From historian and author of the popular daily newsletter "Letters From An American", a narrative that explains how America, once a beacon of democracy, now teeters on the brink of autocracy—and how we can turn back.
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 ... 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 ... Heather Cox Richardson seems to recognize this vacuum, and Democracy Awakening is her effort to fill it by reclaiming patriotism.
The first third of the book, which hurtles toward Donald Trump’s election, is as bingeable as anything on Netflix ... The second two-thirds of Democracy Awakening contains material that is simultaneously too familiar and too fresh to submit entirely to a historian’s dispassionate analysis ... Sometimes seems like a rhetorical exercise in making events from different periods illuminate one another by dint of mere juxtaposition. Richardson is deft, and often I can find the rhyme she hears, but just as often I wondered about historical and cultural contingencies that she might be leaving out in the effort to create such an aerodynamic story.
Richardson’s pointillist empiricism does very good work in this book ... But, for the most part, she offers in almost storybook prose—one-sentence paragraphs abound—a storybook version of American history. It is not manifestly false, or simpleminded, just simplified ... Though the point of Richardson’s book is plain—liberal democracy is under assault—its purpose is more obscure. To whom is it directed? ... A deeper problem arises from Richardson’s conflation of liberalism in the partisan-political sense, meaning the pursuit of a particular set of desirable social programs, and liberalism in the larger sense, as a way of resolving social violence. Throughout, Richardson suggests that good government is the proof of a thriving democracy ... Praising the people who agree with you is the easy part of democratic government. The hard part is building a superintending architecture that wins the consent even of those you hate.