By Blake Maddux
“Politics is driven by language, and America’s peculiar history has given oligarchs the language to undercut democracy.”
I had not heard of Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson before I read her 2014 book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party and subsequently interviewed her about it for The Arts Fuse.
The high profile that she has maintained in the intervening six years has solidified her presence on my radar. Richardson has been the co-creator and co-host of the podcast “Freak Out and Carry On,” a contributing columnist for Salon, The Guardian, and We’re History, a prolific tweeter, and author of the diurnal rumination “Letters from an American.”
In 2016, the Maine native had what she called the “dubious honor” of being included on Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, which aims “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
This may have caused her to temporarily freak out, but she has indeed carried on. Oxford University Press published Richardson’s sixth book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, in April.
Richardson writes in the conclusion, “America was born in idealism and the profound principle that all human beings had a right to self-determination. It grew up, though, in an environment that limited that right to white men of property.” In the slightly more than 200 pages that lead up to this statement, she traces the origins of this “paradox” back to the 17th-century and follows its consequences all the way up through the most recent full year of the Trump administration. The crux of her argument, as I understand it, is that the South’s race-based oligarchy took on a different form — but generated similar consequences — west of the Mississippi River as white Americans proceeded thither after the Civil War.
Harvard Book Store will be hosting a virtual event with Professor Richardson on Wednesday. She kindly answered the following questions from me via email in advance of it.
The Arts Fuse: How the South Won the Civil War sews together elements of several of your previous books: the Civil War era, Reconstruction, the American West, and the Republican Party. What new information and insights will longtime readers of your work take from it?
Heather Cox Richardson: This is a good catch. My books all build on each other, not consciously but because they reflect the changing of my own understanding of American history. There are three main points in the book, each of interest to a different audience. For people who don’t read much history, there is the big argument about the “American Paradox,” the idea that our history has been shaped by the fact that in America, equality for some has always depended on inequality for others. For 19th-century historians, there is the argument that the West needs to be understood as a political bloc. We have studied it as a cultural region, a colonial project, an environmental entity, and an idea. But How the South Won says we must grapple with it as a distinct political bloc that affected the nation, and that intended to change the national power structure.
The biggest argument, though, and the one into which I poured my best intellectual energy, was the argument at the center of the book: that politics is driven by language, and America’s peculiar history has given oligarchs the language to undercut democracy. That sounds so simple, written down here, but behind it is literally years of work on theories of language and politics to figure out the relationship between voters, popular culture, economics, and political leaders. I tried to make it sound like I just sort of rolled out of bed and had some cool ideas about American history and politics, but this is my most advanced theoretical book, by far.
AF: Could you have combined two clichés and titled the book How the South Rose Again and Won the West?
HCR: I have to laugh at this. My working title was How the South Won the Civil War: The Significance of the West in American History. That’s a slightly different play on clichés, but does the same thing you suggest: takes on both conventional wisdom about the Civil War and Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis (which was entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”) I got talked out of it because better editors than I said it was such inside baseball that even most historians wouldn’t get the reference.
AF: You have described your scholarship as examining “the contrast between image and reality in America.” What are some examples of how this book does that?
HCR: I have always been fascinated by the difference between the stories we tell and reality. Even as I kid I was really into books like Robert Heinlein’s Double Star or Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, books that explore the lines between fiction and identity. My work takes that study to a societal scale: what stories do people tell that do not mesh with what’s really happening, and how do politicians take advantage of that difference?
So that’s all through this book, from early Southern enslavers describing themselves as chivalrous gentlemen through the wealthy young socialite Barry Goldwater being pictured as a hardscrabble cowboy. What really jumped out to me, though, was that a PAC associated with Newt Gingrich actually distributed language for newly elected GOP politicians to use to slant popular opinion, using negative words like “traitor” and “pathetic” for Democrats and positive words like “prosperity” and “strong” for Republicans. I knew the Movement Conservatives were shaping a narrative, but I was not aware of just how deliberate that shaping was.
AF: On matters such as race, the Republican Party originally (and for a long time) held values associated with the modern-day Democratic Party. At what point was the transformation of the parties’ priorities more or less complete, with Democrats having become the party of civil rights, activist government, etc.?
HCR: The transformation began with the candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, when he ran on the GOP ticket. Goldwater was part of the reactionary, Movement Conservative faction that thought Eisenhower Republicanism (which was enormously popular, by the way) was akin to communism. Goldwater hated the idea of government regulation of business, as well as the tax dollars necessary for social welfare programs. But, like other Movement Conservatives, he sold his attack on the nation’s popular activist government by warning that it meant programs for black people, paid for with white tax dollars. His insistence that the government had no role to play in guaranteeing equality before the law or civil rights was enormously popular in the Deep South, and he picked up five states there in his doomed presidential bid. Crucially, Strom Thurmond, the leader of the segregationist Dixiecrats, switched sides and publicly endorsed him.
In 1968, when Richard Nixon had to cobble together a winning coalition, he actively courted Thurmond, and assured him that he would stop trying to use federal power to enforce desegregation. He made a gamble that it was worth abandoning the black vote in favor of white reactionaries in the South. That was the switch that was later known as the “Southern Strategy.” Reagan, of course, followed suit.
AF: You just mentioned a recurring theme in the book: wealthy white males have always viewed government attempts to ameliorate the position of minorities and women as handing over their tax dollars to people who refuse to work and want special treatment. Did it ever occur (or matter) to them that they have the money that they did because of enslaved people, underpaid laborers, and the lack of competition from women who were discouraged or forbidden from being educated or seeking the training necessary for skilled trades?
HCR: Hmmm… It strikes me that the only people I have seen who discussed this, curiously, were slaveholding South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond and, later, industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Hammond noted in his 1858 Mudsill Speech that the “mudsills” at the bottom were the ones who produced the crops that created value, but he went on to argue that they should not be allowed to keep the value they produced because they would waste it, whereas if the rich accumulated it, they could spend it to hasten progress and civilization. Carnegie says something not unlike this, arguing that the wealthy were “stewards” of the nation’s wealth, and would use it better than those who actually produced it.
For the most part, though, it seems that those at the top of the system believe that it is their intelligence and good planning that creates the wealth, for their workers couldn’t produce if they weren’t directing that production.
AF: Have reviews or comments from readers bore out Publishers Weekly’s prediction that, “Conservatives will cry foul, but liberal readers will be persuaded by this lucid jeremiad”?
HCR: I’ve been a little shocked at how good the reviews for this book have been. Perhaps those who would hate it simply aren’t reading it. Or perhaps our nation has slid so far toward oligarchy the book’s message has hit a chord.
AF: Not to suggest that you weren’t before, but you have been quite busy recently as a podcast co-host, guest columnist, tweeter, and author of a daily digest. Was this flurry of activity spurred primarily by the political rise of Donald Trump?
HCR: Weirdly, no, except perhaps to the extent that my early inclusion on the Professor Watchlist prompted me to reassure my friends, and that statement then went viral, and I had a new platform. I have always written about what I saw in the world around me and in our history. It’s just that now way more people are listening.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.