Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson might be the most widely-read political commentator in the country. Her “Letters From an American” is the #1 most-read Substack blog, with millions of subscribers. There, she “bring[s] a historian’s confident context to the day’s mundane politics,” often showing how contemporary debates echo those had in prior generations. Preet Bharara, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, says of Richardson’s work that it offers “vital historical perspective, wisdom, and moral clarity.” Richardson’s latest book, Democracy Awakening (called “magisterial” by the Washington Post’s reviewer) traces the development of democracy over the course of American history and warns that it is threatened by Donald Trump and today’s extremist Republican Party.
In many ways, I’m grateful for Richardson’s analysis and think her warnings here are indeed “vital.” She is alert to the fact that democracy has to be fought for in every successive generation, and can disappear quickly. I share her conclusion that the contemporary Republican Party is the enemy of democracy, and is laboring to preserve minority rule because its policies are ultimately quite unpopular.
And yet there’s something troubling to me about the narrative presented in Democracy Awakening. Essentially, Richardson seems to believe that there is a war between democracy (good) and autocracy (bad), and that the forces of democracy are represented by the Democratic Party while the Republican Party are bigots, thugs, and would-be dictators. And while I wouldn’t quibble with any part of that description of the Republicans, I think Richardson is not nearly critical enough of the Democratic Party, which appears in her story almost entirely innocent and wholly devoted to the well-being of the American people. My own belief is different: I think until we recognize that failures by the Democratic Party helped to bring us Donald Trump, we cannot shore up the country against the authoritarian threat that Richardson and I are both alarmed by.
“This is a book about how a small group of people have tried to make us believe that our fundamental principles aren’t true. They have made war on American democracy by using language that served their interests, then led us toward authoritarianism by creating a disaffected population and promising to re-create an imagined past where those people could feel important again….This book is also the story of how democracy has persisted throughout our history despite the many attempts to undermine it. It is the story of the American people, especially those whom the powerful have tried to marginalize, who first backed the idea of equality and a government that defended it, and then, throughout history, have fought to expand that definition to create a government that can, once and for all, finally make it real.”
We can see here, in a simplified form, how Richardson views American history. There are those who have tried to make the promise of American democracy real. And there are those who have fought against this, making war on democracy. In her telling, a “liberal consensus” was forged during the FDR years, one that moved us steadily toward equality, but Republicans became increasingly radical and tried to roll it back over the ensuing decades, culminating in the authoritarian disaster of Donald Trump. Republicans successfully pushed “the old hierarchical idea that some people were better than others and should direct the economy, society, and politics,” and through demagoguery they managed to attain power even though their beliefs were unpopular. Richardson suggests that Donald Trump only won in 2016 because a fellow disbeliever in democracy, Vladimir Putin, spread propaganda on Trump’s behalf, and Hillary Clinton was unfairly smeared over her emails. This is how Richardson characterizes the contest:
“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a highly educated, extremely well-qualified candidate who advocated protecting the rights of women and minorities and warned that Trump would pack the Supreme Court with extremists. She provided detailed policy papers. Trump, in turn, harped on an investigation into her alleged misuse of an email server.”
All of Richardson’s descriptions of contests between Democrats and Republicans are similar. Barack Obama gave the country the Affordable Care Act, “the largest expansion of health care coverage since Congress enacted Medicare and Medicaid in 1965,” while Republicans “recognized that the best way to destroy Americans’ faith in the federal government and return Republicans to power was to make sure the Democrats couldn’t accomplish anything while Obama was in office.” Her description of Joe Biden’s presidency is embarrassingly hagiographic. He is our great defender of democracy:
“When Americans elected Democratic president Joe Biden in 2020, he made it clear that he intended to defend American democracy from rising authoritarianism. Throughout his campaign, he focused on bringing people in the center-right and center-left together, just as scholars of authoritarianism have called for. Biden ignored Trump and pledged to work with Republicans who believe in “the rule of law and not the rule of a single man”… Once sworn into office, Biden set out to demonstrate that the government could work for ordinary people. He went straight to the Oval Office after his inauguration and, two days after taking office, rescinded Trump’s Schedule F executive order that would have ended the civil service system and enabled a president to pack the government with loyalists. He fired the political appointees Trump had tried to burrow into the federal government, and he promised that none of his family members would work at the White House….In his first two years in office, with a slender majority in the House of Representatives and a Senate split fifty-fifty, the Democrats managed to pass historic legislation that echoed that of FDR and LBJ, shoring up the economy, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, and investing in the future, trying to bring the disaffected Americans who had given up on democracy back into the fold…Biden’s domestic program expanded liberalism to meet the civil rights demands Carter had identified, just as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ had each expanded liberalism to meet the challenges of westward expansion, industrialization, globalization, and anti-colonialism… Biden knew that defending democracy at home meant strengthening it internationally…Biden brought the U.S. back into the World Health Organization and set out to rebuild NATO and other strategic alliances, while forging new ones in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa.”
A White House press release couldn’t have put it more glowingly.
There are strange absences in Richardson’s Good Democratic Democrats Versus Vicious Bigoted Authoritarian Republicans narrative. For instance, we hear a lot about Lyndon Johnson’s wonderful Great Society but not so much about his horrifying crime against Vietnam. We hear that Bill Clinton “frustrated right-wing ideologues” but are not told that he embraced many of the social policies and rhetoric of these idealogues, gutting welfare, expanding the prison system, and speeding up the death penalty. For Richardson, the story of the Obama presidency is of Barack Obama giving the country healthcare and Republicans making sure he couldn’t do anything else, spreading vicious “birther” lies and thwarting his legislation. But as we have shown before, this is a misleading picture. Obama failed to accomplish much in part because he didn’t attempt much, and he didn’t attempt much because he was a centrist who believed that good government consists of smart liberals presiding wisely over the affairs of the nation (as in the TV show The West Wing).
Was Hillary Clinton thwarted by a Trump-Putin conspiracy to sow disinformation? In fact, there is “no evidence whatsoever that Russia-based Twitter disinformation had any meaningful impact on voter behavior in 2016.” In fact, as this magazine warned at the time, Clinton was also a terrible candidate, distrusted by the public, who failed spectacularly at offering a compelling message to voters. Many voters in swing states felt badly neglected by a Democratic Party that did not seem to care about making meaningful improvements in working people’s lives. (See, for instance, this report from Wisconsin by Malaika Jabali, on Black voters in Milwaukee who felt disinclined to support Clinton.)
The Richardson story is one of Republicans who hoodwink voters and thwart Democrats’ attempt to build the Great Society. But this leaves out the neoliberal turn of the Democratic Party over the past decades (only partly reversed by Joe Biden), as explained most persuasively by Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal. It leaves out the story of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a popular uprising in the Obama era by people who felt frustrated in part by the administration’s failure to do anything meaningful to punish the bankers who had wrecked the economy and ruined so many people’s lives. Many of those who came of age under Obama became bitterly disillusioned, because we were promised “hope” and “change” and got drone wars, whistleblower prosecutions, fossil fuel friendly climate policy, and an administration that worked overtime for Wall Street but did precious little for the rest of us. Obama’s broken promises, such as reneging on his commitment to support the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made union organizing much easier), made for a pool of disillusioned voters who were susceptible to Trump’s pseudo-populist demagoguery. Obama-Trump voters had generally progressive economic views, and if Clinton had managed to hold onto them, she would have won the election.
Joe Biden is currently extremely unpopular, despite all the wondrous accomplishments outlined above by Richardson. That’s probably because the Biden economy hasn’t actually been great for everyone, and Biden has kept to his promise that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected president.
When we discuss the waning and waxing of “American democracy,” we have to ask what a meaningfully democratic society would actually look like. Surely it would be one in which people’s stated desires got translated into public policy, and in which they had control over the major decisions that affect their lives. By that standard, whether under Democratic or Republican presidents, we don’t live in much of a democracy. The majority of Americans want single-payer healthcare and a substantially increased minimum wage. The reason we don’t get these policies is not just because Bad Republicans stop them, but because of centrist Democrats like Obama, Clinton, and Biden (all of whom refuse to support Medicare For All). I happen to believe that if we had Democrats who were consistently focused on delivering meaningful, visible improvements in working people’s lives, and who resisted pressure from lobbyists and donors to cave when good public policy harms corporate profits, we would face much less of a threat from Donald Trump.
Heather Cox Richardson helpfully reminds us in Democracy Awakening that the Nazis never got a majority of German voters on their side. A plurality was enough to set the country on the road to dictatorship. Even if most people oppose fascism, it can still come into power, if it manages to exploit existing democratic institutions to impose minority rule. In our own country, we know that the majority doesn’t get their way. The Senate, the Electoral College, and the judiciary are constantly thwarting public preferences. We can’t take much comfort, then, in the fact that the far right’s agenda isn’t terribly popular. It still threatens us all.
Richardson’s book has a lot of inspiring passages about how Americans have tried to improve their flawed democracy over time. As she writes:
“Over three centuries, Americans who believed in the principles of democracy, those ideals articulated by the Founders, however imperfectly they lived them, have asserted the principles of equality and government by consent even in the face of such repression, even as they died for their beliefs. More often than not, those articulating the nation’s true principles have been marginalized Americans who demanded the nation honor its founding promises. Their struggles have constantly renewed the country’s dedication to the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Their fight for equality reveals the true nature of American democracy: it is, and has always been, a work in progress….The fundamental story of America is the constant struggle of all Americans, from all races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, to make the belief that we are all created equal and have a right to have a say in our democracy come true. We are always in the process of creating ‘a more perfect union.’”
This is all well and good. I believe it myself. And I share Richardson’s horror at the far right’s agenda and their commitment to imposing it on the country whether we want it or not. But Democracy Awakening leaves some critical questions unanswered: What does that “constant struggle” really look like? The labor movement isn’t discussed much in the book, but surely it’s essential to creating real democracy. Richardson often writes as if we have more democracy to the extent Democrats are in office, and less to the extent they aren’t. But what about democracy in workplaces? In universities? We can have Democratic presidents from now until the end of time and still have vast wealth inequality and a country in which a few billionaires own more than the rest of us combined. We’ve got to think more seriously than Richardson does about what conditions would have to be satisfied for us to be able to say: “There. Now that is an authentic democracy.” I understand that the most pressing fight is the one to save us from outright dictatorship. But I worry that if we treat the status quo, in which most people feel uninspired by both parties, as “democracy,” we will not be able to motivate the public to fight to preserve it.