Verbatim quotes from interviews with Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College pointing up parallels between the 1850s and the crisis of American democracy today … also the parallel between Christian nationalism and “illiberal/Christian democracy” in Hungary today
Mass Humanities (interview)
“What Was at Stake in Our History,” interview with Michelle Wilson, Mass Humanities, Aug. 24, 2021 https://masshumanities.org/what-was-at-stake-in-our-history-an-interview-with-heather-cox-richardson/.
[Mass Humanities is the state affiliate of NEH since 1974/]
“Letters from an American” is a pathway for many people to reengage with US Politics. Can you talk a little bit about the interconnection between the humanities and civic engagement?
People who are not active in politics often miss that government is simply us. Politics is how human beings decide to construct communities, and governments are the rules we use to order those communities. In order to set up those communities well, we have to understand who we are, and how we behave. Those things are the province of the humanities.
You have written several books on history and politics during your career. In your work In How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, you suggest that America was founded on contradictory ideals. In the past year, racial injustice has been at the forefront of the national conversation. Do you feel that we are any closer, as a nation, to achieving the promise of equality?
My concern right now is that our democracy is under attack and that Americans are not adequately grappling with that threat. If enough of us recognize our danger and reestablish democracy, yes, we will be able to move close to achieving the promise of equality. But if we lose our democracy, the subsequent establishment of a modern national government based in racial and gender hierarchies will make the Jim Crow South look quaint. And so I worry.
It has been a turbulent year, both politically and socially. How do you think the Humanities can help us navigate these times of uncertainty?
Humanities both explore how humans have survived trouble in the past and create empathy for those people in those who have never experienced such crises. It has jumped out to me how much creativity there has been since the pandemic erupted, and how people turned to the arts for inspiration, community, and solace in those times. It gives me hope that the atomization of the past forty years, along with its celebration of individualism, might be easing.
Christian Century (review)
Lavone Neff, “How Heather Cox Richardson looks to the past for hope,” Christian Century, Aug. 18, 2020 https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/how-heather-cox-richardson-looks-past-hope.
[lede:] Police brutality, rigged elections, corrupt politicians, economic uncertainty, soaring inequality, racial injustice, democracy itself under threat—has America ever seen a year like 2020?
Well, yes, says Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College. Many of today’s horrors have been present, either openly or as unacknowledged undercurrents, since before the founding of the United States. Twice, in fact, American democracy has been seriously jeopardized by a minority of wealthy white men. The first time began in the 1850s and culminated in the Civil War. The second time is now.
Richardson describes herself as “a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics.” The author of five previous books, she has become wildly popular since last year, when she began writing “Letters from an American,” a daily reflection setting the day’s news in historical context. Her Facebook page has more than half a million followers, with several thousand more added every day. When COVID-19 made bookstore signings impossible, she began promoting her newest book through twice-weekly lectures live-streamed on Facebook. These hour-long sessions average more than 100,000 views each.
Bill Moyers (interview)
“Bill Moyers and Heather Cox Richardson on Her Daily Letters,” interview, Moyers on Democracy, BillMoyers.com, July 29, 2020 https://billmoyers.com/story/bill-moyers-and-heather-cox-richards-on-her-daily-letters/ .
BILL MOYERS: You were the first commentator, analyst, essayist I read, who saw that the impeachment hearings were a battle between oligarchy and democracy. How did you come to that insight?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It’s something that’s been building I think in the Republican Party for a long time, after it got taken over by movement conservatism in the 1980s and then really got pushed into that with Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. But what I really saw in the present moment were parallels to the 1850s when in fact, you had the big Southern planters taking over American democracy. And doing it with the manipulation of the electorate, but also through the manipulation of narrative. And what was really striking to me about the impeachment hearings is a couple of things. First of all, they didn’t play out all that differently than anybody expected. Although I think a lot of us had hopes the Senate might at least hear witnesses. But what really hit me one day as I was listening to them was that, it became very clear that John Ratcliffe and Jim Jordan especially, but others as well—
BILL MOYERS: Members of the House.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. Were not trying to learn any truth. They were absolutely not trying to do anything other than create a narrative to be edited. They were looking for sound bites to edit into their own story. And that, the realization, I still remember I was driving my car and listening to it. And all of a sudden, I thought, they’re not even trying to participate in this system. You can sort of assume that politicians will skew things in their direction. That’s fine. That’s the way the system works. But you could tell they didn’t care. They didn’t care what the truth was. They didn’t care about getting to what had happened. All they cared about was getting sound bites so that they could cut them into a video that they could convince people of something that wasn’t true. And I found that the most chilling moment of this entire episode of the last four years. The realization that elected representatives weren’t even trying to spin things. They were simply trying to write their own reality. And that’s not to say I was naive. I certainly knew that the Republicans had been creating their own narrative for a very long time. But the deliberate rejection of reality in favor of constructing a false narrative was, I just remember listening to Jim Jordan’s voice and thinking, “Wow, wow.” You know what he sounds like? He sounds like a director, like when you’re on a set, and they basically give you the sentence. And I thought, I’m listening to him direct a documentary as he is doing this.
HCR, Letters from an American
Letters From an American, Aug. 2, 2021 https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-2-2021
Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture, stop the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture, and reject “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
No matter what he calls it, Orbán’s model is not democracy at all. As soon as he retook office in 2010, he began to establish control over the media, cracking down on those critical of his party, Fidesz, and rewarding those who toed the party line. In 2012, his supporters rewrote the country’s constitution to strengthen his hand, and extreme gerrymandering gave his party more power while changes to election rules benefited his campaigns. Increasingly, he used the power of the state to concentrate wealth among his cronies, and he reworked the country’s judicial system and civil service system to stack it with his loyalists. While Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orbán’s opponents to take power.
Trump supporters have long admired Orbán’s nationalism and centering of Christianity, while the fact that Hungary continues to have elections enables them to pretend that the country remains a democracy.
Currently, political patterns in America look much like those Orbán used to gather power into his own hands. Republican-dominated legislatures are passing new measures to suppress the vote, aided by the Big Lie that former president Trump did not lose the 2020 election. Trump and his supporters are focusing on the so-called “forensic audit” of Maricopa County in Arizona, paid for and conducted by Trump loyalists who insist that Trump actually won despite the repeated investigations that have proved the election was clean.
[Tucker] Carlson has shown support for Hungary in the past. Notably, in 2019, he endorsed that country’s anti-abortion and anti-immigration policies; in that year, according to investigative researcher Anna Massoglia of Open Secrets, Hungary paid a D.C. lobbying firm $265,000, in part to arrange an interview on Carlson’s show.
But for him to visit Orbán and to broadcast from Hungary right now, when American democracy is under the very sort of threat Orbán represents, seemed to me to be a deliberate demonstration of the Trump Republicans’ plans for our future.