Democracy Awakening Book Summary - Democracy Awakening Book explained in key points
Listen to the Intro

Democracy Awakening summary

Heather Cox Richardson

Notes on the State of America

3.5 (68 ratings)
16 mins
Table of Contents

    Democracy Awakening
    Summary of 3 key ideas

    Audio & text in the Blinkist app
    Key idea 1 of 3

    A growing threat in America

    “Conservative” and “liberal.” You’ve no doubt heard these two words a lot over the years. The fight over American values, including democracy, is usually boiled down to being a fight over conservative ideals and liberal ideals. But these terms get used so often that it’s easy to forget where they come from.

    The origins of American conservatism date back to the 1930s, when a coalition between Republicans and certain factions of the Democratic Party formed in opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This unlikely alliance included southern Democrats, disapproving of the New Deal's lack of overt segregationist programs, and westerners who opposed federal intervention in land and water protection.

    The term “conservative” was used strategically to convey opposition to the ways in which the New Deal supposedly represented government overreach – or the ways in which the federal laws violated traditional American values of states’ rights. It wasn't an accurate representation of true conservatism but rather, a convenient word for a political position.

    It’s also important to note that, in the years surrounding World War I, democracy wasn’t the favorite ideology for every US politician. Among other popular ideas was fascism, which was being presented by the Italian leader Benito Mussolini as a viable alternative to socialism. Fascism is a hierarchical system that rejects the equality that is inherent in democracy. Fascists believe that some people are inherently better than others, so the control of the nation should be placed in the hands of a select few.

    Fascist ideology gained traction in the early twentieth century, influencing leaders like Adolf Hitler in Germany. The idea of a hierarchical social system also gained popularity among US politicians, including those in the Democratic coalition that held sway in the American South.

    But fascism lost its popularity after the bombing of Pearl Harbor pushed the US into World War II. In the years following the war, what’s known as the “liberal consensus” had a firm hold on America. As nonwhite soldiers returned home from fighting abroad and ostensibly defending US democracy, it became more difficult for the country to maintain its segregationist policies. So during Harry Truman's time in office, there was the development of the President's Committee on Civil Rights and new legislation meant to promote equal rights, including Black voting rights.

    This kind of legislation, as well as Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, represents the liberal consensus and its progress toward civil rights equality. With both Democrat and Republican presidents, it defined much of the 1950s and 1960s. But these dramatic changes, coming from the federal government, were seen as more overreaching attacks on conservative values. Opponents to the liberal consensus, such as Alabama governor George Wallace, were campaigning to revive an American history that was based upon a racial hierarchy.

    With the help of writers and political theorists like William F. Buckley Jr., in the 1950s, the opposition to the liberal consensus solidified into Movement Conservatism. In the early 1960s, they associated Black rights with communism. And, during the rise of Richard Nixon to the seat of the US presidency, a shift in the political parties occurred. Using what is known as the “Southern strategy” Nixon, a Republican, sought support from disaffected Democrats by promising to halt federal intervention in desegregation. This strategy signaled a reversal of the parties' positions on race issues and set the stage for a new, more challenging period for American democracy.

    An authoritarian streak began to emerge during the Nixon era. His campaign strategically polarized voters. He portrayed Democrats as “detractors of America” and appealed to the false history of America that goes all the way back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. But what is, perhaps, best remembered is the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s undemocratic efforts at interfering with the election process.

    Still, the period between the 1940s and the 1970s is known as “the great compression,” so called because income levels across the board came closer together to create a thriving middle class. It began with Roosevelt’s New Deal and ended when an economic shift took place in the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. What followed is known as “the great divergence” as income levels began to trend away from one another, with a small percentage getting richer and other groups trailing downward, out of the middle class.

    Reagan's rise also marked a shift in political rhetoric, blending Nixon's divisive strategy with a softer, more relatable image. Still, in the 1980s and ’90s, the general public had a resistance to the ideology of the Movement Conservatives. For this reason, those Conservatives went to work at weakening the mechanisms of democracy. New voter suppression legislation was passed and the Supreme Court gained more judges who upheld the false narrative of America being founded on the principles of states’ rights and maintaining racial hierarchies. All of these efforts paid off when the Supreme Court intervened to decide the winner of the 2000 election.

    Things got even more divisive following the emergence of the Tea Party, following the Democrats’ success in winning the presidency with Barack Obama in 2009. The Tea Party was an opposition group focused on turning back the clock to a mythological time based on their interpretations of the Founding Fathers’ principles.

    The gerrymandering efforts of the Republican party culminated in Operation REDMAP, which stands for Redistricting Majority Project. It was an effort to redraw district maps in a way that would ensure their control of legislature in key states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This project worked at taking power away from voters in the congressional elections and tipping the scales in their favor. The Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, employed a policy of obstructionism, vowing to try and block every one of President Obama’s policies – even refusing to consider Obama’s choice to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court. All of which adds up to a severe erosion of faith in the democratic process.

    In the next section, we’ll see where this erosion of faith turned into something like an overt experiment in authoritarianism.

    Want to see all full key ideas from Democracy Awakening?

    Key ideas in Democracy Awakening

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    What is Democracy Awakening about?

    Democracy Awakening (2023) looks back at the unique relationship America has had with the concept of democracy over the years. It puts modern events into the larger context of the nation’s ongoing struggle for voting rights, equality, and the looming threat of authoritarian politics.

    Democracy Awakening Review

    Democracy Awakening (2021) by Heather Cox Richardson is an insightful exploration of American democracy and its challenges. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With meticulous research and historical context, it sheds light on the evolution of democracy in the United States, offering a comprehensive understanding of its current state.
    • By examining pivotal moments in American history, Richardson provides compelling insights into the ongoing struggle to uphold democratic values, highlighting both successes and setbacks.
    • The book's balanced approach ensures that readers from various political perspectives will find value in its analysis, fostering meaningful dialogue and reflection on the future of democracy.

    Who should read Democracy Awakening?

    • History buffs
    • Political junkies
    • Anyone interested in current events

    About the Author

    Heather Cox Richardson is a prominent American historian and author known for her expertise in nineteenth-century American history. Currently serving as a professor of history at Boston College, she’s gained widespread recognition for making historical narratives relevant and accessible to contemporary audiences. She’s also acclaimed for her public engagement, including her popular newsletter, “Letters from an American,” where she provides insightful analyses of current events through a historical lens.

    Categories with Democracy Awakening

    Book summaries like Democracy Awakening

    People ❤️ Blinkist 
    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    People also liked these summaries

    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    31 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    10+ years
    Experience igniting personal growth
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 7,000+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial

    Democracy Awakening FAQs 

    What is the main message of Democracy Awakening?

    The main message of Democracy Awakening is the importance of citizen engagement and activism in preserving democracy.

    How long does it take to read Democracy Awakening?

    The reading time for Democracy Awakening varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Democracy Awakening a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Democracy Awakening is worth reading as it sheds light on the current challenges faced by democracy and offers insights on citizen empowerment.

    Who is the author of Democracy Awakening?

    Heather Cox Richardson is the author of Democracy Awakening.

    What to read after Democracy Awakening?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Democracy Awakening, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Tired of Winning by Jonathan Karl
    • Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
    • Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv
    • The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara
    • Ours Was the Shining Future by David Leonhardt
    • Eve by Cat Bohannon
    • The Order of Things by Michel Foucault
    • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
    • American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J Sherwin
    • Filterworld by Kyle Chayka