A Danger to Democracy

In her daily posts, Heather Cox Richardson gives us an historian’s view of daily events. In her March 10 post, she tells us that “at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) the previous weekend, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said that ‘for the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.’” Richardson goes on to tell us how his extreme – and dangerous – words represent the movement’s opposition to equality for all, which is the basis for democracy.

This is not new. As the opening speaker at CPAC in Texas last August, she reminds us, “Hungarian president Victor Orbán called for the establishment of a global right wing to continue to work together to destroy liberal democracy and establish Christian democracy.” During the preceding decade, movement leaders built direct ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin and praised him as a leader in this “global right wing.”

Professor Richardson, is an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West. In her book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, she traces the history of this idea of equality for all at the core of American democracy from the 1600s in Europe through the founding of this nation to today’s conservative movement. Today’s news of the impact of this movement is definitely not new. (The quotes below are from How the South Won the Civil War, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.)

In her telling of the early history of Virginia, what she describes sounds familiar when we compare it to the influence of this new conservative movement:

“The very men who adhered most vigorously to the Enlightenment concept that all men were created equal held slaves. Indeed, their new, radical concept of freedom depended on slavery, for slavery permanently removed the underclass from any hope of influencing government. Virginia leaders had gotten rid of the problem of the poor in society: they had enslaved them. And, of course, they had gotten rid of the problem of women by reading them out of personhood altogether. What was left—ideologically, anyway—was a minority of people running the government, a body politic dedicated to the needs of men of property.”  (p. 53)

Richardson details the history of this nation as the cultural and political influence of the South before the Civil War spread West. She describes the developments of a new conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a good summary of this movement that has taken power in the 21st century:

“Movement Conservatives continued to blame everything on the growing liberal government …  They had a simple solution: the government must get out of the way of individualism. It must slash taxes and regulation, restore traditional values, and build up the military.” (p.229)

For “movement conservatives,” as Richardson refers to them, individualism is sacred. They deny the truth of anything systemic – racism, poverty, patriarchy – because in their view everything is about individual choice and responsibility. This is where we are today. “By 2016, Republican leaders sounded eerily like antebellum slaveholders in their defense of a system in which wealthy elites ruled over the masses.” (p.253)

“Republicans wrapped their actions in a cloak of paternalism, but in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump… revealed the core of their ideology. He played to the fears Republicans had stoked for a generation, declared that he alone could save America from the dangerous forces arrayed against it, and actively cultivated the support of white supremacist groups. … Trump warned supporters that he alone stood between them and a dystopian nightmare.” (p.254)

If you have not read this book, I urge you to do so. You will be able to understand the deep historical roots of this conservative movement which threatens our democracy. Here is her closing summary:

“The conflict between a hierarchical society and one based on equality is rooted deeply in European-American society, and it is a battle America has fought since its founding. When a group of slaveholders embraced the idea that they, and they alone, should control the nation’s political and economic system, thus threatening democracy in the 1860s, Americans fought back and rededicated the country to equality. A quirk of geography and timing meant they failed to make their principles stick. The idea of the American paradox moved west, where its adherents over time reasserted control over American culture. From Reconstruction through World War II, Americans recreated a hierarchical society. The fight against fascism—the modern form of hierarchical society—once again challenged that paradox. The ensuing drive for universal equality, though, enabled oligarchs to mobilize their corollary to the American paradox, gaining power by convincing voters that equality for people of color and women destroyed liberty. Now, for the second time, we are called to defend the principle of democracy.” (p.260)