Our Democracy Is in Trouble, but We’ve Been Here Before (with Heather Cox Richardson)

September 29, 2022

Make no mistake, America’s experiment in popular sovereignty is in jeopardy—here’s how this moment compares to past crises.

Apply Podcast IconAmazon Music IconSpotify IconGoogle Podcast IconStitcher Icon


Click to read the full transcript

Michael: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.

Felicia: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

Michael: This is How to Save a Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States. We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom …

Felicia: Because progressives need a common purpose and a common strategy to win.

Michael: Our guest today is Heather Cox Richardson. You may know that name already if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of subscribers to her daily Substack newsletter. It’s called Letters From an American, and it’s a guide to the politics of the moment with prior context drawn from Heather’s work as a professor of nineteenth-century American history at Boston College.

[Excerpt of Heather speaking]: I’m not Bruce Springsteen. You know, I’m somebody who is voicing what a lot of people think. I’m the voice of what I think is a political moment and a political movement.

Felicia: You know, I think we should say something right up top here in this interview. Heather often jumps around from talking about the nineteenth century to talking about the present day, which is amazing but can be a little confusing. So as a reminder, the Republican Party of 150 years ago, which she refers to, that was the party of Lincoln. And after the North won the Civil War, it was the Democratic Party that clung to the Confederate cause and even promoted it within the halls of Congress, which we’ll get into.

Michael: What I enjoyed so much about this conversation is that every time we ask her about this or that aspect of modern politics, she would give of course an astute diagnosis of the current situation, but then she would also turn around and rewind things and find a comparison to some of the wheeling and dealing that went on in this or that decade of the nineteenth century, and it’s just fascinating stuff.

Felicia: And as for why we wanted to have her on this program now, you know, she’s particularly good at explaining polarization. Heather has studied some of our nation’s most divided times—the Civil War, Reconstruction—and so she has great insights about today’s divisions too.

Michael: Coming right up, it’s our interview with Heather Cox Richardson. Heather Cox Richardson, welcome to How to Save a Country.

Heather: Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be here.

Michael: We’re thrilled to have you. I want to start with a broad and rather grim question. How much trouble is this country in right now?

Heather: A lot. Would you like me to elaborate?

Michael: Please.

Heather: We are in a unique moment because we have, certainly in our past, had plenty of times when there were people who did not believe in the democratic experiment and who were trying to impose an oligarchy or some form of a hierarchical government. But this is the first time in our history that those people who wanted to do that have a significant footprint within our government. We actually have people within our government who are working against our democracy, and that is a whole different kettle of fish than we’ve ever had to deal with before.

Michael: It’s different even, I believe, from the late 1850s. Would you agree? Worse. By different, I mean worse.

Heather: Well, there are a lot of similarities. That is, during the 1850s, the large enslavers from the American South did in fact take over the government. They took over the Supreme Court, they took over the Senate, they took over the presidency, and it really looked as if they were going to be able to take over the House of Representatives as well and force their system of a hierarchical government, really an oligarchy, on the rest of the country by spreading their system of enslavement across the American West, and by simply outnumbering the number of states that emphasized free labor. So it really did look as if that were going to be the case, but when, in fact, Americans elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, those people took their marbles and went home. So Americans were able to redefine American democracy during those early years of the 1860s without there being a group of people who were actively trying to destroy that democracy. Now there was a moment in 1879—

Michael: After the war, right?

Heather: Yes, when, in fact, former Confederates did stay in the government and did try to destroy it from within, and they were quite thoroughly put down by the American people.

Michael: Indeed, a few years after the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederates, that is the Democrats, the party threw up further resistance from inside the federal system that they had just rejoined basically. Talk a little bit more about that moment. What happened exactly?

Heather: At the time it was a huge deal and most people, of course, haven’t even heard about today. But what happened was that in 1874, the Democrats take back over the House of Representatives, largely because there was an economic depression in 1873, and they were mad at the Republicans about that, but the former Confederates took that as a sign that in fact, Americans did not want to have Black rights, they did not want equality, they did not want the Republican program that was designed to help the American economy, that they wanted to go back to the years before the Civil War. Then in 1878, the Democrats take over control of the Senate as well, and what that meant was when Congress was seated in 1879, they had Congress and they decided literally to defund the government until the president, who was Rutherford B. Hayes, did what they wanted—that is, removed all the troops from the South—and at the time, people recognized that that was essentially the resurgence of the Confederacy within the government itself. And in fact, Democrats said so. They said, you know, “We were stupid to actually secede. We should have stayed here and did what we wanted all along.”

When that happens, there is a real movement among Americans to say, “No, this is just the Confederacy by another means,” and this becomes this huge popular moment. There are cartoons and there are poems and there are songs, and there are articles in newspapers, and everybody’s saying, “Hey, we fought this war once. We’re not going to fight it again. We’re gonna put these people down.” The president, Rutherford B. Hayes, vetoes those demands, bills that went through five times. The Confederates end up backing down, recognizing that there is an upcoming election in 1880 and that they look like complete idiots.

Now, that was a long way to tell a really, to my mind, cool story, but one that most people may not be as interested in as I am. But on the heels of that catastrophe, if you will, the Confederacy trying to take over the government from within, the Democratic Party split, said, “We got a problem. We have to throw these former Confederates overboard.” It’s at that moment that the Democratic Party starts to focus on urban workers, urban people of color, and tries to move the country forward as an urban party. It’s a moment that looks quite a bit like where we are, I hope anyway, today.

Felicia: Right, you see a lot of this debate also amongst conservative, Republican-aligned thinkers. So are you going to see, I think of it as, either a softer safety net, the kind of family protections that Mitt Romney is arguing for? Are you going to see the kind of public investments that Marco Rubio is arguing for?

Heather: Well, right, that’s the $64,000 question. The Republican Party coming out of the 1850s was a true conservative party, and it took its cues from people like Edmund Burke, although not deliberately name-checking him, with the idea that the government should protect instruments of stability. So the idea of returning to sort of conservatism within the Republican Party is a real mouthful because the current-day Republican Party is no longer a conservative party.

The Republican Party in the middle of the twentieth century really stood for that— Planned Parenthood, for example—to strengthen the ability of the family to plan its own future, and to strengthen churches, and to strengthen the ability of people to feed their children, and all the sorts of things that one would associate with a Burkean conservatism in the twentieth century. The modern-day Republican Party has gone quite far from that. What has happened since the rise of Donald Trump, who’s a symptom by the way, not only a cause, the Republican Party has really focused on their base voters, and the base voters are being turned out by racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, misogyny. They’re really the kinds of themes that people like [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán have pushed in Hungary, and they’re themes that frankly are what helped the Nazi parties to rise not only in Germany but also in other places in Europe and that people focused on in America in the 1920s and the 1930s as well. Those are not things that will attract that famous suburban woman, which is what the Republican Party so desperately needs.

Felicia: I wanna ask about the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees people equal protection under the law. It’s come up a lot in recent politics, especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. So what do you think? Is it alarming or encouraging that we are still talking about equality and equal protection at this most basic level.

Heather: You know, I joke sometimes that I stop people in the supermarket to talk about the Fourteenth Amendment, but there’s a reason that the Fourteenth Amendment matters as much as it ever has at this moment. After the Thirteenth Amendment becomes part of our Constitution in 1865, the end of human enslavement except for punishment for a crime for which somebody has been duly convicted, the Southern states remand formally enslaved people to a system that is not exactly slavery, but it definitely is second-class citizenship. What happens then is a real revolution in the way they think about the American government and the relationship of the states to the federal government. And what the Fourteenth Amendment does is it says that no state can take away equality, no state can violate the equal protection of the laws, that every American citizen has equal protection of the laws, and that their rights cannot be taken away from them without due process of those laws. So it puts the federal government in charge of guaranteeing that no state can take away rights from anybody within those states, any citizen within those states, and that becomes part of the U.S. Constitution in 1868. Then, in 1870, Congress establishes the Department of Justice to make sure that’s going to be the case. Now that plays forward in the twentieth century, after people start to look away from what the Fourteenth Amendment should be able to do, and there’s a couple of Supreme Court cases that say that in fact, so long as discrimination is done by individuals, that the federal government can’t step in to change that, but of course by the early twentieth century, we have a system in which African Americans and Mexican Americans and Hispanic Americans are living under systems of Jim Crow and Juan Crow laws that relegate them to a second-class citizenship. The Supreme Court under Justice Earl Warren begins to use the Fourteenth Amendment to protect the rights of individuals within the states, and of course it is those laws that now the current-day Supreme Court, under the radical control of the Republicans that have been really put over the top by the three new justices appointed by Donald Trump, are dismantling. They’re saying that, in fact, that is not something that the Fourteenth Amendment should be doing and that they will not use the Fourteenth Amendment to protect individuals from discrimination at the state level.

We’re really at a moment that looks very much like a period in which the Confederates are gaining the upper hand. That is, they are concentrating power at the state level and essentially ignoring the Fourteenth Amendment. We’ve taken it for granted, and it’s time to reassert what that actually means and why our ancestors put it in our fundamental law, into our Constitution.

Felicia: You know, one of the things that I think is distressing to everyone that I know or speak to is just how much appetite there seems to be for conspiracy theories, fact-free conversation, wild speculation everywhere in our politics right now, but let’s be honest, particularly on the right, the far right. Is there any precedent for this much craziness in any political party?

I know there’s a long history in American politics of anti-intellectualism and leaning toward being attracted by conspiracy, but why is it so intertwined with one of our major parties right now?

Heather: Those are two different questions. One, has there ever been a major political party that adhered to conspiracy theories and basically lies the way we have now? And the answer to that is no. We’ve certainly had plenty of politicians who were opportunistic and told their followers things that weren’t true, but they were not major political figures, with the possible exception of Joe McCarthy, who of course has a direct line to people like Donald Trump. Why is it so deeply rooted in our society today is a really more interesting question, and that is, first of all, like I say, the Republican Party, since at least 1986, recognized that it needed to convince its followers of something that was not true. Actually you can go back all the way to Nixon, but really it was Ronald Reagan who tried to sell people on a narrative that was not rooted in reality. If you look at when Reagan was the governor of California, the reporters covering him kind of thought he was a joke. For example, he talked about how many lives he had saved when he was a lifeguard, and all the other lifeguards on the beach were like, “You know, the rest of us have been here and we’re not saving anybody, nobody needs us.” And they thought it was just sort of a joke really, that he would tell these stories that were creating a narrative of heroism, that were not true. So you could push it all the way back to that.

You can see it in a number of candidates nowadays, but certainly what springs to mind is Donald Trump’s “American carnage” speech, when he took the oath of office, in which he described an America that was just a hellscape. And similarly, the idea that in the summer of 2020, there were literally cities that had been burned down, that was just simply not true. So I think part of it is the bread and butter, at this point, of the Republican Party.

Felicia: All right, we’re gonna take just a quick break, and don’t forget that Michael and I will talk between ourselves about this interview later on. Stay tuned.

Michael: And we’re back with Heather Cox Richardson on How to Save a Country. Heather, I want to ask you a question about a word. The word is freedom. You wrote a book called To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, an excellent book and a very fair and judicious book. You chose that word in the title for a reason, and I’m guessing you, if you’d written the history of the Democratic Party, you might not have used the word “free.”

Heather: Let me just explain first of all why I used “to make men free” as the title of that. That was a bit of a tweak, if you will, at the Republican Party because it’s a line from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle-Hymn of the Republic:” “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic” has been played at the Republican National Convention every year until the year I wrote that book. I haven’t checked since. I did not hear it at Donald Trump’s, but it was the song for the Republican Party, and of course what they did is they made men free. Of course she wrote that, she was up to something else when she wrote that. And since the rise of Reagan, I believe that the Republican Party has very much worked to get rid of the idea of universal human equality and replace it with an idea of a heteronormative cowboy dad in charge of his women and children, and hence the focus on getting women back into the home, out of professional settings, even things like the prairie dresses that became so popular in the 1970s and into the 1980s, and by the way, are back today.

Felicia: I was going to say they’re back. The prairie dresses were back.

Heather: Which is, wow. Fully shipped. Do you react the same way I do to those?

Felicia: I do, yes. The ruffles are back.

Heather: Yeah.

Michael: Yeah, holy smokes. But here we are in a situation: The Republican Party owns this word freedom and owns this concept. It’s completely associated with the Republican Party. They have their Freedom Caucus. They have freedom: this liberty, that. Yet their definition of freedom is utterly perverse: the freedom not to wear a mask and to cough on somebody in the supermarket and get them sick. I think the Democrats have a real failing here in having ceded this word, this concept that is cherished by Americans, that Americans are taught to cherish from the time they can cherish any idea. The Democrats have been very derelict in letting the Republicans have that word and not having their own definition of freedom. I think in fact that these economic ideas have to do with the democratic vision of freedom. These ideas, these programs, these supports, these investments, will give people more freedom to fulfill their potential as human beings and to live better lives. So this is a pet peeve of mine about our contemporary political discourse and culture. What do you think?

Heather: Well, I hate to do this to you, but you sound very much like a nineteenth-century Republican. That is precisely what Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would’ve said. I will suggest, though, that there is embedded in the concept of freedom a really important distinction between the freedom from something and the freedom to something.

Michael: Sure.

Heather: And that is one that I think the Republicans have exploited, the current-day Republicans, and I think that’s an important distinction to make. The current-day Republicans, since the Reagan revolution, are really very different than traditional Republicans that they have celebrated with the freedom from regulation, the freedom from having to share civil rights with anybody who is not—fill in all the blanks—white, heteronormative, male, et cetera, but they haven’t talked about exactly what you’re talking about, the fact that both Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, but then later on, FDR and Eisenhower focused on the fact that an active federal government actually worked to create a world in which individuals had the freedom to do things: to be creative, to have jobs that would support their families, to travel, to be healthy, to do all sorts of things that are part of a definition of freedom that is far more inclusive than being a person of privilege who has the freedom from things, but rather has the freedom to things.

Felicia: I think that one of my hypotheses about how the left lost the freedom narrative is that the libertarian neoliberal, if you will, economists took it over, and freedom in the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s came to mean the freedom to transact, the freedom to hold property, et cetera, narrowly, and therefore the left lost the freedom that was part of the abolition movement, the freedom that was part of the women’s liberation movement. The activist in me, the earnest person in me, thinks that that means that freedom is there again, to be expanded as a political concept and recaptured, but it’s gonna take a lot of work to do that.

Heather: Well, I think we made a terrible error, as well, after the fall of the Soviet Union, grabbing hold of the idea that democracy and capitalism were interchangeable. The focus on capitalism and the rise of capitalism standing for democracy, which was something of course that had been pushed as far back as Reagan, and certainly before that: the Powell memo in 1971 and all the way, of course, back to William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale in 1951. That idea that as long as you had capitalism, you would have democracy has come home to haunt us because, of course, we now have proof that you can have capitalism and not have democracy. You need to look no further than China and look at the rising forms of capitalism there. At the same time, we very deliberately don’t have democracy, and you have people thinking along those lines and trying to redefine democracy as having stuff. That’s a real loss because, of course, the whole concept of democracy and our democracy, American democracy, is that all people are created equal and, crucially, that they have a right to consent to the government under which they live. They’re allowed to have a say, and that idea of having a say we seem to be tossing over at a frightening pace, and you really can’t have the one without having the other. I have a theory about that.

Felicia: What’s your theory?

Heather: My theory is when Americans talk about socialism, they think they’re talking about international socialism, which really takes form after 1917, but they’re not. They’re talking about Black voting, and that took place in 1871. Opponents in the South, former Confederates, say, “Well, all they’re doing is they are creating socialism. They’re turning this country into a socialist country.” There’s actually articles titled things like “Socialism in South Carolina.” People in the nineteenth century put race and class together when people started to talk about socialism, basically saying that if you let Black people vote, they would vote for things like roads and schools and hospitals, and that would cost tax dollars, and since white people were the only ones who had property to tax in the post–Civil War South, that meant a redistribution of wealth from white people to Black people.

You still see that nowadays when people talk about how the Democrats are dangerous, radical leftist socialists. I mean, it’s kind of a list of buzzwords there. But I got thinking last year, I was teaching a course and wanted to talk about the rise of international capitalism, and I thought, “When did Americans start talking about capitalism?” because Lincoln talked all the time about capital. I mean in fact, during the 1860s, Lincoln and people like him talked about capital and defined it quite literally as pre-exerted labor. They believed it was a product of labor. But while they talk about capital in the 1860s and the 1870s, they start to talk about capitalists, they don’t talk about capitalism. So I actually did a word search and discovered that they talk about capitalists as people who have money. It’s not an economic system, it’s an identifier of who people are who have money. So if they’re talking about, for example, in New York City, a law that would help people with money, they say the capitalists like it.

And then they start to use the word capitalism in America to stand against the idea of socialism, socialism being the poor people voting, immigrants in New York is what they’re worried about, but Black people in the American South, they start to say, “We don’t want a system of socialism. We want a system of capitalism,” and by that they mean that people with capital should be the ones who determine the political system. If you think about capitalism in the American context, not as being about an economic system but rather thinking about it as a political system, it changes the entire way you think about the relationship between democracy and capitalism.

Felicia: I want to turn now to talking a little bit about you, because your work and frankly your popularity are kind of fascinating, so tell us a little bit more about your project, Letters From an American. How did it start, and say a little bit about what you think your popularity means about the kind of political analysis, historical analysis, that everyday people are really looking for right now.

Heather: I’m not Bruce Springsteen. I’m somebody who is voicing what a lot of people think. I’m the voice of what I think is a political moment, and a political movement in that people want to have a government that works and that they feel proud of and that reflects them, and they are decent human beings. They’re also talented human beings. I mean, I hear from a lot of people, and there’s extraordinary talent in this country. I am literally just holding up a mirror to America at this moment, and it’s a mirror that I really like. I like the people that I’m dealing with, and I think people are eager to have a say in their government and to be able to participate in it, and that’s really what I do.

Michael: The show is called How to Save a Country. So Heather Cox Richardson, give us a couple ideas, concrete ideas for how to save the country.

Heather: It’s worth mentioning here that I am an idealist, by which I mean, I think ideas change the way people behave. What I always tell people is, the way you change this country is you change the way you talk about it. You change the way you think about it, and you make it known that you feel that way and that you think that way, and that you include people in your vision of the world to make it the way you want it to be. So for example, if you look at the rise of the John Birch Society, which was a right-wing society that really got its teeth in the country after Brown v. Board of Education, the way the Birchers organized was literally by going out and talking to people. That idea of changing our country by talking to people about what this country could be, what you want our government to do, whether or not it’s what I want our government to do, taking back our country into our own hands is the first step to changing our democracy.

Then there’s the other things, of course, that everybody talks about: Run for office, vote, give money to causes, stand up for things you believe in. All those things are part of participating in our political system. But the first of those to me is speak up: Speak up to your neighbors, speak up to your local newspapers, speak up to The Wall Street Journal when you don’t like what it’s doing, take back oxygen from those radical people who are trying to destroy our country. People tend to forget that when in fact we embraced civil rights in this country in the 1950s, first with the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and then in the 1960s, those were white men who voted for the changing laws, and they did not do that because they suddenly saw the light and thought it would be a great thing for them to give rights to Black women, for example. It’s because people like the NAACP and the organizers with them and Black Americans spoke up and said, “This is not the kind of country we want to live in.” They were able, as I say, to push that incredibly heavy boulder uphill. So we have precedent, we have hope, and the way you participate in that is simply by stepping up and starting to do it.

Felicia: I want to thank you, Heather Cox Richardson, for your time on this show. We have so appreciated learning from you today and learning from you every morning at 3:00 a.m. or whenever I receive your newsletter.

Heather: Thank you for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.

Michael: Pleasure was ours. Thanks so much.

Felicia: Michael, what did you think?

Michael: I guess one of the main things that I take away from this is the idea that political parties change. The Democratic Party changed in that time quite dramatically over the course of a couple of decades, and I don’t want to overstate my optimism here, just the mere fact that it has happened in our history means that it can happen again.

Felicia: Really what we’ve been talking about this whole episode is about party instability. The optimist in me hopes that instability will actually lead to realignment. But today the question for me is who is going to be in what part of this realignment? I really wonder how Black Americans and Latino Americans and Asian Americans end up aligning with what party.

In my perfect world, both parties would have the economic policies demonstrating that they’re competing for the votes of people of color, kind of race to the top. That is not what we’re seeing right now. And instead, our politics of race are ugly within one party, and they’re at risk of being somewhat dismissed by the other party. I hope that’s not going to happen, but I could imagine that happening. So instead, I really fear a kind of race to the bottom, around race, and whether that can flip is part of what we’ll be discussing with the next two guests on How to Save a Country, Dorian Warren …

[Excerpt of Dorian Warren speaking]: There is something really going on across the spectrum in terms of one’s class, background, racial and gender background. This is actually an exciting time for the labor movement.

Felicia: And Deepak Bhargava …

[Excerpt of Deepak Bhargava speaking]: So why not awaken the best parts of our national identity, which admittedly we rarely live up to, but they’re there, of being a welcoming country.

Felicia: We’re happy to have them joining How to Save a Country, which is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael: Our associate producer is Alli Rodgers. Our lead producer is Pierre Bienaimé. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez.

Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that’s reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal wellbeing at omidyar.com.

Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.

Felicia: If you’re not yet subscribed, please do it.

Michael: As you’ve heard, on just about every podcast, yes, rating and reviewing us would definitely help the show. Thank you.

Felicia: Bye, Michael.

Michael: Bye, Felicia.

Michael: Yeah, and I love the fact that I sound like Lincoln.

Felicia: Oh yeah, Michael likes it even more than Baby Joe Biden would.


Heather Cox Richardson’s wildly popular Substack newsletter, Letters from an American, achieves what historical studies do at their best: shed light on the politics of the moment by telling parallel stories from the past. As often as the word “unprecedented” comes up in modern political discussions, the comparisons it conjures are usually limited to living memory—which historians know to look beyond.

The newsletter is drawn from Richardson’s work as a professor of 19th century American history at Boston College. She’s also the author of six books including, most recently, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

In this conversation, Richardson talks with Michael and Felicia about today’s polarization, the last time antidemocratic forces threatened to take hold of Congress, and the unique dangers democracy faces now.

“We actually have people within our government who are working against our democracy, and that is a whole different kettle of fish than we’ve ever had to deal with before,” Heather says. “Taking back our country into our own hands is the first step, I think, to changing our democracy.”

And later: Heather digs into the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and explains why democracy and capitalism are not interchangeable.

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

Reading Recommendations

Roosevelt Institute Resources

For more analysis of how the neoliberal regime conflated capitalism and democracy, see this report and book from Roosevelt’s Suzanne Kahn and Mike Konczal.

Join The Conversation! We encourage you to follow our social channels Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Please, like, share and comment, and use hashtags #howtosaveacountry #rewritetherules