Heather Cox Richardson: Why I’m Hopeful About Democracy

From a Q and A on foreignpolicy.com by Ravi Agrawal headlined “Heather Cox Richardson: Why I’m Hopeful About Democracy”:

If democracy were purely about elections, one could say that 2024 will be a great year for people power. The world’s four biggest democracies—India, the United States, Indonesia, and Pakistan—will go to the polls at some point in the next year. But the reality is that democracy has been in crisis for years. The signs—which include a weakened press, disputed elections, and the rise of strongman leaders—are clear to see in countries around the world.

It’s easy to be despondent about the trends. But when you take a big step back, you might see a different picture. The historian Heather Cox Richardson started writing a daily Facebook essay in 2019 amid the turmoil of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Her posts soon became one of the world’s most popular newsletters, with more than 1.2 million subscribers on Substack. She’s built on those essays in a hopeful new book, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. I spoke with Richardson on FP Live. Subscribers can watch the full interview on the video box atop this page and can read an excerpt from the book here.

Ravi Agrawal: Democracy Awakening is a hopeful title. What was your thinking behind that?

Heather Cox Richardson: I hear people being full of despair all the time. I am much more hopeful now than I was six or seven years ago when there was a clear trend toward authoritarianism and no one was paying any attention. Now people have woken up.

This really resonates for somebody like me, whose first book was on the Civil War and who studied the Republican Party so thoroughly, because we look very much like the United States did in the 1850s. In 1853, the elite Southern enslavers were almost in full control of the United States government. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Northerners who hadn’t been paying attention suddenly woke up and thought, “What just happened to our democracy?”

By 1856, they had started a new political party to stand against that. By 1858, Abraham Lincoln began to articulate a set of values for the country. By 1860, voters had elected Lincoln and put him in the White House, and by 1863, we had completely redefined what it meant to be an American. In the space of less than 10 years, the United States goes from what is articulated as an oligarchy, which is literally what the elite Southern enslavers were talking about, to what Lincoln called the “new birth of freedom” and in the Gettysburg Address. The idea of democracy awakening was like saying, “Let’s take note: We’re back in 1854.”

RA: You discuss Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal a fair bit in the book. Why is the New Deal so important to the moment we’re in today?

HCR: FDR’s New Deal, which he launches in 1933 after taking the White House in the election of 1932, is a dramatic reworking of the modern American government. In using the federal government to address the excesses of the 1920s—when the Republican Party controlled the government and erased the gains of the Progressive Era—FDR institutes a government that does three basic things: It regulates business; it provides a basic social safety net; and it promotes infrastructure. That government is extraordinarily popular among most Americans, who believe that the 1920s and the crash and the depression that followed it were the fault of Republican policies in the 1920s.

Crucially, that same government that we have lived under since 1933 has always been opposed by a very small group of businessmen, social conservatives who don’t want women to have rights, and racists who don’t want people of color and Black Americans to have rights. That small faction is the one that now dominates the Republican Party and is trying to erase the federal government. So much of American history since the 1930s has been a struggle of that small group of people to get rid of a government that a majority of Americans of all parties really like.

The New Deal, even though most people think it’s stuck in the past, is, in fact, on the table right in front of us today, quite literally being argued over.

RA: History can indeed repeat itself. But when you look at the current moment, is there something new and exceptional about where American democracy is today?

HCR: We’ve certainly had people in the past who wanted to destroy democracy, but they have not been leaders of a major political party. What’s new about where we are now is that we have people running the Republican Party who are trying to tear down our democracy. We had an echo of that before in 1879, when a powerful faction of the Democrats at the time was trying to do something similar, but they got shut down within about four months, and we never heard from them again. The Democratic Party rebuilt itself in an entirely different way. We’ve had glimmers of it before, but what we’re seeing now is absolutely new.

RA: What about technology? Hasn’t it supercharged mis- and disinformation? Is that new?

HCR: Disinformation is not new at all. In the early republic, when getting information out was difficult, there was a trick one could exercise, which is to say that your opponent had died. It’s very hard to run a campaign if everybody thinks you’re dead. It is true that misinformation has been supercharged and that is something that the United States must grapple with. There are ways to do that without infringing on the First Amendment, like adjusting algorithms and requiring regulation of the way that algorithms amplify fake speech.

RA: Here’s one thing I was struck by in the book. You write that it wasn’t social scientists who ended up explaining Hitler’s rise; it took writers, philosophers, and historians to do so, and that was because they understood the use of language. You go on to describe how strongmen play on the minds of groups that think they’ve been left behind. But if this formula is so obvious, why do people around the world keep falling for it?

HCR: Because it’s a great story. If you get a population that is dispossessed in some way economically, politically, religiously, socially, culturally, they are ripe for the picking by a strongman who offers to return them to relevance again. That strongman offers to do so by saying, “I can fix the problems by getting rid of those people who caused them, and it doesn’t matter who those people are.”

RA: Donald Trump said something like that. I think it was, “I alone can fix this.”

HCR: That’s right. The argument is easy. All you have to do is follow a set of laws that were laid down by God or by nature and those people are refusing to do that, and if you do that, the dispossessed population will become relevant and powerful again. It’s a really easy story.

But participating in a modern democracy is hard. It takes a lot of work. It takes good, strong public education, which has been lacking in terms of our civic identity and understanding. One of the things that people point out about the stories that former President Trump tells is that they mirror those of professional wrestling: There is an emotional payoff, or a dopamine payoff, at the end.

I’m not a psychologist or a doctor, but that idea of gravitating toward simple stories seems to be a human one, but also one that reflects American culture since things got really complicated after World War II.

The top-grossing movie in 1977 was Star Wars, where there is one lone guy who does not have an education. Remember, he wants to go to school, and his uncle won’t let him. He’s in the country and ends up following a guru who reinforces his gut sense of things. And he takes down an empire. It’s an incredibly satisfying, mythic story, and one that was mirrored just three years later when Ronald Reagan won the White House based on a very similar story.

RA: What I’m hearing from you is that strongmen are great storytellers. They’re good at playing to our basest instincts. They like revisionist history. But what should Democrats do in response? What kinds of stories should they be telling?

HCR: Strongmen may appeal to our worst instincts, but remember, there is always heroism within those stories. There is always the idea that you matter, and that the voters are going to do something great. It is not insignificant that many of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, believed they were recovering the United States. They described themselves as patriots.

What you’ve identified is exactly what moving us forward requires: providing a different narrative that enables people to feel heroic, or that they’re doing something good with their vote and with their lives.

RA: If you were a strategist for the Republican Party today, what would you advise them to do?

HCR: I have maintained since I began writing about Republicans that they were, in fact, going to crash and rebuild the way they have three times before. They have continually defied my expectations, refusing to reform from within the way they did in the 1890s, 1930s, and 1940s.

If I could be the empress of the Republican Party, I would tell them that it is dying by suicide, because it’s already dealt itself a fatal blow. If I got to call the shots, I would talk to some of those young Republicans in New York, the ones who turned against George Santos and the ones who are horrified by what’s happening on the floor of Congress, and I would say to them, “I will back you to begin to articulate the values that Eisenhower talked about or that Theodore Roosevelt talked about or that Lincoln talked about. You’re going to be in the wilderness for about eight years, maybe 12 years, but you’re going to get people to flock to you.”

That is going to happen. It’s just probably not going to happen the way I outlined it.

RA: President Biden doesn’t give many interviews, but he did sit down with you. What do you make of his presidency? Is he a good storyteller?

HCR: Biden is overturning the past 40 years of American history, in which an economics-based Republican vision was employed to get rid of the New Deal state. Between 1933 and 1981, we had what economists call “the Great Compression,” which is when government regulations and the social safety net compress the difference between the incomes and wealth of people at the bottom and at the top. That turns into the “Great Divergence” after 1981, with regulation and the original set of tax cuts under Reagan.

We now have this extraordinary gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us. Biden is quite explicitly trying to overturn that, using what he calls a “whole of government” system. What they’re trying to do is to restore the idea of a great compression, but also a government that works for ordinary Americans. He is transformative in that.

He is also recovering the old New Deal vision, but I don’t think he is embracing it the way it looked under FDR, because Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR all focused on white men primarily. It was very much a nuclear family-based, heteronormative, white vision of American society. The Biden administration has shifted that profoundly by centering children. That’s a big deal because once you’ve centered children, you’ve gotten away from heteronormativity, you’ve gotten away from race, you’ve gotten away from everything that previously had defined that.

One of the big problems with the idea of spreading democracy around the world is that it’s hard to do so without accompanying it with colonialism. And that’s an intellectual problem.

RA: I was going to ask about that, because Biden often talks about this grand battle between democracies and autocracies. And that brings to the surface contradictions in the Biden foreign policy.

HCR: You’ll notice he doesn’t do it anymore. They pulled back because the global south did not jump on board in defense of Ukraine. My sense is that the intellectual issue of how you spread democracy without colonialism, which is a U.S. problem, ran up against the rise of the global south.

One of the things that jumped out to me in the last G-20 was when the United States was one of the many countries that talked about the importance of the African Union having a seat there. That was something that Biden was behind. I saw that as Americanist, as a real attempt to address the history of colonialism.

RA: The final section of your book has another hopeful title—“Reclaiming America.” Ahead of next year’s election, how do you think American citizenry can better safeguard their democracy?

HCR: I am an idealist, which means that I believe you change society by changing ideas. That principle has been borne out in our history repeatedly. If you had said to anybody in 1927, except for a very few people, that within three years the U.S. population was going to reject the system that was in place and the Republicans were going to enter into a wilderness from which they wouldn’t emerge for a generation, people would have had me locked up. But society really can turn on a dime if people’s ideas change.

What I was really trying to do in that final section of the book was to remind people that when America is truly its best, ordinary people stood up, took power into their own hands, and expanded people’s right to be treated equally before the law and to have a say in their government. They have done so repeatedly in our past, and they will do so again.

The truth is our history has changed when unremarkable, ordinary people stand up and say no. That moment of somebody saying no is always a time of extraordinary creativity in American history. That’s not to say we always make the best decisions, but it’s an extraordinary time of artistry and music and new combinations and new ideas and new governmental structures. It’s high time that we not only move toward that, but that we celebrate that and say, this really could be a triumph just as much as it could be a tragedy. And I’m voting for triumph.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.

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