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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Review: Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson


In Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, historian and "people's teacher" (via her social media and newsletters) Heather Cox Richardson has created a sweeping connect-the-dots history of how we got to where we are now. Where we are now—grappling between remaining a democracy or becoming an authoritarian country—has long roots, and in Parts 1 and 2, she starts at the beginning of American history and follows those roots into global history (mostly chronologically, but when she backtracks—specifically tracing the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA, back to its historical beginning—it is organic and easy to follow). Once we advance into the events of the last few years, people who follow the news will already be fully informed, but this is a book that will stand as a valuable history for future readers, so it is great to have all this documented in story form.


I cannot possibly reduce this work (or even retain as much as I'd like—this is a book to read multiple times), so suffice it to say: it is readable, fast, understandable, and rather than throwing in absolutely every detail as a lot of historians do, she opts to tell a specific American story efficiently: the story of American democracy—a belief that all people should have equal rights and have a government by their consent.


Because I'm interested in why people are so vulnerable to manipulation, power-greediness, and a herd-like compulsion to move with others even when doing so makes no sense and undermines democracy, I was particularly struck the very first time I read about a nonsense statement that split people into warring cultures:

[In 1971] Phyllis Schlafly said: "Women's lib is a total assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother and on the family as the basic unit of society. Women's libbers are trying to make wives and mothers unhappy with their career. . . ." (pg. # NA)

This kind of statement, assuming that if anybody gets something (or said another way, if everybody gets equal rights), somebody else must lose something, is key to Movement Conservatism (creating rifts between oneself and others who are deemed "bad") that Cox traces back to 1937. And it is key to the intentional attempt to destroy civil society, establish chaos—which most people will do anything to stop—and thereby lay the foundation for people's desire for a "strong man" to make it stop, evoking authoritarianism and extinguishing democracy.


You could plug into this kind of "this causes that hurt/loss" statement any number of things: true history that includes our racist roots; the right to decide what we do with our bodies; climate change causes; etc. This critical false equivalence (lie), I believe, can only be combatted if people decide to think—use common sense—rather than react in fear of chaos. And common sense is a real possibility: In Part 3 of this book, Cox writes about how powerful common sense was in moving us to independence: Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense rejected the idea that any man could be born to rule others and called "ridiculous" the notion that an island should rule a continent. "Paine's spark set to flame more than a decade of accumulating timber," writes Cox, leading to declarations of independence. The real revolution Americans experienced was in thinking rather than fighting.


Here's my common sense: It is absolute nonsense that women having equal pay and rights could hurt marriages. How? Women who want to be homemakers will not be forced to work. Teaching true history will not hurt white people; I and most white people I know will grapple with questions about our own commitment to what's right and would we have been strong enough to act as an abolitionist? I don't know anybody who identifies with slave-holders. If somebody does not want to accept equality and history of inequality, they don't have to, but true history can still be taught in schools. If somebody doesn't support the right to body autonomy for themselves, they don't have to; nobody will ever force them to have an abortion and if they don't want to make their own medical decisions, they can find some authority to hand responsibility over to. If somebody does not accept that our actions are destroying the earth, they are free to believe that. Yes, pollution regulation will change lives, but I wager that anybody who wants to pollute their home will still be able to do so. Nobody will have to love people they don't love if others have the right to love who they love. You don't have to believe what you don't believe.


There is no loss for anybody if more people do better by telling the truth and having equal rights. The whole notion of consequent loss is nuts!


And it is on this belief in false equivalencies that this book's history relies. As Cox writes about Trump's attack on the Mueller investigation: "if he could get Americans to reject the truth and accept his lies about what had happened, they would be psychologically committed to him." And this commitment has been expertly cultivated by a string of calculated lies, starting with something as seemingly stupid as inauguration crowd size, all the way up to saying a coup where people were killed and terrorized didn't happen and insisting an election was stolen in the face of 60 courts and a Republican Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the United States Department of Homeland Security declaring there was no election fraud.


During Trump's impeachment hearings over obstruction of justice and using the power of the presidency to try to steal an election, the Republicans used their majority to acquit, but Cox writes, ". . . the forty-eight senators who voted to convict Trump represented eighteen million more Americans than the fifty-two Republicans who voted to acquit. It was increasingly obvious that a minority was gaming the system against the majority and that their only hope of retaining power was to repress that majority. (pg. # NA)"


This is where we are. But Heather Cox Richardson doesn't leave us there.


Part 3: Reclaiming America begins with a rousing question about whether equality and government by consent is even possible, and ends with a fanfare of all the marginalized individuals who believe in and fight for a more perfect union. It is community, she points out, that is the real backbone of this country: rather than lone cowboys riding the range, it was the barn-raising communities and everybody working together to make life possible. "Working together, across racial lines, ethnic lines, gender lines, and age lines, was what enabled people to defend their rights against a small group of elites determined to keep control of the country. (p. # NA)" This feels like an infusion of oxygen after the dire history in the first half of the book. And I welcomed beginning American history anew in this section, including not only white male founders, but everyone who was here, enumerating their accomplishments and participation in education and innovation, and above all, making vivid their fervid belief that with hard work, they could have the American dream—a belief that was and remains steadfast, despite the concurrent history of denial of their equal rights.


Now is not the first time our democracy has been in a fight for its life. In 1863, Cox writes, ". . . Americans had woken up. They realized that the very nature of America was under attack. They were divided among themselves [over slavery] and at first they didn't really know how to fight back, but ordinary people quickly came to pitch in however they could. . . . Once awake, they found the strength of their majority. (p. #NA)"


I believe most of us want a democracy. I believe we are a huge majority—as proved by the 7 million more voters who voted to preserve it rather than support an autocrat in the last election. All that is required to preserve democracy is for the majority to wake up, use common sense, and refuse to mindlessly allow our freedom to be stolen by those who wish to divide us into warring factions based on bogus zero-sum concepts. Heather Cox Richardson has certainly done her part to sound an alarm clock.



I received a free advance reading copy of this book from Penguin Random House. Publication is September 26, 2023.



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