Book Reviews

Reclaiming the American Story

To Heather Cox Richardson, the battle for our history is the battle for our democracy. And we may be nearing the endgame.

By Peniel Joseph

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Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson • Viking • 2023 • 304 pages $30

The positive history of the United States—the history of our progress toward creating that “more perfect union” the delegates to the Constitutional Convention invoked in 1787—can be told in three phases of Reconstruction. America’s first Reconstruction dawned in 1865 in the aftermath of a cataclysmic civil war that left more than 700,000 dead; it concluded ignominiously with the white supremacist riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 that killed at least 60 Black people and sent thousands more fleeing for their lives. This riot represented the first successful political coup in American history. A duly elected biracial government was replaced by white political figures and leadership who ensured that Black political power would be permanently expelled from Wilmington.

The first Reconstruction’s 33-year experiment in multiracial democracy found Black Americans reimagining the very ideas of citizenship and dignity in ways that transcended the gains brought about by the constitutional amendments that ended racial slavery, guaranteed birthright citizenship, and inaugurated Black male voting suffrage. Black folk served as local, state, and national elected officials; their innovations in states such as South Carolina laid the groundwork for progressive federal policies long before the Administrations of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Black Americans built schools, churches, mutual aid societies, banks, colleges, universities, and businesses that transformed America’s rural and urban landscapes. They created art, music, and culture decades before the more popularly remembered renaissances in Harlem, Chicago, and Pittsburgh during the twentieth century. They founded memorials, including Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), to honor the women and men who bled for American democracy in the Civil War and who, to this day, represent the greatest generation of Americans to have ever lived and breathed. The high points of Reconstruction were punctured by the lows of racial terror, Black Codes that suppressed voting rights, convict lease systems that prefigured mass incarceration, and the betrayal of democracy by white Confederate enemies and Republican onetime friends and allies. The forces of the Redeemer South triumphed, once and for all, in Wilmington, as the Jim Crow regime established its political dominance in the South and policy influence across the entire country. The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but the Redemptionists definitively won the peace.

The Second Reconstruction began on May 17, 1954, with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional, in a unanimous ruling that made Chief Justice Earl Warren an eternal villain to white supremacists everywhere and helped fuel the civil rights movement. It ended with the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights movement’s heroic years accomplished what Reconstruction had failed to—they created a national consensus that acknowledged racial justice as part of American democracy’s beating heart.

Heather Cox Richardson’s Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America is an important addition to the burgeoning literature and scholarship on what I have characterized as America’s Third Reconstruction, the period from the 2008 election of President Barack Obama to the present. Democracy Awakening covers the entire history of the United States, attempting to tease out the roots of our current partisan and political divides over citizenship, dignity, and democracy. But this sweeping and insightful book’s most valuable contribution is the way in which it helps us understand our most recent period of Reconstruction. As I see it, this period rests on four hinge points: the watershed Obama election of 2008; the rise of Black Lives Matter after 2013, propelled by Black feminist organizers in the wake of the shooting of 17-year-old Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the acquittal of his killer the following year; the rise of MAGA, the presidency of Donald Trump, and the domestic chaos (with global reverberations, as witnessed by the rise in authoritarian regimes around the world) that ensued; and the dawn of a massive anti-racist political and social movement for multiracial, intersectional democracy that unfolded in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020.

The 2024 presidential election, then, represents a national referendum. Will this Third Reconstruction continue? Or will it be destined to end prematurely in the wake of political, legal, and legislative policy reversals that go beyond recent decisions eliminating federal abortion rights, ending affirmative action, and curtailing voting rights? Richardson, through this tough-minded but hopeful book, offers ample evidence that winning this fight will be the collective work of a generation.

Heather Cox Richardson is one of the most famous historians in the country. Her writing, characterized by lucid historical insight and analysis that provides context for our current political crises, is read by more than a million people. An expert on the history of Reconstruction and the Civil War, Richardson has in her previous books shed light on the competing strains of democracy and illiberalism that have influenced the formation of American politics. She is at her best simply telling us the story of how we came to be living on the brink of ending our nearly 250-year democratic experiment.

American history since 1865 can be divided into two competing, at times intersecting, but often opposing stories: Reconstructionist versus Redemptionist. Reconstructionists are supporters of multiracial democracy who believe in building a beloved community where E Pluribus Unum becomes the lived reality of the body politic in the form of guaranteed dignity and citizenship for all. Redemptionists are advocates of white supremacy and supporters of the Lost Cause ideology that has permeated American history textbooks since the nineteenth century, maintaining the Big Lie of Black inferiority and criminality.

In the first of the book’s three parts, aptly titled “Undermining Democracy,” Richardson traces the political disfigurement of twenty-first century conservatives back to anti-New Dealers of the 1930s, some of whom, like the signatories of the 1937 anti-New Deal “Conservative Manifesto,” openly embraced an extremist states’ rights philosophy—in this way, I would argue, extending and amplifying the Lost Cause myth that would be resuscitated in the twenty-first century. In so doing, these Redemptionists of their time adhered closely to the ideals of the Confederate States of America—that, as Richardson writes, “people are inherently unequal and some should rule the rest”—well into the twentieth century. But the emerging liberal consensus that came out of the New Deal and the Second World War helped to institutionalize aspects of multiracial democracy that had been stymied during Reconstruction. The civil rights movement breathed new meaning and substance into the Declaration of Independence, the founding documents, and the very ideal of the American Dream.

After the success of the civil rights movement, though, conservatives organized in unprecedented and effective ways to roll back the political achievements and expansive democratic thrust that marked the nation’s Second Reconstruction. “Movement conservatives”—a blend of think tank-backed intellectuals, wealthy oligarchs, elected leaders, and grassroots activists—embarked on a half-century-long quest to overhaul America’s democratic institutions by making them less responsive to voters, suppressing Blacks and other people of color, and stirring up racial divisions and stoking political polarization to win elections.

Richardson explores the history of movement conservatives in the book’s second part, “The Authoritarian Experiment,” which persuasively draws a throughline from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The main culprit here is Trump, and his naked attacks on racial equality, social justice, and the rule of law in favor of transforming the nation into an authoritarian kleptocracy, complete with staffing his White House with unqualified family, cronies, and friends who left the nation weaker and more vulnerable to attacks from within by white supremacists and without by Russian cyberwarfare that managed to successfully use disinformation to help defend Trump from a litany of charges.

A chapter titled “Rewriting American History” is particularly instructive. Chronicling Trump’s efforts to erase the complex history of America—a history recently illuminated through The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” curated by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones—Democracy Awakening shows the ways in which twenty-first century efforts to rewrite the nation’s story are rooted in an antebellum past that we still have yet to come to terms with, even after the so-called racial and political reckoning that took place in the aftermath of George Floyd’s public execution by the Minneapolis Police Department and the roiling demonstrations it inspired around the world. The critical race theory hoax, book bans, and the restriction of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and Black history education in states across the nation are based on the white supremacist ideology that emanated from the Confederacy. As Richardson puts it, “The stunted version of history embraced by Trump and his allies translated this old ideology into an authoritarian argument for the future.” In so doing, Trump’s brand of American conservativism (so much of a retread that the campaign recycled Reagan’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan from 1980) “erased the victory of democracy in the Civil War, the ongoing struggle for equal rights that followed and that lasted until the 1960s, and the liberal consensus that finally tried to make those rights real.”

The final part of Richardson’s story, “Reclaiming America,” offers a critical but hopeful vision of how American democracy might be renewed in our own time. Eschewing the myths, lies, and outright fantasies that imagine America as a nation founded on an illiberal religious fundamentalism and exploitative capitalism that designated white male elites as our proper leaders, Richardson chronicles the political activism of believers in multiracial democracy and the world they imagined and sometimes created, however partially and imperfectly.

Recounting American history from the founding to the present, Richardson offers a concise, unvarnished, and pungent chronicle of the nation. She illustrates that the country’s ideals were always better than its actions and finds faith in the efforts of women, Black and brown people, Asian Americans, and Indigenous peoples who pushed the entire nation toward unimagined democratic heights.

Richardson offers capsule histories of the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that, by not attempting to smooth out the rough and racist edges, tell a compelling story of those Black women and men who successfully sued for emancipation in antebellum America, and of the women and the Chinese, Indigenous, and other marginalized groups who found hope—against all odds—in words that initially excluded them but that they were determined to become a part of. There is the example early in the book of Doris Miller, the Black Navy messman who became a hero while manning an antiaircraft machine gun during Pearl Harbor. Assigned to laundry duty in the segregated military, Miller loved America despite the limited opportunities that were available to him in the midst of the Second World War.

The expansion of American democracy since racial slavery has taken many twists and turns. The energies of Reconstructionist supporters of multiracial democracy were matched, then overwhelmed by the grotesque violence and legislative betrayals committed by Redemptionist supporters of white supremacy. Yet the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln prophesized at Gettysburg in 1863 would not die. The freedom dreams crushed during Reconstruction’s nadir in Wilmington in 1898 returned in the twentieth century in the form of progressive heroes who, like Black politicians during Reconstruction’s heyday, urged the nation to protect women and children, create schools, and promote the health and welfare of all its people.

The civil rights movement was buoyed by advances during the New Deal and Second World War that helped achieve a liberal consensus where both major political parties supported higher education, increased standards of living, and a vision of the American dream that was broadly inclusive. This consensus was at first marred by its purposeful exclusion of Black folk, even after they served, fought, and died helping to defend democracy. But this error was slowly addressed, and reimagining an expansive American democracy helped the nation, between 1945 and 1970, double family income and, for a time, ensure a kind of abundance that many now scarcely remember.

Richardson closes by asking all those reading to once again take on the mantle of a democracy still on the precipice of being systematically dismantled and permanently disfigured. “So far the hopes of our Founders have never been proven fully right,” she reminds us. “And yet, they have not been proven entirely wrong.” In this mean political season of our national discontent, these words ring powerfully true. Beyond that, they serve as provocations for all Americans to pick up the torch of democracy carried forth by activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and so many others who dot the landscape of this sweeping narrative, and to wield it like Promethean fire that may renew this scarred but still sacred land. In this sense, Democracy Awakening joins the 1619 Project and other important works of historical and public scholarship that follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., who in the course of his bravura, era-defining Riverside Church sermon in New York City on April 4, 1967, insisted that he came to criticize America not because he hated it, but from a love grounded in a profoundly optimistic sense of patriotism. The long, rough, and challenging road to democracy, argued King, would be a “bitter” but “beautiful” struggle to redeem the nation’s soul. That struggle continues, as Richardson eloquently shows, with an unmatched urgency in our own time.

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Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently The Third Reconstruction: America's Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.

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