Professor Heather Cox Richardson speaks about the state of democracy from a historical perspective 

and | Managing News Editor and Staff Writer

Professor Heather Cox Richardson spoke about the state of American politics, using historical context, before a crowd in Graham Chapel on Dec. 4. (Alan Zhou | Student Life)

Professor, author, and historian Heather Cox Richardson delivered remarks and answered audience questions about the future of democracy in Graham Chapel, during an event held by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics on Dec. 4. 

Richardson has written multiple books about the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, including the bestselling book “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America,” this past September. She is widely known for the podcast “Now & Then” that she hosts and her daily Substack newsletter about American politics.

Graham Chapel boasted nearly 800 people Monday night, including professors, postdoctoral students, and undergraduates. However, the vast majority of attendees were St. Louis community members and readers of  Richardson’s newsletter. 

Richardson does not see herself as a journalist — despite how her work is interpreted by some people — but rather a historian maintaining a record of the political happenings in America. 

She clarified that journalists “tell you what happened,” whereas historians study “how societies change.” Richardson tends to avoid writing articles that make predictive arguments — instead, she is interested in current events that are having an impact on the world and moving society “forward or backward.” 

This means that she does not always focus on writing about whatever the headline news is on other media outlets. For example, Richardson wrote about Joe Biden and United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain praising each other instead of writing about the Republican primary debate. 

“When I write, and the reason that I write every night, is because it is a record of this crucially important time in United States history,” Richardson said. “I’m a historian, and I became aware, after a while, that this record will be incredibly important for a graduate student in 150 years.”

Richardson hopes to leave “breadcrumbs” for future students so that when they do look back at this time, there will be a written record of the events that took place. 

Richardson discussed the role of religion in today’s political climate — a role that, to her, is defined by power. 

“The politics in the United States, which is all I can speak to, is about power,” Richardson said.

She views religion as one of the many divisive vehicles politicians use to craft narratives and garner more power. 

At the same time, Richardson said that religion can also be a tool for bringing people together. For instance, she cited Fain’s use of Christianity to talk about inclusion rather than to build up his own political influence. This leads to larger questions about the nature of religion in politics.

“Is there any role for religion in American politics?” Richardson said. “My answer is that your politics should be informed by your faith because you are bringing to human society your beliefs about the way the universe works, and that’s crucially important.”

One of Richardson’s specific research interests is the Reconstruction era and the history of the Republican Party.  

“I’ve written a book on the Republican Party, and I would venture that there is nobody in this country who knows that party better than I do, and I say that with a broken heart,” Richardson said. “The party is dead.”

She views the current Republican Party as one that is not made up of conservatives but “radical extremists.” Richardson thinks that while the modern-day version of the Republican party may still be active, it should no longer be viewed as a legitimate political party.

According to her, the party has changed the issues it focuses on as well as what it believes in. 

“[Republicans changed their desire from] laissez-faire economics with market forces and small government to one that’s calling for a very large government that affects every aspect of our lives, including getting away from market forces,” Richardson said. 

Despite the recent changes in the beliefs of the Republican Party, Richardson still thinks that the idea upon which it is founded will remain relevant in the American political landscape. 

“That [old Republican] idea of how society should work is so deeply ingrained in the American DNA that even if it’s not a Republican Party that embraces that again, somebody is going to bring [those ideas] back to the American polity in some form,”  she said.

Towards the end of the event, Richardson drew a line of comparison between the state of democracy now and its state in the years leading up to the Civil War, emphasizing the notion that no one person changed the country. 

“Lincoln was a brilliant man, but he didn’t do it by himself,” Richardson said. 

“He did it by [having] people who looked at each other in 1854 and 1855 and 1856 and 1857 and said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you about a lot of stuff, don’t even necessarily like you very much, and after all this is over we’re going to fight about things all over again, but in this moment, we know we need to protect our legacy — we need to protect American democracy.’ And they did it.”

She noted that in less than a decade, America went from a country headed towards oligarchy to re-committing to its founding ideal that everyone should have an equal say in the government. 

“So when I look out in this moment, a crisis moment at least as powerful as that one, I think they did it when only white property men could vote,” Richardson said. “And if they could do it then, we could do it today.”

St. Louis community member Jen Saleh said that reading Richardson’s work is worthwhile because of her ability to weave history together with the present. 

“[I] appreciate everything she puts into it. She takes the work out of it for us,” Saleh said. “I feel like, with her, you can trust everything she says because she backs it up with history.”

Senior Ben Wertheim, a history major, expanded on this idea and how it can lead to stronger opinions and better commentary. 

“The more you can say ‘This is what the issue is rooted in, and in the 19th century, X,Y, and Z happened, and here’s how it relates,’ the more complete a picture you’ll get, and therefore, you’ll get a more informed opinion,” Wertheim said.

Another senior, Audrey Church noted that there are “barriers to entry” to engaging in discussion about a complex political topic — barriers that can only be overcome through education. 

One thing that stuck out to her from Richardson’s discussion was how she made everything “palatable to those who don’t have PhDs, but then also relatable, and yet still very intellectual and intuitive.”

First-year Zach Nowacek is planning on studying history and saw the talk as a source of optimism for the future. 

“The reason to have that optimism is that it can be anyone who really tries to incite and promote positive change,” Nowacek said.

Richardson recognizes that there is currently immense turmoil, both in the United States and across the globe. She also sees this moment as one where people can take action. 

“I am incredibly excited to see what the next generation will do. So for all the people who are concerned about this moment, with very good reason, it is also a time of extraordinary creativity and potentially joy, and that’s the part I find exciting,” she said.


Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.