Voices of the Virus

‘The Enlightenment Matters’

Historian Heather Cox Richardson on governing by reality vs. governing by ideology.

By Heather Cox Richardson

Tagged coronavirusHistorypolitics

Arguably no American historian has been reaching a wider audience during the pandemic than Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, whose daily posts on her Facebook page, which run to around 1,200 words or more and paint a sometimes searing picture of what we’re living through, are routinely liked by 30,000 or so readers. Richardson is also the author of the 2014 book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. Editor Michael Tomasky spoke with her about her posts, the pandemic, and the GOP on June 15.

Michael Tomasky: First question. Around about mid-March, I started getting a lot of emails from people saying, “Did you read that Heather Richardson post on Facebook? It was remarkable.” So I started reading them, and they were remarkable. What made you start doing that?

Heather Cox Richardson: That’s a great question. I actually started them on September 15, and I started them completely inadvertently. I had, for a number of years, written about once a week on a professional Facebook post to the about 22,000 people who followed me. And I didn’t want to do it more than once a week. Because I thought it would bore people. And I actually got stung by a yellow jacket, and I’m allergic to them, and I did not have my EpiPens. And I live in the middle of nowhere. So I had to sit and think, you know, we should be calling the EMS.

And while I sat there, I just started to write. And I had happened to see Adam Schiff’s letter that said to the acting director of national intelligence that he knew there was a whistleblower report out there. And that it was being withheld illegally. And that was the first time I had seen a member of Congress explicitly cite a law that a member of the executive branch had violated. And so I recognized that as being a really big deal, and I was sort of looking for something to write to my people about. And so I wrote that, and questions about it started flooding in. So I wrote another post, I think it was on September 17, and I’ve written every night since because questions kept pouring in. And that’s how it started. And it’s just gone by leaps and bounds since.

MT: So you started this before the virus actually, but I guess somehow they got more notice when the plague descended, is that accurate to say?

HCR: I think it is. And I think there are two reasons for that. I think the first is that people have more time. All the distractions of our lives were stripped away, and people are looking for actual content—not just this happened, but here’s why it happened. Here’s some information that’s going to make you smarter. A lot of people say, “Boy, I love reading your posts. They make me smarter.” But it’s also that I think the virus managed to rip away the facade that politics was okay. But to people who maybe weren’t paying that close attention, all of a sudden there was this pandemic. And we have been really shielded from the reality of pandemics since at least the Clinton Administration, but really almost since [Anthony] Fauci started working with Ronald Reagan to stop the spread of AIDS in the 1980s.

And all of a sudden it was like, wait a minute. People are out there arguing about the economy or about technology or about outsourcing jobs. And that somehow seems somewhat divorced from your life. But when all of a sudden you could die from going to a store, people had to pay attention. And when they started to pay attention, they recognized that their government was not telling them the truth. And that has been revelatory for an awful lot of people.

MT: So you have to write these every weekday, is that correct?

HCR: I write them every day, weekends as well. I try to do one post a week that is either historical or in some fashion uplifting. And that is really for my readers. I started getting emails saying I can’t keep up the pace. And they kept saying to me, you need to take a night off. And finally I realized what they were saying is they needed a night off.

MT: And what’s your goal? What kind of historical record are you trying to leave here, or what are you trying to communicate to people?

HCR: There are two answers there. First of all, I am writing for that historian a 100 years [into the future]. It’s a very exciting thing for a historian to be able to create a primary source that, with luck, a historian will [say] the only place to go for a blow-by-blow historical account is Richardson. As a scholar of the nineteenth century, we have those for the nineteenth century. It is no secret that I think that the Trump Administration is an existential threat to America. So obviously I am trying to put those facts in front of people, but at a larger level, it has been my contention that we have come under the sway of a political party that has rejected the Enlightenment and has rejected the idea of fact-based argument.

There was that famous quote from Ron Suskind, I think it was in The Price of Loyalty, where he talks about somebody in the George W. Bush Administration talking about how reporters like Suskind lived in the reality-based community, but they did not. And they did not have to because they were creating their own reality. That to me was chilling and indicative of where we have come as a country. And I firmly believe in the Enlightenment, and I firmly believe in the concept of human self-determination and the need for fact-based political discourse, for that to become a reality again.

So what I’m really trying to do is to push back on disinformation and reground people in the idea that the Enlightenment matters, and that we can have a government based in reality, and a political discourse based in reality and disagreement.

MT: We’ll return to the Republican Party, about which you wrote a book, but I want to ask you just a couple more questions about your Facebook posts. Describe your method. They’re very wide ranging. How do you assemble these posts?

HCR: What my history has always done is try to take a broad look at society. My degree is actually not in history. My degree is in what used to be called the history of American civilization. My master’s is in literature. I studied American religion and American art. And of course, I do politics and economics. So I’ve got a broad training anyway. I know patterns, I know things to look for. And I read extremely quickly. So what that means is that when I get up every morning, I check Twitter and I follow thousands of people on Twitter, including you.

So I read Twitter, and I see what stories are emerging and I decide whether or not I think they’re important. So for example, I picked up the LeBron James thing the other day, where he is investing in this new attempt to get out the vote and stop voter suppression, because that’s going to affect a whole new population in America that has previously been underserved. So that to me was much more important than some of the other political attempts to get out the vote.

So I look through Twitter, I look and see what stories I think are important. And then, throughout the day, I have a bunch of touchstone journals that I go to. So there’s kind of three phases. Twitter. What are the stories, how were the news media perceiving things. And then Googling to learn more about it. And in that last process, that’s what really takes me to the fine writers out there.

Charlie Pierce at Esquire. You. Jennifer Rubin’s been on fire for the last six months. Anything by Sarah Kendzior, Amanda Marcotte, Dahlia Lithwick. And I do try to read the National Review, but they’re so spotty.

MT: Let’s talk about the Republicans and conservatism. And let me start with a question that may surprise you. What value has conservatism brought to America and the world over the years? What good has it done?

HCR: Well, that’s a great question. I’m actually writing a piece on that right now. In America, there is no capital-C conservative party. So the idea of conservatism is an intellectual inclination. And as you know, modern conservatism comes from Edmund Burke after the French Revolution. And you can take a lot from any of those early thinkers; they’re all over the map. So everybody can claim them. But what Burke did to me that seems most important is that he took a look at the French Revolution, which at that point was lopping off heads and said, you know, this is not the way to run a country, because if you start to run a country based on ideology, you’re going to end up lopping off heads.

So, he argued that you needed to have a government that was based in what works and what doesn’t. And one of the things that he emphasized was that a government should protect stability, because stability was best for most people. And that meant that you needed to protect the family. You needed to protect the church. You needed to protect traditional governments. You needed to protect things that would stabilize society and would make sure to make people think that their lives were safe and that their property was safe. That set of principles, translated into American history, was one of the things that animated the early Republican Party. Now, again, those things are very malleable in the sense that, in the modern day, people who call themselves conservatives mean to protect a heteronormative nuclear family that is often autocratic.

Now, a lot of us would look at that and say, well, that’s actually not stabilizing, because it often means that people who are not within that norm get marginalized or even attacked or even killed. That doesn’t look to us like [protecting] stability. But when that first came into the Republican Party, what that was was an emphasis on equality of opportunity. The idea of stability and the idea of equality of opportunity and the idea of governance based not on ideology but rather on reality seem to me to be fine to re-animate today.

That being said, you will see that I won’t use that word “conservative” in relation to those who are not actually conservatives by any stretch of the imagination. They’re actually radical extremists, quite like the people in the French Revolution, because they are trying to govern based on an ideology rather than based on what actually works. I’ve written about how the Republican Party got taken over by these radical extremists who called themselves “conservatives,” even though they weren’t conservative at all. And of course, that’s how we’ve gotten so many people nowadays leaving the Republican Party, because they recognize it’s not truly conservative. But the conservative ideology itself has brought a ton to America.

MT: You used the phrase pre-Enlightenment earlier in our conversation. I assume you think the Republican Party wasn’t always that way. When did it become that and why?

HCR: Well, the Republican Party has had a number of phases, but the roots of the modern-day Republican Party really are in the New Deal. And they were really put into place most firmly during World War II. And then that later got adopted by the Republican Party under figures like Dwight Eisenhower. He adopted the New Deal, but he adopted it by calling it the “middle way,” putting a little more emphasis in different places than the Democrats did. And that was the idea that the government had a responsibility to do more than protect property, as it had been doing in the 1920s. Instead, both New Deal Democrats and middle-way Republicans—which, by the way, made up a vast majority of the American people—believed that the government had a responsibility to regulate business so that it didn’t destroy workers, pollute the environment, take all the money for itself.

So coming out of the Depression and World War II, there was what was known as the liberal consensus, small-l. And again, it wasn’t a political party. It was an inclination to say the government really should do these things, because when it doesn’t, all the money moves to the top, and we get the Great Depression and we get the rise of fascism and things go to hell in a hand basket. That was really, really popular among everybody, except a few very wealthy business people who didn’t like the idea of government regulation.

They really weren’t complaining about taxes yet. Although, coming out of World War II, the top tax bracket in America was 91 percent. And it stayed there under Eisenhower. They didn’t like the taxation that was responsible for paying for Social Security, for example. They didn’t like the idea that they had to fund infrastructure. So what they started to do was to say: This is wrong, and we need to go back to the 1920s. And they really believed that they were going to be able to go back to the 1920s. And when Americans continued to vote for politicians embracing the liberal consensus, embracing the idea of regulation of business, for example, they started to think, well, we can’t make arguments based in reality any longer, because when we do that, people choose the New Deal.

So that just proves that the Enlightenment is wrong. And this is most famously articulated by William F. Buckley in his first book from 1951 called God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom. And what he’s doing right there is talking about how, theoretically, the Enlightenment was designed to undercut the superstitions of what was known then as the Dark Ages—that people would just do things based on ideology and religion or in traditionalism. The idea that people should make arguments based in reality, according to Buckley, was just as much a superstition as that. In fact, he said, we needed to go back to the idea that the government should do nothing [more] than promote religion and what he called “individualism.” That is the idea that people can do whatever they want.

Well, this didn’t really get any traction because people are looking around in the 1950s and going, we’ve got the best GNP in history. We’ve got homes, we’ve got jobs, we’ve got cars, we’re having babies, everything looks just ducky. So why would we want to get rid of this government that is responsible for all this?

And then, of course, part of that government tried to defend the rights of minority populations to join in that equality of opportunity and in that system, with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which declared segregation constitutional. And then in 1957 with Eisenhower sending the troops into Little Rock to desegregate Central High. Those people who didn’t like the liberal consensus could tie racism to that idea of the new activist government. And what they began to say was that if you have a government that does all these things, what that really means is it’s going to take white tax dollars and redistribute them to African Americans and other groups of color. By 1970, they’re including women as well. So that’s where you get this tension in American society. And as you know, there was a huge effort on the part of those people to take over the political discourse, to create think tanks, to take over media, and the government, and the judicial system. And it’s done so with extraordinary facility and with extraordinary success.

MT: Is there any chance that we can return to having a Republican Party like we had in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, a party with lots of conservatives, but some moderates too. But they actually believed in legislating and compromising. How would it happen?

HCR: What I would say to that is that the Republican Party that we’re seeing today in the news is an extremist party. It’s a radical party. It does not command a majority. There’s a lot of people who say to me all the time, I’m a Republican, but you know, this is not my Republican Party. The Republican Party, when it rose in the 1850s, articulated in America, for the first time, a different ideology than the Democrats had. The Democrats tended to look at the world as haves and have nots. And that comes out of the particular moment from which they rose in the 1820s and the 1830s.

But the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln articulated a new political theory. And that was the idea that if the government would help people at the bottom, those people would—and it was a religious vision, by the way; they believed that God was very good and therefore would not have created a world that did not have enough for everyone. So if you put effort into people at the bottom, they would create more than they could consume. And they in turn would help people at the next level, who would create more than they can consume, that would help people at the next level up fit a few financiers and a few industrialists. But all of those people in the top tiers would hire people at the bottom.

So it’s really a circular vision, a web-based vision of American society. And it is one that is as crucial to our DNA as the Democratic vision. And they’re not yin and yang. They’re very different in a lot of moments. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they are completely at loggerheads, but that vision of American society as a web is very much part of our DNA. So if the Republican Party itself crashes and burns, and people never admit they’re Republican, and the word drops and people pretend they never were part of that party, that old vision of the world as a web will recreate itself in some political and economic fashion, because it is so deeply ingrained in Americans’ vision of themselves.

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Heather Cox Richardson is professor of ​history at Boston College.

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