Book Review: Democracy Awakening

Surely making Josephine County book-banners’ list would be Democracy Awakening, Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson, Viking 2023. In this book Richardson traces the erosion of America’s “liberal consensus” through history. The liberal consensus was Americans’ basic belief that government should provide infrastructure, regulate businesses and provide a safety net for the needy. As she traces Americans’ view of government from the country’s early history to the election of Donald J. Trump, she shows how the wealthy managed to warp democracy for their benefit while drawing people toward authoritarianism. Wealthy manufacturers believe some people are better than others, therefore the lowly “others” should do the work that funnels the wealth to them so they can properly invest it and move America forward. While progressives through history knew protecting individuals requires a strong government that regulates business and supports social welfare and unions to protect workers, many Americans believe myths created by the wealthy, not realizing they keep America from truly becoming a place where people can achieve their dreams.

Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College and an expert on American political and economic history, gives an in-depth look at the forces at work in an American history that our conservative politicians don’t really want people to know about. She reminds us that John Adam’s wife Abigail said, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” Mrs. Adams was quite upset the framers didn’t include rights for women in the Declaration of Independence, women who would keep the tyrants at bay.

Richardson’s book shows how the liberal consensus was attacked by people like William S. Buckley, who called people who supported this “communists.” Although Richardson doesn’t name the John Birch Society directly, she calls the kinds of people who joined organizations to rout out communists and the liberal consensus in America “Movement Republicans.” There has always been a strain of people in this country who don’t believe all people are created equal, she says. That strain came to power with President Andrew Jackson, who defied the Supreme Court and pushed Indigenous Americans off their land, even though they won their lawsuit against this. Populist sovereignty was the true meaning of democracy, Jackson’s supporters said, one based on racial hierarchies in which some people were better than others and had the right to rule. This was the argument that kept kings in power and men enslaved, Abraham Lincoln had warned.

By 1878 there were people who recognized America had an extremist faction, including James A. Garfield who experienced their power when a group that controlled Congress believed they had a mandate to get rid of the power of the federal government and stopped funding it. Popular opinion of the day swung behind Garfield, which caved the extremists – for a while. President Jimmy Carter also recognized a force trying to undermine the faith in the government’s ability to deal with problems. He called them “single-issue groups and special interest organizations that wanted to ensure that whatever else happens, their own personal views and private interests are protected.” Carter warned this distorts the nation’s purpose because, “the national interest is not always the sum of all our single or special interests. We are all Americans together and we must not forget that the common good is our common interest and our individual responsibility.”

Richardson observes that the dismantling of the liberal consensus through the years has revived a dangerous trend toward authoritarianism. With wealth concentrated upward, a large group of Americans are left to feel dispossessed and angry over their downward mobility. Republican politicians took advantage of this and flooded the media system with propaganda insisting the culprits were lazy, grasping immoral minorities and women, distracting them from the real culprits, Republican policies. Nixon and Reagan campaigned this way, starting a trend in the Republican Party. Since the 1980s political figures eager to get rid of the liberal consensus have gained power by denigrating it, rejecting America’s ideals. Although the liberal consensus bolstered economic prosperity and shared it more widely than ever before, they claimed it stunted economic growth. They also changed America’s traditional image of manliness. At one time manliness, the kind John Wayne portrayed in western movies, emphasized honesty, generosity, community-mindedness and dignity. That has been redefined by the right to mean a “cutthroat individualism,” drastically changing what it means to be a success in America.

The right to self-determination has always been a struggle against those who want power, said Lincoln. Richardson says in his era democracy appeared to have won. But, she adds, the Americans of Lincoln’s time did not root out the hierarchical strand of our society, leaving it there for other rising autocrats in the future to exploit with their rhetoric and the fears of their followers.

With that hierarchical strand gaining traction through Trump’s current campaign for president. we’re at a time of testing Richardson warns, and how it comes out is in our hands.