I closed my review of Heather Cox Richardson’s last book, “How the South Won the Civil War,” by recommending it be “required reading for everyone.” With her new book, I would go further. I am tempted to say: Don’t waste your time reading this review; go out and buy “Democracy Awakening” right now. It’s not only that good, it’s that important.

Heather Cox Richardson – in case there is anyone who has not come across “Letters from an American” – writes a daily free Substack newsletter in which she examines the political news of the day through the lens of history. She is a Mainer and professor of history at Boston College. What makes her reporting unique is that she takes into consideration the historical forces and precedents that form the backdrop of current events. I can’t start my day without her insights, and on the occasions when she deservedly takes a night off (she writes her essays at the end of her working day), it is all I can do to summon the compassion not to begrudge her a holiday.

Despite its optimistic title, in “Democracy Awakening,” Richardson leaves no doubt that our democracy is in trouble. She quotes several non-partisan sources, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which downgraded the U.S. from “full” to “flawed” democracy in 2016; and Freedom House, which has found that “U.S. democracy has declined significantly” in the last 10 years.

She is equally certain where the problem lies: “a small group of people have tried to make us believe that our fundamental principles aren’t true.” She traces the ideological roots of this cabal back to the Confederate oligarchs who challenged the Declaration of Independence’s focus on equality, promoting instead the Constitution as the protector of property rights, not least of which were their slaves.

The importance of the Gettysburg Address, says Richardson, was that it rededicated the country to the principle of the Declaration of Independence: equality. As a practice, however, equality hasn’t come any more easily since then. FDR’s New Deal did little for Black or brown Americans, thanks to Southern Democrats, who called it “socialism.”

The advent of the Second World War gives the author the opportunity to put down a marker that will re-emerge half a century later, this time in our own country: the struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism. She makes the point that during the war, our heroes were ordinary Americans, GI Joes, while the “Axis powers emphasized the heroism of their leaders.”


Once the War was over, it became more difficult to ignore the patriotic fervor and sacrifice made by well over a million Black, brown and indigenous Americans who fought in it. And it was a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who started the nation down the path of desegregation. Progress came in fits and starts, but for most of the next 30 years, Republicans and Democrats met in the middle in what became known as the “liberal consensus.”

However, by the 1970s, a mix of social, economic and foreign policy factors was creating a crisis. “Suddenly, the economic mode of the liberal consensus could be interpreted as a grave error,” writes Richardson. Movement Conservatism, which had its origins in the 1930s aiming to thwart the New Deal, was revived by Barry Goldwater. It triumphed with the election of Ronald Reagan. But it was Donald Trump’s election in 2016 that “signaled a sea-change in American history.”

In the central section of her book, The Authoritarian Experiment, Richardson dissects the implications as well as the causes of this perilous moment, not least the radical Supreme Court. “(W)ith the help of the language of authoritarianism and the use of mythological history, the MAGA Republicans appeared to be on track to accomplish what the Confederates could not…”

“Democracy Awakening” provides a spirited canter through the ebbs and surges of progressive and conservative attempts to win over the country since the Civil War. All this is background to the author’s challenge to take sides in the present struggle between democracy and fascism.

I doubt that anyone could lay out a stronger, more convincing case for democracy than Richardson. Her history is cogent; her tone is persuasive and never hectoring. Her literary style is bracing, too. The original “loose confederation of friendship” that preceded the Constitution, she writes, “was a disaster.” The Washington Press corps, she laments, “treats politics as something between a baseball game and a Broadway show.”

Richardson leaves the reader with this sober conclusion. “Once again, we are at a time of testing.

“How it comes out rests, as it always has, in our own hands.”

Thomas Urquhart is the author of recently published “Up for Grabs! Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

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