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By Robert S. McElvaine
We are currently experiencing in another context a powerful example of what the enemies of democracy in the United States are doing with their spread of disinformation. Following the tragic explosion at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, the story spread around the planet at the speed of light that Israel had intentionally targeted a hospital and murdered a large number of civilians. It now seems almost certain that the truth was that a misfired missile by Islamic Jihad in Gaza was the cause of the tragic loss of life, but millions of people had already accepted the disinformation and they continue to believe and act on it.
That is very much what happens with the lies that the MAGA cult spreads, leading millions of Americans to believe all sorts of nonsense and endangering our democracy.
During these trying times in which one of our major political parties has abandoned the basic principles on which the United States was founded and seceded from the world of fact, on an almost daily basis—how she manages to do it all is one of the great mysteries of the universe—Heather Cox Richardson brings hope and truth to vast numbers of us through her Substack, Letters from an American.
I bought and read Professor Richardson's new book, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America as soon as it became available and quickly concluded that if every American would read it, the peril in which American democracy currently is would be over. The book has reached the New York Times Best Seller List. It should be at the top of that list and remain there for an extended period.
As she does in her daily letters, Richardson utilizes her deep knowledge of American history to put the present in perspective.
From the foreword to the conclusion, it is brilliant and persuasive. Here, from the end of the Foreword:
This is a book about how a small group of people have tried to make us believe that our fundamental principles aren’t true. They have made war on American democracy by using language that served their interests, then led us toward authoritarianism by creating a disaffected population and promising to re-create an imagined past where those people could feel important again. As they took control, they falsely claimed they were following the nation's true and natural laws.
This book is also the story of how democracy has persisted throughout our history despite the many attempts to undermine it. It is the story of the American people, especially those whom the powerful have tried to marginalize, who first backed the idea of equality and a government that defended it, and then, throughout history, have fought to expand that definition to create a government that can, once and for all, finally make it real.
Among the numerous important points Richardson makes in the book is that what once was the Party of Lincoln has been moving for decades toward adopting the positions of those who opposed Lincoln and the then-young Republican Party in the 1850s and 1860s and went to war against the United States. “Increasingly, Republican politicians seemed to be operating on the old hierarchical idea that some people were better than others and should direct the economy, society, and politics.”
The Republicans have become Anti-Republicans; they have adopted the views on which the Confederacy was built. And they have abandoned what in 2004 a senior advisor to President George W. Bush called, with disdain, “the reality-based community.” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway would make a similar comment on the third day of his “presidency” when she said Press Secretary Sean Spicer was using “alternative facts” when he insisted that Trump’s inauguration crowd, which anyone looking at the comparative crowd photos could see was a small fraction of that at Barack Obama’s eight years before, was the largest in history.
The Bush43 senior advisor in 2004 went on to tell journalist Ron Suskind,
“We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating our new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
That repulsive description is where the authoritarian MAGA movement is today, and the mainstream media are still falling into acting the way the anti-democracy forces want them to act.
Richardson repeatedly makes the case that, in the face of violent repression, it was “people who were legally excluded from equality [who] kept the idea of democracy alive for everyone. They also suggested a way forward.”
Speaking in the Conclusion of the last time we faced such a crisis, in the 1850s and 1860s, Richardson notes:
But he [Lincoln] had hope because, after decades in which they had not noticed what the powerful were doing to destroy democracy, Americans had woken up. They realized that the very nature of America was under attack. ... Once awake, they found the strength of their majority. ...
Once again, we are at a time of testing.
How it comes out rests, as it always has, in our own hands.
Democracy Awakening is an important tool for us to use in awakening our fellow citizens to the truth and to the existential danger the American Experiment is again facing in the 2020s. We can again find the strength of our majority.