating the label "conservative" (which should only be fairly used, Richardson asserts, as a term for people who oppose something "radical"--which, the reader is left to assume, the New Deal wasn't), and thus all political conservatives since have also been mislabeled. Meanwhile, she never convincingly justifies the use of the term "authoritarianism" to refer to, for example, political opponents of civil rights for African Americans. Readers will be perplexed. (Sept.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fresh historical interpretation of American democracy and its many challenges. Since its birth, the U.S. has been caught between two competing schools of thought, one tending toward authoritarianism and the other seeking to widen its embrace of pluralism. So argues Richardson, a professor of U.S. history, author of How the South Won the Civil War, and creator of the popular Substack newsletter "Letters From an American." "America is at a crossroads," she writes. "A country that once stood as the global symbol of democracy has been teetering on the brink of authoritarianism. How did this happen?" In the calm, deliberate prose her newsletter readers will recognize, Richardson traces the rise of the modern right wing from the 1930s, finding its roots in a New Deal--era rejection of governmental intervention. It struggled against the post--World War II liberal consensus but gained ground with Nixon's Southern Strategy and culminated in Trumpism. The author devotes 10 chapters to the Trump presidency, which she calls "the authoritarian experiment." Her summary of the excesses of the era is laid out with her trademark combination of passion and restraint, the explicit comparisons to European fascism bolstered, horrifyingly, by Mein Kampf, among other voices from both past and present. However, Richardson doesn't end with the wreckage left by Trump. Following a dismal recap of the 2021-2022 Supreme Court session, she takes readers back to the nation's founding, writing about the emergence of our imperfect union and its halting expansion of rights. Never losing sight of the fact that it was "those excluded from an equal seat at the table [who] would redefine what it meant to be an American, keeping a dream of human equality alive," the author escorts readers to the modern era. It's an unusual but effective structure, allowing Richardson to do what she does best: show her readers how history and the present are in constant conversation. Reminding us that "how it comes out rests…in our own hands," Richardson empowers us for the chapters yet to come. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.