Book Review: “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America”

Your neighbor isn’t talking to you anymore.

She stopped waving “Good morning” months ago, as did the guy who walks his dog down your street every day, and it happened right after your brother-in-law called you names and stormed out of your house. You blame yourself for it. You blame politics even more, so read the new book “Democracy Awakening” by Heather Cox Richardson and blame history, too.

So many times in the last seven years, you’ve asked yourself how we got here, politically. We never set out to divide, but here we are. Will America ever get back to where we were?

To get an answer, you first must know that there’s a pattern to the politics we’ve seen lately, and it starts when a small number of people use language to convince “a disaffected population” that they were ignored in the past but that they can be “important again.”

“Once people internalize their leader’s propaganda,” Richardson says, “it doesn’t matter when pieces of it are proven to be lies, because it has become central to their identity.”

Some have traced this back to Nazism but Richardson takes her explanation back much further, to the Lincoln presidency, when northerners refused to respect the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That was when the word “conservative” had a new meaning, but not exactly like the one we know now. Conservatism in the mid-1800s meant embracing equality, which butted up later against New Deal ideas in FDR’s presidency.

Things changed — and so had the meaning of conservative – when Black soldiers, returning from World War II, demanded real equality. By the time President Johnson had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he astutely knew that this movement toward national equality would make room for a “certain kind of politician” to exploit the process’ events and step into a position of power.

And on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump descended a golden escalator and announced his campaign for president …

The holidays are coming soon, and they get harder and harder to endure. You’ve tried to ban politics from your mealtimes, but it’s getting impossible and maybe gaining an understanding will help. “Democracy Awakening” will open your eyes.

Exasperation might make you think there’s no way out of this big mess, but author Heather Cox Richardson shows readers how we’ve seen this political situation before, and when. Frustration might make you feel pessimistic, but Richardson reveals an abundance of hope here, which is thought-provoking and surprisingly contagious. Anger could make you want to throw in the towel and scowl, but Richardson’s words are calming, and she’s unruffled in her explanations and her timeline in history.

Reading this book is like installing a fresh light bulb in a dark closet. Suddenly, you can see everything that’s there and, thankfully, it still fits just right.

This book seems to lean slightly to the left, but that should not keep today’s conservatives away from it. “Democracy Awakening” offers understanding and a way forward. It offers a reason to start talking.

— The Bookworm Sez