Heather Cox Richardson on History, Conservatism, and the Awakening of American Democracy

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. Her daily newsletter Letters from an American is read by millions. She has a new book out as of today called Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.

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It would be a lovely thing if before I die, I get to see a younger generation reclaim democracy and rebuild it in a new, more expansive way.

Heather Cox Richardson

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:46
  • Patriotism and Conservatism – 3:15
  • The Liberal Consensus – 14:42
  • Awakening Democracy – 39:07
  • Trump – 51:41

Podcast Transcript

In America we believe the political divide is between liberals and conservatives. However, when illiberalism entered the political mainstream, many of us realized the line between liberals and conservatives was less clear than we previously thought. Many liberals realized they were conservative in their sensibilities, while many conservatives came to the defense of liberalism.

Classical liberalism is so entrenched in American institutions and beliefs that it was inevitable for true conservatives to find the institutions and traditions they defend are really based on liberal ideals and values. It’s why so many of Americans find we are both conservative and liberal at the same time. This realization has a profound impact on how we think about politics in the United States.

It’s one of many topics I discuss in this conversation with Heather Cox Richardson. Heather is a Professor of History at Boston College. Her daily newsletter Letters from an American is read by millions. She has a new book out as of today called Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.

If you listened to last week’s episode, you’ll find this conversation complements many of those themes. But we touch on some new ideas and definitely approach history differently. By the way, Heather’s knowledge of American history is wide ranging and always impressive. She’s definitely someone I’ve wanted to talk to for a long time.

Now if you like the show and want to help out, start by telling your friends and colleagues. You can also give the show a 5 star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. If you’d like to help beyond that, you can support the show with a monthly donation on Patreon, a one-time donation on the website, or email me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. But for now… Here is my conversation with Heather Cox Richardson…


Heather Cox Richardson, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Heather Cox Richardson

It’s such a pleasure to be here.


Well, Heather, I’m really impressed with all of the work that you do. Your recent book, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, is such a pleasure and a joy to read, but I’d like to start out by asking you about the newsletter that you write. It’s called Letters from an American. It has a very striking tone. It has a very patriotic tone. I’d like to begin by just asking you about that idea of being an American. What does it mean to you to be an American?

Heather Cox Richardson

Well, I’m glad you picked up on that title because, in fact, it reaches back to two things. You know, I started writing those not deliberately at all. I didn’t even know what a newsletter was when people started asking me to put out a newsletter. I remember going to my graduate students and saying, ‘What the expletive is a newsletter?’ Because that reeked to me of the PTOs in the late 1960s when my parents used to get newsletters from them. So, I had initially begun that as just Facebook posts answering people’s questions about what was going on in the Trump administration. At the time it was 2019. Within weeks, it was pretty clear that things were ramping up really quickly. Again, I was teaching full time and finishing a book. I did not intend to do that.

So again, I remember sort of running down the hall with my graduate students going, I’ve got to have a title. You don’t have a body of work without a title. What on earth are we going to name it? The more I thought about it, the more I reached back to that central question, ‘What is an American?’ So, Letters from an American is a reach back to one of the first documents written in America about America called Letters from an American Farmer. That’s the document that asks that key question, what is this American, this new man? It’s a whole exploration of what it meant in the late 1700s to be an American, when they were trying to figure that out. But at the same time,

I had just listened to an entire run of Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America in which he tried to encapsulate each week what America was like by looking at either a broad sweep of American history or something as small as a tattoo artist, trying to look at sort of a kaleidoscopic picture of what this country was or maybe different facets of a jewel, if you will. So, I grabbed that title to think of both of those themes, like what is it to be an American?

If you look at America as snapshots, you know, I do it once a day, a snapshot once a day, what does it look like today to live in this country? So, those two things are what was behind it, but yeah, it is a very patriotic image of the country. I have a vision of the United States and what that means. It is certainly, I think, clear eyed about the places we’ve fallen short. But it is also, I hope, clear eyed about the things we’ve gotten right.


In reading your book, reading your writings, listening to your interviews, you seem to have a much more complex view of America than I think a lot of people might give you credit for. For instance, when a lot of people would hear the name Heather Cox Richardson, I think that they would immediately think somebody who’s progressive, who’s on the left, and on a surface level that is definitely true. But when I read your work, you seem to play with a lot of other ideas, the idea of patriotism, the idea of being conservative, the idea of being liberal. All these different ideas are kind of playing around in your work and questioning, what does it mean to be these different things?

In the book, your first chapter is about American conservatism and you have a quote where you write a definition for conservatism in a sense. In the quote you write, “Conservative meant literally conserving what was already there without reference to an ideology. Those in charge of government should make changes slowly according to facts on the ground in order to keep the country stable. This idea also meant the government could be a positive force in society rather than a negative one.” And throughout that chapter, you actually challenge the idea of people who call themselves conservatives for not really being conservative. And in some ways, I never hear you directly embrace yourself as a conservative, but I get the sense that in some ways you do think of yourself as conservative. So, I’d like to ask you whether that’s true. Do you think of yourself as a conservative?

Heather Cox Richardson

I do. I do. But there’s a big caveat around that. And that is people insist that I’m a shill for the Republicans. They insist that I’m a shill for the Democrats. And I always say I’m a historian. I live in the past. I also have my feet in the present. When in that first chapter, what you just read was actually from Edmund Burke. It’s not a direct quote from Edmund Burke, but it’s what Edmund Burke was doing. And he’s really thought of as the father of conservatism. He was writing during the French Revolution. You can imagine what that did to people at the time when theoretically this was a movement for the idea of the fraternity of all mankind. And yet very quickly, it devolved into a period in which a small group of people were literally cutting the heads off their fellow citizens.

So, what do you do with that? I mean, what do you do with that as somebody who’s trying to think about what government means, which is what people are doing in that period. So, what he came up with was the idea that Government should not be instituted to push an ideology the way that the revolutionaries were doing. Mind you, I know virtually nothing about any other country, so somebody who understands the French Revolution is probably like, ‘Oh my God, she’s missing everything,’ and I could very easily be. But what Burke is doing when he looks at that is he says it’s a really bad idea for a government to push any kind of an ideology, because pretty soon you want your people to fit the ideology rather than the government to fit the people.

So, in fact, a government should not be pushing an ideology. It should be creating stability. That’s what a government should do. It should create stability. If you’re going to create stability in his area, you’re going to push the family and church and aristocracy and all of the pieces that make it so that there’s not going to be any quick revolution that’s going to lead to heads rolling in the streets. That idea of conserving the past and basing a government on facts on the ground and if they don’t work, change what you’re doing. If the facts don’t agree with that, that idea, as opposed to imposing an ideology on the people seems to me… I mean, that’s kind of what I’m all about, right?

So, what that first chapter was trying to do was to call out the people today who call themselves conservatives, but they are quite explicitly, in their own words, trying to impose an ideology on a population that it does not fit. If you look at the polls and what people actually want, what the extremists in the Republican Party are trying to impose on people, they simply don’t want. So, that’s what I was doing there. That being said, there was a slight of hand in that first chapter, and it was an important one because conservatism in the Burkean sense doesn’t really come to America because in that period, America doesn’t have anything to conserve. I mean, it’s inventing its government as it goes.

So, it’s very hard to stand up and say, wait, wait, let’s go back to the past because there really isn’t a past for the United States of America in that period or a very, very short one. Of course, the continent has been here forever, and the people before the United States of America had been here forever, but the United States itself was quite young at that point. So, the issue with the word conservative in the United States is really interesting, because they don’t use it until really about the 1850s. And then it starts to be used by elite Southern enslavers who turn against those Northerners who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Act. And what the enslavers say is you are radicals because you’re not recognizing this law, therefore we are conservatives.

They start to talk about the rising Republican Party as radicals because they are refusing to recognize the increasing power of the enslavers to determine what laws are going to be. So, there’s a really crucial moment in the 1850s. When first the abolitionists and then Abraham Lincoln start to use the word conservative and in a funny way, they use it in a Burkean sense, although Lincoln, to my knowledge, never actually referenced Edmund Burke. He might not have known who he was. But he starts to say to the enslavers, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You say we’re radicals. But we’re the ones trying to conserve the Declaration of Independence.’ And he starts to describe himself as a conservative. The conservative position is the one held by those trying to protect our past, the Declaration of Independence.

So, by the end of that first chapter, I am trying to reclaim the word conservative for those of us who are trying to preserve the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the same way Lincoln did, and by that he meant that the government should protect everybody equally before the law. That everybody should have a right to a say in their government, both things that are protected in the Declaration of Independence. So that word conservative, I think it’s a misnomer when it’s applied today to Trump Republicans. I think they’re dangerous radicals. But the word conservative as the principle of protecting equality before the law and the right to a say in your government seems to me to be an idea whose moment has certainly come.


Do you feel that it’s natural for a historian to have conservative sensibilities because you study the past and you understand what was good about the past and what was bad about the past? But I would think that a historian would want to conserve those elements they thought were positive forces for the country, to be able to maintain those elements and make sure that we preserve what’s good as we move forward and try to continue to progress.

Heather Cox Richardson

You know, I don’t think it’s a natural position to take. I do think to some degree it reflects your personal bent. I tend to be an optimist by nature and if you think about our past, you could just as easily grab hold of the negative things, because the whole point of somebody like Lincoln is he was standing against the spread of human enslavement. That is also a trend that runs through our history. So you know, I think that personal bent and what you look at in the past is determined in part by your personality.

But I also think that we are perhaps in a moment in our history, probably since Watergate, where it’s not cool if you are a person of progressive sensibilities to say, ‘Hey, I really like this country.’ You’re much more likely to say, ‘Well, this sucks and this sucks and this went wrong and this went wrong.’ All of those things are absolutely true. I’m not suggesting anybody should look away from those. But I also think it’s a mistake to look at the hideous atrocities without looking at the extraordinary efforts of people to overcome them, which to me is also part of the American story and to me, the more inspiring one.


One of the things in the book that you’re looking to be able to conserve, one of those ideas that you want to make sure that we hold on to is this idea of the liberal consensus. It’s really a theme that exists throughout the entirety of the book. Why don’t we just take a moment and can you describe in your own words what is the liberal consensus?

Heather Cox Richardson

That’s a really key issue in this book and in many ways the book is a defense of liberalism, which is probably going to make a lot of heads explode to just hear that, because we sort of have this idea in the United States that people who are liberals are on the far left. But it’s important, really important, to remember that although the radical right has since the 1980s tried to put the left and liberals together, they actually have very different ideologies, very different ideas about the way the world should work. The liberal consensus is something that came out of the New Deal and then the period after World War II.

So, you can date it from about 1933, although it has much deeper roots. What it is, was a belief at first on the part of the Democrats and then later picked up by the Republicans, that the government has a role to play in society. That is in the 1920s, the idea was to get the government away from society and let things play out as they would. In the 1930s, the Democrats begin to argue that the government has a role to play in regulating business, because they were just coming out of the Great Depression or they were in the Great Depression and it was pretty clearly the fault at least in large part of corporations that had run amok.

So, the government had a role to play in regulating business, in providing a basic social safety net, because again, during the depression, one of the things that really shocks people is how many elderly individuals are eating out of trash cans or starving, because they had no place to go because of changes in society meant that there weren’t farms to go home to, for example. So, the government has a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, promoting infrastructure, because while in the 1920s cities, for example, had thrived. Appalachia, for example, had fallen way behind – the Tennessee Valley, for example. The government starts to do the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which tries to develop that region.

So, the government has a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure. Now, FDR played around a little bit with the idea of promoting civil rights. He tried in some ways to do that, but because of the racist southern wing of his party, he didn’t push that very hard. Truman starts to do that when he takes office after FDR dies. And Truman, in fact, is the first president to campaign in Harlem, which by then was a black community. Everybody assumed he was going to lose the 1948 presidency, which is how we get that newspaper with the headline that says, ‘Dewey defeats Truman,’ because the assumption would be that white voters would never vote for a president who would go to a black neighborhood and talk about the importance of civil rights. Obviously, that backfired.

Truman starts to deal with civil rights, but it’s really once we get the election of Eisenhower, who’s a Republican, and the Republicans at the time have a long history of promoting civil rights, that we get the addition to that liberal consensus of the idea that the government also has a role to play in protecting civil rights in the states, not only at the federal level, but in the states. So, the liberal consensus by then, by say 1958, is this idea shared by Democrats and Republicans alike that the government has a role to play regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, promoting infrastructure and protecting civil rights. Now, what that looks like is going to be a struggle between the parties.

They’re going to argue. Well, yes, we should regulate business this way. Well, no, we shouldn’t. And yes, we should do this for people who need stuff. Oh, no, we shouldn’t. There’s going to be that kind of a give and take between the parties. But there is a general understanding that that is the way a democratic government should work and it is shared by both parties. It is a belief that I believe that most Americans of all parties still share. It’s just one that has become demonized by those who want to get rid of it altogether and go back to that 1920s government that essentially keeps the government out of regulating business, protecting the basic social safety net, promoting infrastructure and protecting civil rights. That’s what we have currently now in today’s Republican Party.


So, when we talk about a consensus, we’re talking about a consensus between both sides of the political spectrum, both Republicans and Democrats. And the big piece of evidence that shows the Republicans were on board is the Eisenhower presidency. But the Eisenhower presidency was a little bit of an outlier in terms that at the time people weren’t even sure if Eisenhower was going to run as a Republican or a Democrat in 1952. I mean, he could have actually become another Democratic president if he had chosen to. He decided to become a Republican and definitely had conservative sensibilities throughout his speeches and throughout his life. But should we think of Eisenhower as an outlier, or should we think of him as somebody who led the Republican Party towards this liberal consensus that had broad support within both parties?

Heather Cox Richardson

That’s a great question and I think, yes, you should look at Eisenhower as a central character and a central figure in the liberal consensus. I would point not to politics to talk about this. I would point to Looney Tunes. The fact that the people who did not accept this liberal consensus were lampooned in Looney Tunes as Foghorn Leghorn, that chicken, rooster, I guess it is, who spouts old Confederate language and objects to everything in his Southern Confederate way. That’s of course an enormously popular character. The people who don’t like that liberal consensus are the businessmen, the established businessmen, and that’s an important distinction. People who really resent the idea of the government telling them how to run their businesses.

Now if you’re an entrepreneur, you actually quite like the idea of the government holding a level playing field among all businesses because what they discovered before the depression during the great crash was that there’d been an enormous amount of insider trading and what we would now consider illegal deals on Wall Street, which meant that if you were in the know, you were going to do decently well, and if you weren’t, you were going to get destroyed.

So, the push for securities and exchange does not come from people like you and me. It actually comes from businessmen who are like, ‘Hey, government, get over here and make sure that the rich guys don’t get everything so that we actually have a chance.’ So, the established businessmen don’t like the idea of government regulation of business.  And mind you, taxation is not an issue now. That’s going to become a real thing in the late 1970s. It’s regulation they don’t like.

The other wing that doesn’t like the liberal consensus are the racist southerners who can’t stand the idea of the racial order in the South being overturned. And to some degree, religious traditionalists who don’t like the idea of women working outside the home, which is something else that comes out of World War II. There’s a move to get women back inside the home in the 1950s, but there is, going forward from World War II, an ongoing governmental focus on what it would truly mean to make it possible for women to be equal citizens. So, there are groups from those three different angles opposing the liberal consensus. But they are outliers. They truly are. You can see that if you look at the numbers of people voting to reelect, for example, Eisenhower.


So, when does the consensus start to break down? Where should we really pinpoint the moment when it’s no longer a liberal consensus, but there’s really a debate about those ideas?

Heather Cox Richardson

So, the roots of it go way back and we can talk about that, but it’s really Nixon who brings the argument that the liberal consensus, although he was elected based on it, that that liberal consensus is a bad thing. The way that this happens is that after Brown v Board of Education in 1954, those people who don’t like the liberal consensus have finally at their disposal a tool that they can use to destroy it and that’s the issue of race. Because what they begin to say is, ‘Yeah, you think you all like this liberal consensus and the government making the playing field more level and all that, but really what it’s going to mean is black rights.’

The issue for white Americans who were not living in the American South, for example, or in cities where the Great Migration had brought a number of black Americans, the issue for them was not an issue defined solely by race, so much as the language that those opposed to the liberal consensus used and what they said came directly from Reconstruction.

They said, ‘The reason that you don’t want, for example, Eisenhower to be using federal troops to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas is because that’s expensive. It’s going to take tax dollars and who’s going to pay those taxes. It’s going to be people with property and who has property: white people. So, the idea of Black rights and the federal protection of Black rights is actually a redistribution of wealth from white people to Black people. And you know what that is? That’s socialism. And you know what that’s a road to? Communism.’

So, you get the link in the 1950s between the idea of Black rights and Black voting, which is being discussed in 57. It’s not going to be on the table in a huge way until the 1960s. But you get that link between the idea of Black Americans having a say in their government to communism in 57. Then when John F Kennedy wins the presidency in 60 and goes ahead and continues to push for desegregation, that builds up momentum. Then in 1964, we get the Republican National Convention nominating Barry Goldwater after Nelson Rockefeller spectacularly crashes and burns because of an extramarital affair.

Barry Goldwater quite explicitly says that he thinks what the Supreme Court has been doing since Brown v Board and the idea of desegregation is unconstitutional and with the idea that the use of the federal government for protecting civil rights is bad, is unconstitutional, you get that strand getting real power. In that election of 64, Strom Thurmond, who had been the leader of the Dixiecrats, the one wo was trying desperately to stop desegregation, switches from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party very publicly. So then, when Goldwater goes down in that election, pretty dramatically, he wins his home state of Arizona and five deep southern states, five former Confederate states.

Well, that leaves us 1968, and what is 1968 going to look like? It’s a real question what Nixon is going to do, because he was Eisenhower’s vice president. Eisenhower put the muscle of the federal government behind desegregation. But Nixon recognizes that he needs those former Dixiecrats in his coalition or he’s not going to win. So, he asks Strom Thurmond to stay with the party. If he will stay as a Republican, Nixon will back off on enforcing desegregation with the idea that the Republican Party needs to court those racist former Democrats.

With that, you have Nixon’s problem and what he’s going to bring into public discourse, and that is he’s nailed together a coalition, but more people vote for somebody other than Nixon than vote for him because there’s a split vote and he’s very aware of that. What he’s going to do is as that coalition breaks down over the Vietnam War and as it really tanks after the shooting at Kent State in May of 1970, is he’s going to divide the world between us and them. He’s going to demonize them. At first, when he does that, he talks about there being a silent majority and he says that the people like him who are against the antiwar protesters is really what he’s talking about when he makes the first silent majority speech.

But when he does that, increasingly, he begins to talk about ‘those people’ and it’s a really interesting strawman argument. He includes, of course, people of color and he’s got a real issue with Indigenous Americans by 1972, Black Americans, and after 1972, women who want to work outside the home. So that idea that there are those others who are attacking the silent majority divides the country with this wedge beginning in race, but very quickly becoming one divided over the role of government. Should government protect women’s rights that is going to carry forward from 1970 onward?


Nixon is such an odd historical figure.

Heather Cox Richardson

He is.


Let’s just take Watergate off the table for a moment. He begins his political career making a name for himself on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, particularly with the Alger Hiss case. So, he’s kind of almost a McCarthyite at the beginning and that’s part of the reason why he becomes Eisenhower’s VP. It is to balance the ticket between two ends of the Republican Party. But he is Eisenhower’s VP, like you said, and he’s in many ways claiming to carry the Eisenhower tradition both in 1960 and in 1968. He can’t run away from being Eisenhower’s VP. But he does explicitly pursue the southern strategy that carries on part of what Goldwater was doing.

But in a lot of ways, he was also a rejection of Goldwater because he was a Republican that was willing to allow government to be involved in the economy. I mean, he is the president who institutes wage and price controls. He is the president who pursues an active federal government in a lot of ways that Reagan, years later, is looking to rebel against. So, in some ways I can think of Republicans nominating Nixon in 68 as trying to move away from Goldwater and come back to the idea of the liberal consensus once again. I mean, am I reading history wrong when I think of it that way?

Heather Cox Richardson

No, I don’t think you are. Nixon is a fascinating character and he is in many ways, I think, a transitional figure from the postwar period into a period that not exclusively… because of what’s happening in the Republican party, also what’s happening in foreign affairs, and also what’s happening in the Democratic party, in which he’s transitioned to a different kind of politics. One of the things that always jumps out to me about Nixon, if you read what he’s doing, because again, you’ve got the real push for lower unemployment, because of course, all those presidents who come after the depression are terrified of another depression.

They’re determined to keep people in jobs. Every time they put in policies that help people get more work, you get inflation. So, then they turn around and they try and stop inflation and a lot of people lose their jobs and then they get upset because people are losing their jobs. So, they put in policies that make people get jobs and then they get more inflation. You look at Nixon and he’s constantly dancing between, ‘Oh, my God, people have no jobs. Oh, my God, they can’t buy food.’ And that recognition that all of those presidents have hovering over them, the fear of another depression is, I think, a really important key to remember.

Then when you have the addition as well of two things. I think one of the reasons the liberal consensus holds together so well in the immediate postwar years is that it’s really clear. That the United States is trying to toe a line in between fascism on the one hand, after all, they had just fought a major war against fascism and for all that we talk about anticommunism in the same period, Eisenhower was obviously profoundly shaped by his experience in World War II and not just from the fighting of it. He’s a very smart man. Eisenhower is a terrifically smart man. And if anybody’s interested, you should read his letters, which are observant and interesting and really quite touching.

But he was the one who insisted that all of the people in the United States military and the allied militaries who were close enough to get there had to personally tour the concentration camps and the death camps because he felt that, and his letter about this to his wife is astonishing, he couldn’t believe that human beings would do this to each other. He wanted people to understand just what fascism meant. So, he’s actually thinking we can’t go that direction and we can’t go toward communism. All of those presidents were defending the liberal consensus because it was a defense of democracy as well.

Now by the time you get into the 1970s and there is more of a sense, less that America is defending democracy than it is extending the idea of democracy into countries that are in danger of falling to communism or are communist. That idea of protecting democracy, I think, is less of a principled, concentrated defense than it is quickly, especially during the Nixon administration, going to morph into this idea of imperialism that is much less a defense of democracy and more an exercise of muscle. It’s a different era and you can see that transition through Nixon. He’s just a really interesting character in so many ways.


This is also the period where Chile has its coup, Pinochet’s coup, that undermines a democratically elected Chilean government that just about anybody who has a sense of democracy in the world was just a very transformative event for them. So, when we think about the liberal consensus, when we kind of get back to that idea, you’re then making the case that the liberal consensus is reinforcing democracy, both abroad, but more particularly within the United States.

Heather Cox Richardson

Yes, absolutely. I want to go back to Pinochet and Chile, but one of the things that comes out of that period, really comes after the fall of the USSR in 1991, is the idea that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. That so long as you promote capitalism, you will also be promoting democracy. Of course, we know that’s not true. I mean, we have in front of us, for example, China, which clearly has embraced capitalism and yet has not embraced democracy. So, there’s a lot ideologically going on there. I do want to hop back to Pinochet for a second because I’m an Americanist and I certainly sort of knew things that happened the way everybody sort of knows things that happened.

But I didn’t really know what they were. During the last administration, when we had the trucker convoys, designed to put pressure on governments, the state governments, that weren’t opening. Then I guess it was during the Biden administration too. But I saw an article saying this was a tactic that they used in 1973 and I started digging and started looking at that and recognized the degree to which after Nixon had tried to manipulate the government in the United States to guarantee his reelection in 1972, which by the way, he would have been reelected even without bugging the Democrats and all that. It just shows how paranoid he was.

But after they had done that and once that had started to break, it certainly appears to me as if Nixon and Kissinger tried out techniques in Chile that were designed to see how you could overturn a democratic election without looking like you were overturning a democratic election. That it was in a sense an experiment, a place to see how you could bring down a democratically elected leader without having fingerprints on it and the degree to which those tactics have come back to democracies, especially to the United States since then, I found eye popping. That was something that I had not really paid attention, because to me it was Chilean history. I wasn’t really paying attention.

But when I recognized it was a story about how you bring down democracies, and the Nixon administration, which had tried that on the United States, was also trying it in foreign countries and seeing what worked and what didn’t and now those techniques were being imported back to America, I was just gobsmacked. The fact that Trump people wore t shirts saying, ‘Let me give you a free ride in a helicopter,’ which was a reference to Pinochet’s goons throwing people out of helicopters. That link, that was new to me in this book. I was just… I’m still. You listen to me. I’m stammering. I still can’t believe that our past created our future to this degree.


Pinochet’s coup was really a watershed moment in terms of how a lot of people thought about democracy because beforehand, the fear of authoritarianism really came from the left. It was the idea of communism rising up from places like the Soviet Union and the idea of communism being actively spread around the world, the idea that communist countries were trying to subvert democracy in other places and subvert democracy, subvert capitalism, tried to produce a revolution. Chile just changed the whole narrative because in the 1940s, Frederick Hayek writes a book called The Road to Serfdom where he links the idea of capitalism to the idea of democracy and political freedom.

After Pinochet undermines democracy within Chile, it’s Frederick Hayek and many other of these capitalist thinkers. That are traveling to Chile to be able to give advice to these dictators. They didn’t really care much about political freedom in the end, they cared about capitalism and what they called economic freedom. It definitely kind of shows where their priorities really were. And that kind of brings us to some of the other thinkers later on that as you kind of move through history, sometimes people are supporting democracy, but they’re doing it not because they believe in democracy, but because they think it’s going to achieve other ends. And that becomes dangerous because if they think that they can achieve those other ends through authoritarianism or dictatorship, they’re going to take that route instead.

Heather Cox Richardson

Well, that’s such an interesting point. I mean, one of the things that really jumps out when you look at these larger systems of government and even when you talk about the word fascism. Like fascism is a really specific thing that Benito Mussolini comes up with for a very specific reason and I’m one of those horrible people who’s always like, well, it’s not quite fascism because you know… But what we’re really talking about when you talk about, for example, the embrace of capitalism or market forces. What we’re really talking about is a societal system overseen by a government that enables a few people to get power over others. It’s a hierarchical system.

And I can’t take us back before… I guess I can take you a little bit before Europeans arrive in the North America, but I’m an Americanist, so I won’t go back into other societies. But that idea that some people are better than others and should rule over other people because they’re smarter or they’re the better religion or they’re the right gender or they’re well connected or they have better education or you could fill anything into that slot, that theme runs not only through the 20th century, that theme runs all the way through American history. And I guess, because it’s human nature, through the history of every country.

Standing against that we have the idea that human beings truly are equal. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be an equal outcome for any of them. You know, some people are smarter, some people have extraordinarily good luck. There’s all sorts of ways in which outcomes are not going to be identical. That everybody should be equal in their rights, to have a say in the government that they live under, but also that they’re going to be treated equally before the law, that you can’t be discriminated against because you’re the wrong political party or the wrong gender or whatever.

I just find it fascinating that at the end of the day, when we were talking about Pinochet or the United States or Mussolini or Germany or whatever, you’re really talking about human beings and the way that societies organize. That idea that some people want to have power over others and think they have a right to it versus those of us who are willing to crowdsource, if you will, is such a deeply ingrained human battle, but also one that explains so freaking much about issues that seem like they’re really complicated. But at the end of the idea, it’s like, ‘Oh, I wrote this long book about how capitalism is attached to democracy and the end result is actually really that I think people like me should be in charge.’


So, the book is called Democracy Awakening.

Heather Cox Richardson

Oh, the book. That’s right.


So, we’ve been talking about how the liberal consensus actually is democracy reinforcing and we’ve moved away from the liberal consensus in recent years. So, what does it mean for democracy to awaken? Is it to reembrace the liberal consensus or is it something else?

Heather Cox Richardson

What I am contending is that Americans still share the liberal consensus, not everybody, but the vast majority of us are not on the far right or the far left, both of which challenge the concept of democracy. As I said early on, because of the language that we have been using really since the 1980s, people seem to think that you’re either a Republican or you are a leftist. That’s simply not the case. There is a real difference between the left and liberalism, just as there is a difference between people who would call themselves center right and fascism. The vast majority of us live in that middle zone in the United States. It can be challenged, but the vast majority of us live there and we always have lived there, and we still live there.

You can see that, for example, in the fact that since 1972, not 1973, by the way, which is when the Roe versus Wade decision was decided by the Supreme Court, during the Nixon administration by the way and a Republican Supreme Court chief justice and a Republican who wrote the decision. Since 1972, when Nixon began to use the abortion issue to divide voters and try and attract antiabortion Catholic Democrats to his standard, since they started taking polls about how Americans thought about abortion, the only thing that has happened since 1972 is that support for abortion rights has actually increased. It has not gone down.

You think of that as being a hot button issue, but in fact, I saw the statistics just last night, only 9 percent of Americans polled very recently believe in abortion bans in all circumstances whatsoever, which is what of course about 14 states are currently putting in place. Most of us understand that abortion rights are imperative under certain circumstances, at the very least. So, I think we all still live in that world. We have been divided by politicians looking to garner votes. But the reason the book is entitled Democracy Awakening is partly an attempt to reclaim that. But what it really is, and what I was really doing is where you and I started this.

In Lincoln’s days, in the 1850s, the elite enslavers gradually and somewhat under the radar screen took over what I would call the nodes of the federal government. They took over the state governments in the American South, but then they also took over the Supreme Court and the presidency and they managed to hammer through Congress a couple of major laws that ultimately would make enslavement national. A lot of people were only paying attention to the little laws and they didn’t really notice who was on the Supreme Court and, ‘Oh, okay, that president is good enough. I don’t really care.’ Then all of a sudden, when they push through in 1854 a law that is going to enable slavery to become national law, people wake up.

They look at their neighbors, and they think, ‘Well, you’re a Whig and I’m a Democrat. You know, I don’t like you.’ But then they realized that it didn’t matter. That none of those political differences and none of the social differences and the cultural differences that made people keep their distance from each other in the 1850s mattered if it meant they were going to lose democracy. Lincoln talks about this and he says, ‘It hit us like we were thunderstruck and everybody reached for whatever tool they had closest to hand.’ He uses a farmer’s metaphor of pitchforks and scythes and all that just to fight back and to reclaim our democracy.

If you had lived in that period in the spring of 1854, when that law went through, people really thought it was over, that the country was going to become dominated by a few elite enslavers and they were going to lose democracy. Then within a decade, we had the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863 and the Gettysburg Address, which says this country is rededicating itself not to the power of property, which is what the elite enslavers had based their power on, but rather on the Declaration of Independence. Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That’s a reference to the Declaration of Independence, not the constitution.

So, they woke up and it was not clear in 1854 that that was going to happen and it certainly wasn’t clear in 1862 when the United States was losing on the battlefields that that was going to happen. But by 1865, we had an entirely new nation because ordinary Americans had woken up to the protection of democracy.

So, what that title was really designed to do was to call out what is the major story to me of the years since 2015 is that a lot of people who weren’t paying attention and didn’t really care who the president was, and maybe this law didn’t matter, and I don’t really care what’s happening to somebody who gets arrested and thrown in the back of a police van and his back gets broken. That was a really big deal, but a lot of people don’t even know what I’m referring to. That was the period that worried me because people weren’t paying attention.

Now they’ve woken up and that doesn’t mean we agree on everything. That doesn’t mean that democracy is ever going to be perfect. It doesn’t mean any of those things. What it does mean is that it certainly feels to me as if a lot of people who previously thought our democracy was a given, didn’t have to worry about it, have woken up to say, wait a minute, I quite like the idea of democracy and I’m willing to put skin in the game. That in the 1850s created an entirely new nation and that’s sort of what it feels like to me today.


What do you think the line is between genuine debates that should happen within a democracy and debates about the idea of democracy itself. Because when we talk about a lot of policies these days, people will oftentimes refer to the idea of democracy about that policy itself. Like sometimes maybe with an economic policy, people will use the idea of democracy. Sometimes that feels right. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But I feel like those are sometimes hard questions. Abortion is another question that kind of falls into that where some people think that it’s actually more democratic to give states the opportunity to decide abortion laws for themselves. Other people think that it’s actually undermining democracy because it’s taking away a civil liberty from Americans. So, what do you think that line is between debates about policies within democracy versus debates about preserving democracy itself. Where’s that line?

Heather Cox Richardson

That is an absolutely wonderful question. In a general sense, I just want to say that in my mind in the United States of America, any political debate must be based in reality. You should not go out and lie about what just happened. That’s what makes my head explode. By the way, it doesn’t mean people are always going to make good decisions, but, for example, when you see, as I did this morning, a member of the Trump administration flat out lying about something that just happened with the release of the Americans who had been held by Iran. The financials of that are very clear and he just flat out lied about them. It’s clear from his former position that he knows that was a lie, because this is not hard.

That’s not okay, because that flies directly in the face of the principles of the enlightenment. That people can make good decisions about their lives so long as they are given good information about it. But once you start lying, you can no longer make good decisions. Just as if you were in business with somebody and you’re planning to expand and they’re going along with you and telling you everything you should do to expand but they’re not telling you that they’re actually funneling all of your profits to a new business partner that they’re planning to walk away with. You can’t make good decisions if somebody is lying to you. So, let’s start with that.

But I love the question that you just asked because this is literally the question that has had me up nights for a very long time. I would love to hear what you think about it because the idea that democracy belongs in the states comes out of the 1820s. It comes out of the rise of Andrew Jackson and the person who’s going to become his lieutenant, Martin Van Buren, who is – nobody ever remembers him, but he was a president from New York. What they are doing is standing against what they consider the takeover of the federal government by bankers, by especially northern bankers.

In Jackson’s case, because he’s a slave owner and he’s very concerned about the ability of people like him to spread into indigenous lands in the American Southeast, but also to have access to the levers of government. In Van Buren’s case, it’s about control of New York because New York is always tangled up in all kinds of factions. Anyway, they begin to argue that the federal government is not where democracy sits. This is a real change from the way that the framers designed the constitution because they were extraordinarily suspicious of the states. They wanted power in the federal government. So, they begin to argue that the power of democracy is in the states, but what’s really interesting about that is that turns into the concept of what’s called popular sovereignty.

That’s the idea that the federal government cannot tell states what to do and that turns into voters on the ground are the ones who get to decide the laws under which they’re going to live in the states, which sounds like a really important proposition. It’s later exactly what Justice Samuel Alito is going to pick up on in what are called originalist decisions that devolve power back to the states. That’s of course what’s behind the Dobbs versus Jackson Women’s Health decision that overturns Roe versus Wade. But the reason I point to that is because for a 19th century historian, this is a tremendous problem because it’s popular sovereignty that justifies the taking of indigenous lands across the American Southeast after the Supreme Court says, no, you can’t do that.

It is also popular sovereignty that justifies the spread of human enslavement. So, therein lies a problem. If you say that all the power is in the states, in the democratic power of the states, I can be okay with that. But if that’s the case, it seems to me, to protect a democratic system, the states must make sure that every adult, and I’m going to give you that line there, every adult in that state has the right to vote, because states also decide who votes. What you end up with in the 1800s and, of course, in the present as well is a very few elite Southern enslavers controlling the vote to get whatever they want.

So, the outcome of that idea of state power very quickly becomes an oligarchy. We actually have quotations from that era in which we’ve got this elite enslaver saying, ‘Forget this whole democracy thing. I live in a county of 18,000 people and only 1200 of us can vote. We have no interest at all in giving any of those 18,000 people any say in the government that we’re going to create.’

So, I like the idea, because I think that in a country as large as ours, it’s important to have a federal system, because something that is a great wage… I used to be a waitress in Oklahoma. You could live on a waitress’s salary in Oklahoma. In Boston, you’d be homeless. You have to have the nimbleness, I think, to answer the different needs of different parts of the states or even things like migration of hunting birds. You know, that looks really different in Texas than it does in Maine.

But at the same time, our history suggests that that argument is a way for a very small group of very wealthy people to take power and unless you have the federal government enforcing civil rights in the states, as they can under the 14th amendment, I think it’s a pretty quick trip to destroying democracy in favor of an oligarchy. I really wish I could say to you, well, here’s the answer, but I don’t see the way out yet for a principled defense of democracy that works. I’m sure it’s there. There’s always a solution, but I am not yet able to see it.


It’s something that keeps me up at night, too. It’s one of the reasons why I call the podcast Democracy Paradox. The answer is, in my opinion, going to be a very long one to be able to answer it. And it’s not always going to be something that’s got a clear-cut answer. I mean, I think there’s obviously a lot of gray. But before we go, I cannot walk away from this conversation with you without asking you something about Donald Trump. Heather, a lot of the book is about the evolution of our politics, the evolution of the Republican party. Do you think Donald Trump is the natural culmination of the trajectory that the GOP has gone down or do you think that he’s a radical departure from what the GOP was in 2016?

Heather Cox Richardson

I think he is a natural outcome, but one of the things that fascinates me about former president Trump is he’s not a politician. He was never a politician. He is a salesman. And as such, he has fascinated me from the beginning because it seems to me that he held up a mirror to a certain segment of people in the United States. A segment of people that had been created by the policies and the rhetoric of the Republican Party since the 1980s, and he mirrored what they wanted to see. So, in that sense, he’s a culmination in that he reflected the sexism and the racism and all the things that we now know were at the heart of what that population wanted. But people tend to forget in 2016, he was also the most economically progressive Republican in that nomination pool.

So, he called for fairer taxes, closing loopholes, better health care, infrastructure, bringing back manufacturing. All economic policies or social welfare policies that also mirrored that population. So, in my mind, I’m looking at a mirror. I’m holding up my hand because to me, it just felt like he was a mirror of a certain population. But when he was in office, if you study his presidency really closely as of course I have, one of the things about the new book is I think that that section on Trump is really chilling.

When I first wrote it each chapter was supposed to be, in my mind, three and a half single spaced pages on Google Docs, which is what I figured was about what I wanted it to be. The first chapter on Russia, which I really pared down from what I wanted to write, was 27 single spaced pages. Every chapter was like that. I had to strip out what I call the noise. This happened, this happened, so and so got fired, this was a letter that did this. So, you know, all that sort of noise.

And when you strip all that out, you really clearly see a politician becoming an autocrat, taking the reins of power under his own hands. Getting rid of the nonpartisan civil service, pushing the envelope in terms of what kinds of power he has, trying to get the military under his belt, and crucially, taking his followers, especially after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in December 2017, taking those followers and making them loyal to him and promising that he is their candidate. He is the person who will enable them to not just take power, but to exact retribution, as he says now, or revenge on the people they hate. That’s a crucial moment in the arrival of a strong man is that welding of people into a group that has internalized the message of hatred and revenge.

Of course, you can’t now strip that out of them. It’s part of their identity. That turning of a rhetoric and a political sensibility into a movement. That’s unique. So he began, I think, as a mirror, but then because of a number of things, it wasn’t just the Unite the Right rally, but because of a number of things having to do with his own personality and all that… Because if people forget, he did initially try to be a real president. You know, he had a state dinner. He showed up at events that presidents usually do. That’s all going to change after 2017 and we get that 2018 window. This is not in the book by the way.

You get that 2018 window where he kind of seems to go off the deep end. Remember, he talks about being a genius. I forget the word, a something genius. He kind of gets isolated and turns a little bit bonkers in a way that a president doesn’t normally. Then we get the emergence of the later administration. Trump who is leading this authoritarian movement. He starts as a mirror, but in his administration, I think he becomes the leader of a movement. He creates a movement. Then, of course, that’s continued to the present. So yes, he’s a reflection, but then in his administration, he became something unique.


So early on, Heather, you mentioned that you’re an optimist.

Heather Cox Richardson

I don’t sound it, do I?


There’s a lot of fear from a lot of people that Donald Trump could win in 2024 and there’s talk about democracy being on the ballot. I want to know from your perspective, if the worst happens, if Donald Trump gets elected in 2024, I mean, do you still have hope? Would you actually believe that things can still turn out well in the end, that we can get through that period?

Heather Cox Richardson

Listen, things always turn out well in the end. I mean, strongmen always fall eventually, but that’s not much comfort to those of us living through it. What I think is important to remember always is that the United States did have a long period in which we were not a democracy and in which we were a one-party place in which there were hierarchies of race and gender and political party and in which there were ferocious atrocities committed and nobody was ever brought to justice for them. That’s the American South from about 1874 to 1965, within my lifetime, by the way. I was born in 1962. People who were trying to register to vote were murdered and people who were trying to help them to vote were murdered and the people who did so laughed at the idea that they would ever be brought to justice.

And yet, if you look at the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights workers were murdered, within two years, we had the Voting Rights Act. We had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I think it’s important to remember that we got those things even though at the time, the people who were voting were, for the most part, all white and for the most part, all men. Women could vote, but it wasn’t until 1980 that they began to vote differently than their husbands did. People overturned a regime that had been in place for generations that had quite deliberately created different classes of Americans and abused those in the lower classes.

So, when people say, well, this could never happen here, my answer is always, it has. And when they say, if we lose democracy in 2024, we will never get it back, I always like to say look at Fannie Lou Hamer, who had every reason to think that she was going to be murdered by a regime that did not want her or people like her to be anything other than menial laborers. She ended up changing the world. So, the message I think that comes from our history is, first of all, that anything can happen. But second of all, that our democracy is just as good as those who protect it. We have heroes like Hamer to give us guidance for how to go forward. So, do I have hope going forward? Absolutely.

I would love to see, though… I mean, personally, one of the things that is a disappointment for a 60-year-old woman who has devoted her life to this country is that my skills have always been devoted to fighting a holding action against the loss of democracy. It would be a lovely thing if before I die, I get to see a younger generation reclaim democracy and rebuild it in a new, more expansive way. That’s sort of the whole point of Democracy Awakening.


Well, Heather, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s really been a pleasure. It’s been an honor to be able to speak to you. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s called Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. And of course, your newsletter on Substack Letters from an American. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you so much for writing all the different just newsletters every single night, writing the book. Thank you so much for sharing those ideas with us.

Heather Cox Richardson

Thank you. It’s been a real pleasure.

Key Links

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

Letters from an American by Heather Cox Richardson

Follow Heather Cox Richardson on Twitter @HC_Richardson

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Joseph Fishkin on the Constitution, American History, and Economic Inequality

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