Historian Heather Cox Richardson's notes on the state of America
Historian Heather Cox Richardson is one of the most important public intellectuals in the country.
Her newsletter “Letters from an American” reaches more than a million people every day.
She says her understanding of American history gives her hope for America’s future.
Today, On Point: Our conversation with historian Heather Cox Richardson, recorded before a live studio audience at WBUR’s CitySpace.
Heather Cox Richardson, historian and author of the newsletter “Letters from an American.” Her new book is “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Heather Cox Richardson is one of the best known public intellectuals of the day. She’s a historian of 19th century America, particularly the nation’s rending and renewal before and after the Civil War. But for 21st century readers, Richardson is so much more than that.
Back in 2019, she began writing daily Facebook posts about the impeachment of Donald Trump. Her calm analysis, infused with historical context, while carefully avoiding the hysterics found in mainstream media, soon made her a go-to information source for her readers. Then, Richardson moved her posts to Substack.
Her newsletter, “Letters from an American,” now has more than 1. 2 million daily readers who consider her not just an information source, but their primary news source to help them understand history’s current churn. She is by far Substack’s most successful writer, filling a gaping void for Americans who yearn for literate, principled, and clear headed analysis of the day’s news, as the Washington Post recently put it.
Richardson’s principled stance infuses her latest, highly anticipated book. It’s called “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.” She kicked off her book tour with us at a special live conversation held at WBUR’s CitySpace events venue. So for today’s show, we’re honored to bring you that conversation.
I began by asking Heather Cox Richardson this question. In the future, will a future Heather Cox Richardson look back at 2024 and pinpoint that year as the year that Americans either chose to hold fast to their democracy or to let it crumble?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting that you should say that though, because historians usually don’t like to look at one point in time and say the history of a nation pivoted on that moment.
RICHARDSON: I’m not entirely sure we can say it pivoted there. As in, we are building up to a moment when we have to choose. And many of us already have, and we are building up to part of a longer set of a strand here.
But yes, 2024 is enormously important, but there are a lot of things that are going to happen between now and 2024 that will help us direct where that is going to go.
CHAKRABARTI: And what particular things are you going to be looking at?
RICHARDSON: Many things actually. There are, first of all, the Black swan event, right?
The something that might happen that we don’t see coming and that’s going to be huge. So if I had told you three years ago that Ukraine was going to be one of the most important countries in the global scene, you would have thought I want whatever she’s drinking.
RICHARDSON: And yet, When Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.” It changed the world and who knows what’s coming next. So there’s the Black swan events, but then there are also a bunch of legal cases. That are going to be really important, not only how they are decided, but how people react to how they are decided. A judge in New York handed down a summary judgment in a piece of Letitia James’ lawsuit against the Trump organization and the former president.
And in that summary judgment has dissolved a number of Trump’s businesses and put somebody in charge, a former judge, I think it is, in charge of overseeing the organization. That’s going to have huge repercussions, because it’s going to really hurt the Trump organization’s ability to handle money, right?
And handling money is crucial to that entire project.
So there’s that. There’s a number of things that are currently in process, that we don’t know how they will come out and that’s things like the court cases for some of them.
CHAKRABARTI: So one of the, of course the powers of your letters every day is that it’s not just contemporary.
It’s so much more than just contemporary analysis, right? You’re coming at it from the deep knowledge of a historian. So I have been struggling over the past five years now, but especially over the past few months, to try and figure out, what framework, what historical framework should I be thinking through this period in the United States?
So is there one thing that you look back on over the past couple of hundred years of American history that you find to be close, in terms of helping us understand what’s happening now.
RICHARDSON: Yes. The place I always look to is the 1850s. But to take a bigger step. back. I think one of the things that jumps out to me, the more I look at what’s happening in the world, but also in the United States right now, is that there’s really two ways to look at the world.
Either you think that everybody should be treated equally before the law, and have a right to a say in their government, or you believe that some people are better than others and should rule. It’s a really simple way to look at the world. And if you’re looking for a pattern in the United States, the 1850s were very much like the present.
People say to me, “How can we ever come out of this?” And I’m like, “If you had told somebody in 1853, what the world was going to look like just 10 years later, they would never have believed it.” Because in 1853, it really looked as if the elite enslavers had taken over the federal government and were going to make enslavement national.
They were, in fact, going to become a world power that was, because they were the ones who controlled the most of the money. They were going to become a world power that spread their system around the world and the entire enterprise of American democracy would have died. 1854, they push a little bit too hard.
People like Abraham Lincoln wake up after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and say, “Wait a minute, we may not like each other. We may not agree about a lot of stuff, but we know we’ve got to save democracy.” By 1856, they have a new political party by 1858, somebody like Abraham Lincoln is beginning to articulate a vision for that party that is based in the fundamental documents of the United States, especially the declaration of independence.
By 1859, he has articulated a new vision of the government. By 1860, in the white house. And by 1863, he has delivered the Gettysburg address, dedicating the nation to a new birth of freedom based on the Emancipation Proclamation, which was unthinkable 10 years before. So when I look at the present, I look at, people say, “They’re so terrified now.” And I’m like, “I’m a happy little duck over here.” Because 10 years ago when we were talking about things like the rise of the unitary executive or signing statements or any of the many things that were happening, people weren’t paying any attention, and you couldn’t get people to pay attention.
And now, people are not only paying attention, they’re in the streets and they’re pushing back against gerrymandering and they’re doing all the things that I wish we’d been doing for the past 40 years. So that parallel is the one that really jumps out to me. People waking up and saying, “We want to save democracy.”
CHAKRABARTI: In 1853 though, lurking in the background, was there the catalyzing threat of secession or war?
CHAKRABARTI: So that was there. The rending of the nation was lurking.
CHAKRABARTI: Do we necessarily have that now?
RICHARDSON: So that’s the question people ask, “Are we going toward a civil war?” And there, I think there are two ways to look at that.
The first is this sort of war we had in 1860, no. For the first, for a simple reason. It’s that in 1860, South Carolina was the only state in the union that chose its electors through the legislature, which meant that the legislature was sitting when Lincoln was elected. They instantly went from being a state legislature to being a secession convention.
This is in late November of 1860. What is that? That’s not planting season in the South. That’s when everybody puts on their fancy gowns and goes to Christmas parties, and drinks a lot, and boasts and tries to impress the ladies. So the South secedes really quickly, before Lincoln is even inaugurated, and then nothing happens.
So one of the reasons that the confederacy fires on Fort Sumter in April is because planting season is starting and they’re afraid the whole thing’s going to collapse. And the reason that I’m telling that is because the secession of the South in 1860 to 1861 is really fast. And I think that former President Trump’s administration, especially Steve Miller and Steve Bannon, tried to do that in January of 2017 with the travel ban, but it didn’t work.
And their moment was Jan. 6, 2021. And when that moment passed, and now that we have the Department of Justice having charged more than a thousand people and convicted, I forget how many hundreds at this point, that moment of, “We’re going to do this because this is our moment to win.” That moment passed.
And I think that really matters that everything has slowed down there. Now that being said, people say, “Could it really be that we ever get into a shooting war?” And my answer to that is, “We’re in one.” The number of people in America who are dying every day to gun violence, not only politically motivated or racially motivated, but also domestic violence, which makes up more than half of our mass shootings.
Most people don’t realize that statistic. That’s what historians are going to look at. And that, I think, really matters. So no, I don’t think we’re going to be lined up in the streets, but I think that aspect of our current society matters.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting to hear you say that the moment that the insurrection of Jan. 6 offered has passed.
I’m about to disagree with you. For a couple of reasons, I think one is that it proved to people who are aligned with Trump and inclined to actually try to seek violent change that they can do it. Yes. There are many people who are on trial. But in terms of broader ramifications, beyond those individuals, I don’t think the nation has actually seen that.
And second of all, in our, On Point, in our study of transitions from democracy to authoritarianism. A pattern has come up that the first attempt is the dress rehearsal for the second or third attempt to break down a democracy, which ultimately succeeds in nations that become authoritarian.
RICHARDSON: It certainly could be.
And there are a lot of scholars who say that’s the case. I am quite frankly, less worried about that than I am about the takeover of what I would call the nodes of democracy in especially the States. Gerrymandering and the electoral boards. Now again, you look at where we are now, we have 14 months before the next election.
How that’s gonna play out, I think is unclear. We have a decision today from the Supreme Court throwing Alabama back it’s maps and saying, “No, you really do have to redraw the maps.” There’s a lot of, there’s still a lot of places in play. I don’t think, I’m not saying that we’re done, that everything is gonna be good.
But I’m also not saying everything’s going to be bad. I’m saying we have to choose.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re back with On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And now more of our special conversation with historian Heather Cox Richardson, recorded before a live audience this week at WBUR’s CitySpace. Our entire conversation was infused with Richardson’s sharp historical analysis. But I also wanted to take a few minutes to hear Richardson’s story of herself.
So I asked her whether the name of her wildly popular newsletter, “Letters from an American,” was inspired by another great observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the letters he wrote as he traveled across the country in the 1830s.
RICHARDSON: It comes from Crèvecoeur.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, okay.
RICHARDSON: Letters from an American Farmer, which is that document from, I’m going to go with 1787, but I could easily be making that up at this point.
Now I wonder, somebody should check that. In which people are wondering what on earth a democracy is. They’re playing with these ideas, “But what does that mean? What does it even look like?” So he writes this book called “Letters from an American Farmer” that literally says, “What is this American, this new man?”
And then it was also named for Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America. Because what he did in those fabulous letters was, once a week, he would do a snapshot of the country at that moment. And it could be anything from a tattoo artist to what Truman was doing. And I thought that what I was trying to do was a snapshot for that day, for a historian in 150 years. And I will tell you that my cutoff is midnight, Eastern time. And nothing makes me more unhappy than when news drops at 11:59.
RICHARDSON: When, do you remember when Trump got COVID? And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Because they didn’t announce it until about 11:58, figuring everybody was asleep.
And I’m like, “Dude, that was so not fair.” But then sometimes something happens just after midnight that affects what I’ve already written, and it kills me. But I’m like, “No, I didn’t know that at midnight. So I can’t look at it until tomorrow.” So that’s —
CHAKRABARTI: You’re a really tough critic on yourself because I’ve never read any of your letters as being moot or not relevant to the moment that I read it.
RICHARDSON: So there are a number of people in history who have kept records and they’re really important historical documents. So you want to be sure that when you’re putting something down for a day, it really happened that day.
And so I try not to bleed over on either side and sometimes it just kills me. Because something happened just a couple of weeks ago and a story broke about 3:00. And I was like, “I can’t, I gotta leave it the way it was.”
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Okay. So, actually, we’re going to come back to “Letters from an American” in a second.
I actually want to take a meandering trip around a little bit and ask you about you. What kind of kid were you when you were say like 10 and below?
RICHARDSON: So this is so bad because there are actually people in this audience who know the answer to that.
RICHARDSON: So I was brilliant. I did everything my parents told me to.
I never got in trouble, went to bed on time. So what was I as a kid? I, from the time I was little, I wanted to teach and write. I was a total bookworm. Loved being outside, loved reading books, hated clothes, hated school, I mean buying clothes and all that. Hated school more than anything on earth, still hate school.
Because my thing is, don’t waste my time. If I’m going to be in this room, teach me something. And I think that shows in my writing. It’s like, I’m not going to give you a sentence unless it’s worth reading.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So do you recall a moment or an early moment in your life where you felt how history, say the history you had been reading on your own, coursed through your life, that you actually understood the connection between the nation or even your locale’s history and its impact on you as a young person.
RICHARDSON: There was never a time when it didn’t. We grew up with storytellers in rural Maine. And you could not make sense of the world without understanding the stories that people told about the world. And from the very beginning, it was clear that people did not tell the same stories about the same events, to me.
And that was, that was a real introduction to the intersection of what I love to do, the intersection of myth and reality, image and reality. And one of the things that I learned early on, both growing up on the coast of Maine, but then I was a waitress in Oklahoma, and I was the only person on the floor who was not an evangelical Christian.
And they were all, they all hated Democrats more than anything on Earth and believed, literally one of ’em called me the antichrist ’cause I’d gone to Harvard. And they were cheering on Ronald Reagan, even as he was cutting everything they needed to survive. Because we were living on waitress’s minimum, which is $2.01 an hour at the time.
And I remember cooking one Sunday, they let us use the restaurant when it’s closed, to have food for this family when they were bringing a baby home from the hospital. And they’re all in there talking about how important it is for everyone to make it on their own. And I’m like, “They literally have no food in the house for this family and you’re cheering that on.”
And I thought, “I got to understand the importance of ideas because they are centering their lives around a set of ideas that do not reflect reality. So I would say those two things, mostly.
CHAKRABARTI: And are those the things that led you to your study of history or to fall in love with it?
RICHARDSON: No, what led me to history was that I hated school.
Always hated school. And I took a course on the Civil War, and I had to write a final paper. And I went down to the basement of GovDocs at Harvard, which at the time was underground and cold and nobody was ever there except the phenomenal librarians and John Updike and me. There’s nobody over there, because it’s government documents, right?
And so I went down there, it was before I got to know those people, and then I never got to know John Updike, I just knew who he was. And then I started reading the Chicago Tribune, I was like, “I got to come up with a paper topic.” So, I went down, I don’t eat breakfast, so I went down about 10 o’clock, and started reading the Chicago Tribune. For the Civil War.
And I read through the entire Chicago Tribune, which is only four pages and two of them are advertising, so it’s not as big a deal as it sounds. But I read through them, and it was one of those machines that you crank and you put your head in. And so I read, and I was so into it, I read through lunch, so I hadn’t eaten all day.
And, day by day, I went through the entire Civil War. And I got to the end, it’s probably, GovDocs closed at 11, so it’s probably 9:30 or 10. And I turned the crank and Lee surrendered. And of course, I knew the story, but believe me, no food. Cold, dark, because it’s all dark in there and I’m living it. And Lee surrendered and I’m like, “Oh my God. Lee surrendered.” And then I turned the crank, and the Chicago Tribune was bordered in black, and they had shot Lincoln, and I was just like, “Oh my god, they shot my president.”
And I finished the war, I read through some more. But I realized it had come alive to me in a way that nothing ever had before and I went home and I wrote a letter to my mother and I said, because she was always into history, and I said, “You’re just not going to believe what happened today.”
And when she died, I found she had kept that letter. So that was it.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell us the story of, where were you, what were you doing, what were you thinking, when you decided, “Hey, this thing called Substack,” which at that point, like I had never heard of, hardly anyone had ever heard of.
“I want to use that to write every day to whomever would be willing to read it.”
RICHARDSON: How organized you make me sound. So what happened was I got stung by a bee and I’m sorry, yellow jacket. I didn’t, my poor brother-in-law is here and he was, I was painting, and I asked him to come over because I was on a ladder.
I won’t be on a ladder without someone there. And I got stung by Yellowjacket and he said to me, “Oh my God, Heather. I was moving house. So I’ll get your EpiPen.” And I looked at him, I said, “Oh, Chris, you’re not going to want to hear this.” He goes, “Oh my God, you left your EpiPen at the other house.
I’ll go get it.” And I said, “Ooh, you’re really not going to want to hear this.”
And he goes, “You don’t have an EpiPen. Do you?” And I was like, “I never got it filled this year.” And he goes, “If you don’t die, I’m going to kill you.”
RICHARDSON: So I had to sit and figure out like if I should go back to Boston and see what was going to happen with the sting.
So I wrote a letter on Facebook. I had about 22,000 followers at the time, explaining where I thought the country was in that moment. And then all of a sudden, I was swamped with questions and all of a sudden, my numbers started incredibly going up. And I thought, “I guess I should answer some more questions.”
That was September 15, 2019. I wrote again on September 17, 2019. And I’ve written every night since. And by after three weeks, I think my followers were several hundred thousand and climbing like that every day. And then my people started asking for a newsletter. And I literally said to my graduate students, “What the expletive is a newsletter?”
Because that reminded me of PTO, when I was seven and they looked into it and discovered that my numbers were already too high for any MailChimp or anything else to handle that it was, we were in the hundreds of thousands. And right then Substack was starting, and they called me. And they said, “We are watching what’s happening on your Facebook page.
We think you’re a good fit.” And I will tell you, I was on Substack for almost two years before I started, before I accepted money, because I never wanted to have to accept money for this. And they never once said to me that I was using their resources and they wanted something from me. But they are literally, technologically, they’re the only people who can handle more than, I send out well over a million emails a night.
That’s a lot of emails to send. They do send them in a number of batches, but they’re the only people right now who can handle that.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’re still doing our meandering walk through your life here. (LAUGHS) And to that point, actually now that question has disappeared, but I’m going to ask it anyway, someone from the audience wanted to know that they’d heard you were a Republican.
Is that true? And if so, when and how did you shift?
RICHARDSON: So I love this. My answer to that is, and I am not being flippant, is that I am a historian. So today’s modern politics doesn’t mean, I won’t say it doesn’t mean a lot to me. It doesn’t mean a lot to me personally, because my frame is just so much longer term than the present.
So I don’t identify with a political party in this moment, but I love the fact that I am accused of being both a shill for the Republicans and a shill for the Democrats, which says to me, I’m probably doing something right.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) So about the process that you undergo every single night. How do you do it?
Can you describe a little bit about how you decide what you’re going to focus on in the letter, how you think through that thread that you pull through all the way from what had happened on that day to, I don’t know, a century or two centuries ago? Where do you write? Do you have a beautiful nighttime view of the Maine coastline?
Just, tell me about that.
RICHARDSON: So just so you know, all my friends who are here and one of my children who’s here are killing themselves laughing right now. Because literally, I’m like, in the car in a storage room, at a coffee shop. No. So what I do is every morning I wake up and I reach my phone.
And I read a number of places to see what the stories are, in the morning. What has happened overnight, what people think is important and people send me tips. They are not, I don’t have a staff or anything, but a lot of people know a lot of stuff and they send me information. Then I go about my day and do meetings and all the things that have to be done.
And I continually check into the news and usually there’s a pretty clear story. For example, I’m really proud of this actually, that I had a really strong sense that the administration was about to do something really big on the antitrust front. And so I actually started writing last night’s letter.
Today’s letter last night, because I knew that today, because I know history, was the anniversary of the establishment of the FTC and even if it wasn’t a big deal for the today’s FTC, which I thought it might be, because Biden gave a number of really big speeches starting in July of 2021 about antitrust, and we’ve got Lina Khan at the FTC, so that you felt like there was something going to, that was going to happen there.
I thought it was going to be a cool letter. It was going to be a historical letter and that’s why I wanted to write about Louis Brandeis, which would have been a very nice letter. Thank you very much. But then it was clear the lawsuit against Amazon, that was, that’s a big story. And then, Biden standing in a picket line.
I know that’s never happened before. That’s a big story. But so normally what I do is see what’s out there and really they’re usually only one or two stories. And then you sit there and you say, “If I were teaching a class about this, why would I say that they are important?” And then, and often I can’t do that.
Those are the really hard nights, when there’s a lot of information and it’s really scattered. And then literally I sit there and say, “If it were 150 years from now, what would I want to know?” And that is, that’s literally how I make the choice of how to, what to put where.
I think it’s interesting is when you do that, there are themes and I don’t design those themes, but when I looked back over for something else, I had to read the letters for a period of time. And I’m like, “Darn it, that guy keeps coming back.”
Chris Krebs, the guy who does the election security. When the first time he appeared, did you think he was going to be a recurring character? Cassidy Hutchinson?
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, by the way, I’m just going to shamelessly plug On Point because we did a five part series on monopolies in America last year.
Time has likely lost most of its meaning to me, but I think it’s last year. For the same reasons that you just described, that there are things that keep coming back. And looking at monopoly today. And a lot of that series actually also was like, “Okay, the last great antitrust, the trust-busting era of the United States, what lines can we draw?”
So listen to it. Okay. So here’s another question from the audience. How do we maintain relationships with loved ones, on the quote “wrong side”?
RICHARDSON: I don’t have any great degrees or ideas about psychology. I would say that one of the things that really jumps out to me is how many people actually agree about many things and are artificially divided. Your loved ones are your loved ones. Focus on gardening or whatever you can share.
One of the things that I said to somebody once about this is, it’s rather, when I talk to people who are unable to leave their political prejudices behind, even in personal relationships, it’s somewhat like having a friend who’s in an abusive relationship. And you can see it and they cannot.
And the worst thing you can possibly do is to say, “I really don’t like her. She’s abusive.” What you really want to do is maintain that relationship and model a healthy relationship. And that’s what I do when I look at politics is not say, “Your guy sucks.” But literally say, “I don’t think it’s okay when the police throw somebody in the back of a van and break their backs.” Which is much more common ground, I think.
CHAKRABARTI: And now the final part of our special conversation with historian and hugely popular newsletter writer Heather Cox Richardson. More than a million people read her newsletter, “Letters from an American,” every single day. Now the New York Times has 10 million subscribers, so Richardson’s reader numbers might not seem that large.
But the Times has more than 1,700 journalists. Richardson is just one woman, and her readership continues to grow. So clearly, she’s filling a gap in the kind of journalism people need and want. So we talked about why that gap persists, especially at a time where the preservation of American democracy relies more than ever on access to factual information and lucid analysis.
Dan Froomkin, who’s a media critic, he recently had a post where he had asked journalists that he respects, like, how should the 2024 election be covered? And on the list it said, “Don’t cover the horse race, provide readers with context, examine the implications of policy suggestions or ideas, not just who’s offering the policy suggestion, incorporate history into the stories.”
RICHARDSON: That wasn’t me.
CHAKRABARTI: Focus on the how and the why, not the who. And the list went on. And as I was looking at it, I just thought that is exactly what you do. I don’t think you were thinking of that consciously, “Here are the ways that I need to put all this information and my historical knowledge together.”
And I’m very taken by the fact that you asked yourself, what would I want to read 150 years from now? Why do you think someone like you is doing that work, rather than the majority of the media is not?
RICHARDSON: One of the things that really jumps out to me, and we have very good journalists in this country, a number of very good journalists in this country, and it’s a very hard job.
What I do is really not a hard job, because the news is there for me. I need to make sense of it, but I don’t have to find it. Sometimes I find it, but Americans never shut up, so it, literally, you can Google something you really want to know. And there’s 15 people talking about it in one magazine or another.
The Defense Department is great about just chatting about stuff. But I do think there is an issue with the depth of training. So if you think of the great old journalists. Murrow, for example or Cronkite, you know, their knowledge of other countries, their knowledge was just so freaking deep that when they were live on camera, and somebody would get assassinated.
They would say, “We have seen this coming since 47 years ago when, they tripped coming out of the elevator and knocked that guy into the dessert tray.” And you’re like, “Really?” And we just don’t have that now, simply because people don’t have that extraordinarily broad education.
And also, the time to spend doing nothing but learning about the different pieces of the world. Maybe.
CHAKRABARTI: One of the great joys and challenges in talking with you is we could go in so many different directions, but I will try to stay on topic here. So let me turn back to an audience question.
Is it valuable to soften some of my beliefs to move forward incrementally, or can we keep fighting for radical change when the pendulum swings so harshly?
RICHARDSON: I don’t think it’s fair that you can see the questions and I can’t.
RICHARDSON: So that’s the question, right? The whole thing is, is politics a bus? So you just take the bus that’s going closest to where you want it to go, or do you have to push for change? And I’m going to be a total Libra here and say they’re both important. Because the reality is politics is never what you want it to be.
It is literally a question of getting somebody in power, not just in office, but in power who will move that bus in the right direction. But we need the radicals everywhere to put pressure on those people driving the bus. We need both of those people, and a great example of that, of course, is women’s suffrage.
One of the ways that people like Julia Ward Howe or Lucy Stone could get attention for their desire for the vote was by saying, “If you don’t give it to us here, you’re going to have to deal with those people out there chaining themselves to the fence.”
And I’m mixing a lot of eras here but, Woodrow Wilson’s like, “Okie dokie, I’m not dealing with the guys out there, those people out there chaining themselves to the fence.
I’m happy to deal with you nice ladies with your pearls.” And that was a one-two punch that I think is really true for many of our successes in terms of social movements.
CHAKRABARTI: Getting back to your concern about politics at the state level, gerrymandering, et cetera, is that one-two punch even effective anymore in America now if politicians literally do not have to answer at all to half the electorate?
RICHARDSON: You can extrapolate what I just said to the idea, for example, of the Civil Rights Movement, but you could also say the same thing with any kind of political rights. You need to have the people fighting piece by piece in the courts, for sure. But you also need to have people putting vocal pressure on the courts, on politicians, to make those changes.
One of the things that’s really interesting to me right now is the fact that there was a lot of chatter, which I did not repeat, because of where the chatter was, that Alabama was deliberately not pushing forward its required redistricting maps because they expected that Brent Kavanaugh was going to go ahead and switch his vote and let them get away with the maps that they wanted to get away with without the second Black majority district.
They did the opposite. Why? Why does the Supreme Court today seem to be moderating some of its more extreme impulses? That’s a story that is not done yet. Just the same way that the New Deal courts backed off from their extremism when it looked as if they were going to get packed.
CHAKRABARTI: So maybe they do have a slight sense of shame because confidence in the Supreme Court is cratering.
CHAKRABARTI: Maybe John Roberts really cares about the legacy of the court.
RICHARDSON: And maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t, but there is a movement there, and I do not think it is unreasonable to say that the fury over, let’s call it Justice Thomas, is making perhaps some of the younger justices think, “Maybe we better back off a little bit on some of our stances.”
That and Dobbs.
CHAKRABARTI: Maybe we shouldn’t accept flights and vacations from people who are going to have their lawyers in front of the court.
RICHARDSON: Maybe or maybe, he liked his oatmeal that day. And we don’t know. This is the point of being a historian, right? I’d love to give you all the answers. We don’t know what that’s going to look like.
But it is not unreasonable to think that popular disgust with the current Supreme Court has made it move a little bit away from its extremes.
CHAKRABARTI: I’ve been turning a question over and over in my head and I don’t know how to phrase it. How would you describe how your love for country manifests itself in what you do every day?
RICHARDSON: So my love for this country is based in my belief in the concept of human self-determination as a fundamental goal for humanity. That is, that’s really what drives me. The idea that people should have the right and the ability to make their own decisions about their own lives. It manifests itself in the United States, because I believe that democracy has the potential to be a government that gives the most people that right. And believing that then makes me really interested in the individuals who have advanced that goal and usually who have advanced that goal somewhat inadvertently. And who, again, to speak as a humanist more than as a historian, who have advanced that goal despite their own flaws.
Because at the end of the day, that’s the story of humanity. So I care deeply about American history. I care deeply about how we got to where we are. But I think fundamentally, it’s a question of caring deeply about humans.
And that caring for humans and caring for each other is, I think, the bridge that makes this, what I am now believing is a movement, address the problems that we have in today’s United States society. But that also offers a way forward that is much more just than we have had in our past.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I really appreciate that because as I was walking to work this morning, I was thinking about, I’m 47. So most of my life has been spent under the aegis of the revolution brought in by Ronald Reagan, right? And so when Reagan said, “Government’s the problem.” Or Margaret Thatcher saying, “There’s no such thing as society.” I grew up in a world where the news wouldn’t talk about American citizens confidence as X, but talk about consumer confidence, right?
So growing up in a stew where you define yourself as an American, whether consciously or unconsciously, probably more unconsciously, not as a human who’s supposed to care for your fellow human. Your fellow American, but as a consumer whose self-satisfaction is your primary reason for loving this country.
And I think we’re pulling ourselves out of that. Do you think that is gaining enough momentum that we can start proudly proclaim love of country no matter where you are in the political spectrum?
RICHARDSON: I do. The idea that we have seeded patriotism to a group of radical extremists, because today’s Republicans are not within the American mainstream.
They are not, is appalling to me. To be an American patriot means believing in a country that defends equality before the law, which is something noble. And to recognize that’s what this country has always been at its best. And in that, I am not saying anything that we haven’t done before, quite literally, this is where the populist movement came from. And this current moment, the populist movement came from a place where the people in Washington simply had no idea what’s happening.
There’s this wonderful moment when in the election of 1890, when the alliance movement is rising in the American West and the American South, there’s a bunch of letters that are going back to the president, politicians back in Washington going, “Hey guys, we got a problem. Got a problem back here. Ooh, we got a problem.
We’re not even running a candidate because we’re not going to win.”
And the Republicans who expected to clean up in that election were like, “Yeah, whatever you, who cares?” And in the election of 1890, and when the Republicans thought they were going to win in spades, the Democrats and the Alliance movement took the House of Representatives by a margin of two to one and took control of the Senate.
And there’s this wonderful letter that this lady writes about visiting Benjamin Harrison, the president. And she says, “He just wandered around the yard going,” I’m sorry, the garden going, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t understand what happened. I don’t get what happened. All I know is it wasn’t my fault.”
RICHARDSON: But you know that all happened under the radar screen. New newspapers, new meetings, new political movements, all these things. And literally most of those newspapers don’t even survive. We know that they existed, but South Dakota, which started that movement, all started all the new newspapers.
There are none of those newspapers extant now.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Several years ago, I sat down and read the declaration with my daughter. I still think it’s one of the most magnificent documents ever written. And I was like really getting excited again, reading it because the idea, speaking of humanism, right?
The idea that’s captured in it is worth saving, right? It’s worth fighting for. And I’m wildly patriotic, to be perfectly honest. That came to me through my parents who chose this country. And so it is quite inspiring to hear you say that despite all the very significant challenges to our democracy that are, we’re currently being faced with, that it’s worth fighting for because, but people want to know, like, how do you maintain your optimism about that?
How do you maintain your positivity? How do you maintain the willingness to hold fast?
RICHARDSON: Because I know we’ve done it before. And one of the things that, and because people are nice, people are, you either believe people are good or you believe they’re not. And I believe people are good. Not all of them, but most people are good.
And we haven’t been vocal enough about that for a long time. And people are starting to do that again. And again, we have been in situations like this before, but one of the things that I really like people to understand is that I think there has been a sense that societies are saved by that one brilliant person, and one of the ways we’ve taught Civil Rights history worries me a bit because it’s always these great people who arose and did these great things.
And the truth is that people become heroes because they do the right thing. One day after another and one of my favorite stories is about four women who became known as the angels of the underground in the Philippine movement in World War II.
So the move to save the Philippines in World War II.
And wow, four ladies, they saved the underground in the Philippines, right? This is a really big deal. Literally, one of them becomes the hero of the Philippines because when she goes to get enrolled by the Japanese, not knowing that they’re going to be taking everybody away, they say, “We’re going to just write your names down, you can go home.”
She goes to have her name written down. And she has a panic attack so she can’t stay in the room and everybody’s, “Oh, just stay for 10 more minutes and then you can go home.” She goes, “I can’t, I’m having a panic attack.” She goes home. Of course, everybody else gets rounded up and there she is in her apartment all alone.
She got nothing to do. So she peeks out the window and watches what the Japanese soldiers are doing for weeks. So she knows all their movements and it’s like she did not wake up and say, “I am going to be the hero of the Philippines.” She woke up and said, “God, I’m having a panic attack. I can’t do this very simple thing I need to do.”
And so she went home, and circumstances put her in a place to become one of the angels of the underground. And that’s I think, the story of life. Nobody wakes up and says, “I am going to save humanity today.” They wake up and say, “I’m going to put food on the table and on the way, maybe I’m going to save a child from a speeding train or whatever, but I’m just going to do the right thing again and again.”
And if enough of us do the right thing again and again, we come out with a really good outcome.
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