I remember seeing a sign outside a VFW post on Fireweed Lane in Anchorage which read: Freedom is not free. It was the first time I’d encountered that phrase and for years I thought it meant that only soldiers paid in blood and sacrifice for our freedom.
No. American citizens have been holding America’s feet to the fire to realize the promise the Founders made in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are created equal, have paid even more. Black Americans, Indigenous Americans, women Americans, immigrant Americans and Americans of every ethnicity and gender and iteration other than white male Americans have been waging a 247-year war for their fair share of the pie. We are still fighting it, from the streets to the factories to the hospitals to the lettuce fields. The bad news is we’re going to have to keep fighting, because freedom isn’t free, and because the siren song of authoritarianism is very appealing to those too lazy to seek out reliable news sources.
In Democracy Awakening, Heather Cox Richardson places her narrative of how we got here squarely in the bullseye of history. The fact is we’ve always been here.
This book is told in three parts. The first, “American Conservatism,” is an unswerving, inexorable, and irrefutable timeline of exactly and precisely how we got from the Founders writing a constitution that benefited only themselves, to the Civil War and the unreconstructed, reactionary Southern Democrats determined to flout the 14th and 15th Amendments, to the 1930s and FDR’s New Deal
From the first, FDR’s New Deal included–imperfectly, but included–Black Americans and women.
[Editorial comment: The horror.]
to JFK and LBJ and Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” to the Reagan Revolution, to where we are right now, with an authoritarian ex-president still lying his pants off about having lost reelection and those millions (!) of Americans only too willing to believe him without being shown a shred of proof.
[Editorial comment: All this in 79 pages. Sheesh.]
Part the Second is “The Authoritarian Experiment,” an account of Trump as candidate and as president.
[Editorial comment: However bad you thought it was at the time, it was worse.]
The third part, “Reclaiming America,” is a meticulous account of all the times we almost got here before, and a cold, clear, concise look at what could happen while we’re not paying attention. Richardson does not believe this is a foregone conclusion, however.
…the expansion of the idea of liberal democracy grew in the Democratic Party from a backlash against the determination of former Confederates to reduce their Black neighbors to a state as close to enslavement as they could…While much of the white South was looking backward, the rest of the country was full of new voices speaking unfamiliar dialects and languages, and new music, like ragtime and cowboy songs.
Richardson writes in her foreward
So long as we didn’t see tanks in our streets, we imagined that democracy was secure…Democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint…The key to the rise of authoritarians…is their use of language and false history…Having begun to treat their perceived enemies badly, they need to believe their victims deserve it…
But, she also says
People in the U.S. had never lost sight of the promise of democracy because marginalized people had kept it in the forefront of the national experience.
See “fighting for it” above. I saw an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of Hamilton, in which he said, referring to the action contained in his entire second act, “We’re still fighting the same fights.”
We sure are, and the good news is we’re winning, if only just barely and by the skin of our teeth. Richardson concludes
So far, the hopes of our Founders have never been proven fully right. And yet they have not been proven entirely wrong. Once again, we are at a time of testing. How it comes out rests, as it always has, in our own hands.
Freedom is not free.
I don’t know how Richardson managed to pack this comprehensive a survey course on American conservatism and its centuries-old fight to destroy the liberal consensus into 257 pages. But she did, and you should read it. So should your kids.
Editor’s note: I am now reading Philip Bump’s Aftermath, which I find an excellent companion read to this book.
[Editor’s query: Did they both have the same cover artist?]
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.