Democracy Awakening
Promotional image for Heather Cox Richardson's Democracy Awakening (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

How, author and his­to­ri­an Heather Cox Richard­son asks, did we get where we are now, with mil­lions of Amer­i­cans fear­ing democ­ra­cy and social­ism as fun­da­men­tal threats to the world’s biggest repub­lic, and an equal if not larg­er num­ber con­vinced the dan­ger lies in the appeal of authoritarianism?

The answer, Richard­son writes in Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing: Notes on the State of Amer­i­ca, is to be found in what Amer­i­cans have been taught about this nation’s his­to­ry. Accord­ing to Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing, there are two prin­ci­pal under­stand­ings of our nation’s ori­gins and sub­se­quent devel­op­ment: the “author­i­tar­i­an” and the “demo­c­ra­t­ic.” Which of these we accept as true large­ly deter­mines our reac­tions to cur­rent events today.

Richard­son approach­es her sub­ject from a pro­gres­sive per­spec­tive. The key to the rise of author­i­tar­i­an­ism in the Unit­ed States, she writes, lies in the “use of lan­guage and false his­to­ry”; a “strong­man warps his­to­ry to gal­va­nize his base.” “This is a book,” Richard­son con­tin­ues, “about how a small group of peo­ple have tried to make us believe our fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples aren’t true.”

She states that the fall of democ­ra­cy and the rise of author­i­tar­i­an­ism in the Unit­ed States today rests on a mis­tak­en his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. Accord­ing to Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing, his­tor­i­cal ideas play a major causative role in explain­ing the rise of Don­ald Trump and all his move­ment represents.

These two com­pet­ing ori­gin his­to­ries of the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to Richard­son, derive their fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples from dif­fer­ent found­ing documents.

The “demo­c­ra­t­ic” view of Amer­i­can his­to­ry rests on the prin­ci­ples stat­ed in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. This nation was cre­at­ed, the Dec­la­ra­tion pro­claims, to “dis­solve polit­i­cal bands” with the King of England’s tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment, a gov­ern­ment that taxed the colonists with­out allow­ing them representation.

Richard­son empha­sizes, as well, the Declaration’s inclu­sive lan­guage: the “self-evi­dent truths” that “…all men are cre­at­ed equal, they are endowed by their Cre­ator with cer­tain unalien­able Rights, that among these are Life, Lib­er­ty and the pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness ….” This, accord­ing to the “demo­c­ra­t­ic” ori­gin his­to­ry, has always been the fun­da­men­tal nature and pur­pose of the Unit­ed States, no mat­ter how imper­fect­ly car­ried out over the centuries.

Accord­ing to the “demo­c­ra­t­ic” ori­gin his­to­ry, then, the prin­ci­pal rea­sons for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and the cre­ation of the Unit­ed States as a nation were, first, to secure the rights of indi­vid­u­als, and sec­ond, to pro­tect them from tyran­ny. The government’s author­i­ty is derived from the con­sent of the governed.

In con­trast, the “author­i­tar­i­an” expla­na­tion for why the Unit­ed States was cre­at­ed rests not the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, but the Unit­ed States Constitution.
This argu­ment begins with an expla­na­tion of why the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion of 1787 was called. The first nation­al gov­ern­ment for the new Unit­ed States was the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion (1781). React­ing to the “tyran­ny” of the British gov­ern­ment, the nation­al gov­ern­ment under the Arti­cles was pur­pose­ly grant­ed lim­it­ed pow­ers. It proved too weak, how­ev­er, to be effective.

Shays’ Rebel­lion (1786), an armed, vio­lent upris­ing of out­raged farm­ers in Mass­a­chu­setts, raised con­cerns among pow­er­ful and wealthy patri­ot lead­ers through­out the new­ly inde­pen­dent Unit­ed States.

They feared anar­chy and the break-down of pub­lic order; the weak cen­tral gov­ern­ment under the Arti­cles was unable to cope with this danger.

Democracy Awakening book cover
Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing: Notes on the State of Amer­i­ca, by Heather Cox Richard­son (Hard­cov­er, Viking)

Cit­ing this his­to­ry, Richard­son sees the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion as an “author­i­tar­i­an” doc­u­ment. It was cre­at­ed out of fear of riots, rebel­lion, mobs, and mass­es by those in posi­tions of pow­er. This “ori­gin sto­ry” under­stands the orig­i­nal pur­pose of gov­ern­ment in the Unit­ed States to be pro­tec­tion from the mass will – from the “mass” of peo­ple in general.

Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing dis­cuss­es in some detail pro­vi­sions of the orig­i­nal Con­sti­tu­tion designed to ensure pow­er remained with elites, rather than the major­i­ty of the people.

For exam­ple, the Framers gave the Elec­toral Col­lege the respon­si­bil­i­ty of choos­ing the Pres­i­dent, instead of hav­ing the posi­tion cho­sen by pop­u­lar vote.

For the upper cham­ber of Con­gress (the Sen­ate), each state, what­ev­er its pop­u­la­tion of phys­i­cal size, was grant­ed two Senators.

For the low­er House, dis­tricts for each House mem­ber were to be of rough­ly equal size. This lim­it­ed the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of cities, with their larg­er, more con­cen­trat­ed pop­u­la­tions. Richard­son also empha­sizes that the Con­sti­tu­tion rec­og­nized and cod­i­fied slav­ery, and the “infe­ri­or­i­ty” of Blacks (espe­cial­ly after the infa­mous Dred Scott Supreme Court deci­sion of 1857).

The “author­i­tar­i­an” view of the ori­gins of the Unit­ed Sates (accord­ing to Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing) is that the Unit­ed States always has been author­i­tar­i­an, elit­ist, clas­sist, and racist. Short­ly after inde­pen­dence, a gov­ern­ment strong enough to main­tain sta­bil­i­ty and order was instituted.

Most of the text of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing is devot­ed to a broad his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States from the Rev­o­lu­tion through the rise of Don­ald Trump and the attack on the Capi­tol in Jan­u­ary 2021. It is a read­able his­to­ry, con­sis­tent­ly ori­ent­ed to elab­o­rat­ing events, move­ments, and ideas that for­ward­ed either the “author­i­tar­i­an” or the “demo­c­ra­t­ic” sto­ry of the nation’s true pur­pose and origins.

For those famil­iar with Heather Cox Richardson’s oth­er writ­ings, or, more gen­er­al­ly, with the over­all tra­di­tion­al text­book accounts of the Unit­ed States, there is lit­tle in Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing that is new.

On the oth­er hand, if Pro­fes­sor Richardson’s per­spec­tives are nov­el to you, read­ing Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing could be reveal­ing. Her well-devel­oped his­tor­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tions offer strik­ing per­spec­tives on the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States.

His­tor­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tions may open our eyes to new ways of view­ing our past. This, in turn, may clar­i­fy what is hap­pen­ing in our own lives.

That is the pri­ma­ry inten­tion of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing.

In the final analy­sis, how­ev­er, the val­ue of his­tor­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tions must rest on the extent to which they are accu­rate historically.

All large-scale gen­er­al­iza­tions have excep­tions; the world is too com­plex (as are each of us) to expect oth­er­wise. The ques­tion is: Are the excep­tions suf­fi­cient to inval­i­date the use­ful­ness of the generalizations?

The excep­tions to the over­all the­sis of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing are numerous.

For exam­ple, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence does declare “all men” are cre­at­ed equal and there­fore enjoy cer­tain inalien­able rights. In the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, those words car­ried a dif­fer­ent mean­ing than they do today.

The authors of the Dec­la­ra­tion assumed as obvi­ous that most of the pop­u­la­tion was not includ­ed under the rubric “all men.”

The most promi­nent author of the Dec­la­ra­tion, Thomas Jef­fer­son, was a slave­hold­er who believed firm­ly that Blacks were inher­ent­ly inferior.

In addi­tion, women — all women, poor and wealthy, white or Black — Native Amer­i­cans, trades­peo­ple, and cer­tain reli­gious groups were all exclud­ed in the authors’ minds. (Richard­son is cer­tain­ly aware of this real­i­ty; in lat­er chap­ters of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing, she dis­cuss­es it in some detail.)

In the 20th cen­tu­ry, Ted­dy Roo­sevelt, and the Pro­gres­sive Move­ment, and Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt, and the New Deal, are described as prime exam­ples of the expan­sion of the nation­al government’s demo­c­ra­t­ic respon­si­bil­i­ties. Antitrust leg­is­la­tion under Ted­dy, Social Secu­ri­ty, and sup­port for Labor in the New Deal. are includ­ed as examples.

How­ev­er, it’s also impor­tant to note — and his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate — that both Pres­i­dents Ted­dy Roo­sevelt and Franklin D. Roo­sevelt held racist view. The New Deal often exclud­ed Blacks from its pro­grams; FDR’s admin­is­tra­tion also refused entry to the Unit­ed States to Jew­ish refugees dur­ing World War II. (The Unit­ed States armed forces were not deseg­re­gat­ed until after World War II.)

Anoth­er note­wor­thy exam­ple of our nation’s nuanced his­to­ry is the right wing Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon. Nixon and his staff were pio­neers in devel­op­ing a racist “south­ern strat­e­gy” to per­suade Demo­c­ra­t­ic, white vot­ers to vote Repub­li­can. His cam­paign uti­lized racist tropes extensively.

How­ev­er, Nixon, this exem­plar of the “author­i­tar­i­an,” elit­ist, racist view of our country’s iden­ti­ty, went fur­ther than any oth­er pres­i­dent, before or since, in his advo­ca­cy for a gov­ern­ment run nation­al med­ical ser­vice – a hat­ed sys­tem often described as “social­ism” by its con­ser­v­a­tive oppo­nents today.

Heather Cox Richard­son is cer­tain­ly aware of these (and many oth­er) com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions in our nation’s his­to­ry. How­ev­er, Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing does not deem them suf­fi­cient to inval­i­date its his­tor­i­cal generalizations.

Broad gen­er­al­iza­tions may open our eyes to new ways of view­ing the nation’s past. This, in turn, may clar­i­fy what is hap­pen­ing in our own lives. That is the pri­ma­ry inten­tion of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing. In the final analy­sis, how­ev­er, as not­ed above, the use­ful­ness of his­tor­i­cal gen­er­al­iza­tions must rest on the extent to which they are accu­rate his­tor­i­cal­ly. I encour­age read­ers of Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing to note its sub­ti­tle, Notes on the State of Amer­i­ca.

About the author

David is a Literary Advocate for the Northwest Progressive Institute, reviewing books and drawing on his background as a historian to offer informed commentary about making sense of history. David has a Ph.D. and M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and B.A. from Brown University. After dedicating several decades to working with youth as a teacher and professor on the East Coast, he retired to the Pacific Northwest and now resides in Redmond, Washington with his spouse.

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