cover image Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America

Heather Cox Richardson. Viking, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-65296-1

In this muddled survey, Boston College historian Richardson (To Make Men Free) analyzes the history of the United States from its origins through the present day, reframing many of the nation’s major internal conflicts as part of an ongoing clash between “liberal democracy” and emerging “authoritarianism.” Richardson touches briefly on such events as the Civil War, the political fight over the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, arguing that these were moments when authoritarianism was thwarted by defenders of democracy who drew political strength from the liberal Enlightenment-era principles in the country’s founding documents. But according to Richardson, from the 1950s onward authoritarianism has been on the rise (she cites McCarthyism and the Reagan administration as big steps in that direction), culminating with the election of Donald Trump. At one point, Richardson acknowledges that her argument amounts to a relabeling of “conservativism” as “authoritarianism”: She explains that political opponents of the New Deal, who rallied behind a document called “The Conservative Manifesto” in the 1930s, were misappropriating the label “conservative” (which should only be fairly used, Richardson asserts, as a term for people who oppose something “radical”—which, the reader is left to assume, the New Deal wasn’t), and thus all political conservatives since have also been mislabeled. Meanwhile, she never convincingly justifies the use of the term “authoritarianism” to refer to, for example, political opponents of civil rights for African Americans. Readers will be perplexed. (Sept.)