“Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America” by Heather Cox Richardson; Viking/Random House, 2023; 304 pages, hardcover, $30.

In Heather Cox Richardson’s reading, America’s history turns on the tension between two fundamental sociopolitical beliefs. One is that American democracy should uphold equal rights for all, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The other is that American democracy should uphold a hierarchical social order, in which a few men hold power and wealth.

In the former, the government fosters rule of law and economic opportunity for everyone. Richardson in her book “Democracy Awakening” identifies Abraham Lincoln as the first really forceful propounder of this view, which then evolves during the union movements of the late 19th century, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

In the latter belief, a small number of White men control government and society, fostering their own interests through adherence to Christian rules that interfere minimally with their power and wealth. Everyone occupies an inherent place in this order, from ruling families to farmers to slaves, supposedly ensuring law and order, the development of high culture, and economic opportunity. Richardson shows how in this scheme, economic opportunity seems always to fall upward and Blacks, women, and poor people are viewed as subhuman.

In readable prose with the knowledge and authority of a well-respected history professor, Richardson shows how this fundamental tension is what led to the Civil War; the late-1800s organization of unions and subsequent labor violence; ongoing clashes over voting rights through the 20th century; segregation; an unprecedented upward transfer of wealth starting in the 1980s; and eventually the implosion through the 2010s and 2020s of the political party upholding the notion that society and government should be overseen by a small number of wealthy men and families.

In this reading, the January 6, 2021, insurrection was not a historical anomaly of the past 10 years. Instead, it is an almost inevitable outcome of frictions that took shape as states’ rights issues in the 1840s. States’ rights specifically to uphold slavery, which led to the Civil War and the near-implosion of the United States. After the war, states’ rights proponents cultivated the myth of the Plains cowboy as the great American hero in contrast to the “socialism” that in their worldview sought to undermine the rugged individual and unjustly transfer wealth from those who deserved it downward to those who had no right to it, especially inimically, to Blacks.

The two competing sociopolitical views led to labor, suffrage and social clashes in the early 20th century. The catastrophic economic crash that triggered the Great Depression opened the door for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to develop Lincoln’s vision of equal opportunity in the New Deal. After World War II, American society and politics came to be guided by what Richardson calls the “liberal consensus.” The Civil Rights Act and government investments in transportation infrastructure were examples of how government of, by and for the people could work.


Strong pushback remained, however. Sometimes bloody struggles over segregation and the racism inherent in the hierarchical view of social order persisted. In the 1960s and ’70s, “Movement Conservative” William F. Buckley Jr. openly criticized the liberal consensus, charging that it was actually inimical to America’s foundations. He argued for schools to “stop using the fact-based arguments that he insisted led to ‘secularism and collectivism,’” and urged the creation of “a new orthodoxy of religion and the ideology of free markets.” These ideas are clear foreshadowings of the Christian conservative movement of the 1980s and its present iterations, such as the one represented by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn who has openly called for religious civil war to overthrow the government.

Richardson explains her material in terms general enough to make the book quick reading, but detailed enough to support the ideas. Many of her source citations are to news stories rather than to scholarship, as might otherwise be expected of a prominent academic historian. But “Democracy Awakening” is not meant to be a scholarly document. It is based on her popular “Letters from an American” blog, which she began writing in 2019 to try to put the tumultuous Trump years into historical perspective.

If we ever needed clarification from an authority on how we got from the founding of the United States to the disastrous politics that are imploding the Republican Party and threatening to take the rest of us down with it, it’s now. This book provides it.

“Democracy Awakening” may be profitably read alongside UMaine political science professor Amy Fried’s recent book, “At War with Government,” which documents the Republican Party’s descent toward fracture since the 1960s.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College and lives in midcoast Maine.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Friday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: