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What happened to the American ideal of democracy?

Heather Cox Richardson, in ‘Democracy Awakening,’ offers a primer on chilling changes in the country’s political life since World War II.

Heather Cox Richardson, whose new book, “Democracy Awakening," extends the political contextualization of her popular newsletter into an argument about the future of democracy.Viking

In his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech, delivered in 1852 and the most brilliant indictment of America’s failures I have ever encountered, Frederick Douglass points to four sources of authority when arguing that slavery should be abolished: the Bible; the US Constitution; the Declaration of Independence; and American identity. To be an American, Douglass essentially says, is to commit yourself to doing what is necessary to secure the rights of everyone.

This argument is echoed by Heather Cox Richardson in her latest book, “Democracy Awakening,” as she tries to understand changes to the American political landscape — and to the Republican Party in particular — since World War II. The United States managed to avoid fascism in the 1930s, she writes, not because Americans were more moderate or practical than Italians or Germans, but because they “rallied around the language of human self-determination embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” For decades, historically marginalized people had kept the struggle to realize the promises of the Declaration “in the forefront of the national experience.” Because of that, the generation of Americans who experienced the Great Depression responded to that stress not by embracing an “imagined heroic past” full of strongmen and supposedly superior people, but by embracing “a principled past” that was rooted in a flawed and unrealized but genuine and powerful commitment to human equality.

That is what has changed about the American political landscape, according to Richardson. Today, a large and loud minority of Americans are unabashedly committed to the idea that some people are better than others and that democracy is therefore obsolete. “This is a book about how a small group of people have tried to make us believe that our fundamental principles aren’t true,” Richardson writes. Donald Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress “led us toward authoritarianism” by “promising to re-create an imagined past.” As they did so, they “falsely claimed they were following the nation’s true and natural laws,” a trick that, it turns out, has been tried before.


“Democracy Awakening” is an engaging and highly accessible history of how small groups of Americans have occasionally provoked major crises by working to deny or obscure the principles of the Declaration — and how women, poor farmers, and racial and ethnic minorities have managed to set the country right (strangely, religious minorities are mostly absent from Richardson’s narrative).


Some of the history is old. Slavery apologist George Fitzhugh makes an appearance, as he proclaims in 1857 that “we do not agree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence, that governments ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’” Some of the history is so recent it is barely history at all. It’s developments we all witnessed but had, perhaps, forgotten — such as the fact that the Republican Party didn’t even bother to adopt a policy platform in 2020. It just passed a resolution promising to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

Throughout this book, racist, misogynistic, and greedy men do what they can to undermine the promises of the Declaration, and citizens like Julia Ward Howe, Wong Kim Ark, and Fannie Lou Hamer succeed in opposing them, bringing the United States closer to the realization of the Declaration’s promises each and every time. “O, let America be America again,” Richardson quotes the poet Langston Hughes. “The Land that never has been yet — And yet must be — the land where every man is free.”


Richardson comes down hard on the Republican Party, partly because it’s a group she has spent her professional career studying, and partly because it is the group most responsible for the latest crisis brought on by Declaration deniers. Democrats don’t get a pass on the racism that used to pervade their party, but Richardson makes it clear the GOP is responsible for the crisis America is experiencing now, not just because its leaders have supported Donald Trump with a cultish consistency, but also because Republican rhetoric has convinced many Americans to disdain the values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Those values aren’t just about human equality. They’re also about government — and the belief that government, done right, can cultivate and protect the rights and needs of the people.

That many conservative Americans disdain government is undeniable in the wake of January 6. But I also wonder about a different kind of disdain that seems to be growing on the Left, not so much for the values of the Declaration of Independence, as for the document itself — and consequently for the authority it once represented to people like Frederick Douglass.

Few of the informed, passionate, and liberal students I work with at Brandeis University would think to point to the Declaration of Independence when making their case for social justice. The Declaration, after all, was written by an enslaver. The Constitution condoned slavery. And the other text Douglass pointed to — the Bible — is a nonstarter for many liberal Americans, in no small part because of what some Christian conservatives have justified with that book.


This begs the question of what the Left’s source of authority is, when its activists and politicians call for reforms like universal health care or a $15 national minimum wage. Heather Cox Richardson seems to recognize this vacuum, and “Democracy Awakening” is her effort to fill it by reclaiming patriotism.

DEMOCRACY AWAKENING: Notes on the State of America

By Heather Cox Richardson

Viking, 304 pp., $30

Maura Jane Farrelly is Associate Professor and Chair of the American Studies program at Brandeis University.