Taking Stock and Giving Thanks After Nearly 12 Years
Boston College historian and Letters from An American author Heather Cox Richardson wrote in that series on September 15 to say thank you to those who have read her daily commentaries since their inception two years ago. She had originally planned to stop writing Letters following the 2020 presidential election, but she has continued to produce them because it was clear to her that the election had not eliminated the dangers to our Republic that had prompted her to begin writing in the first instance. I am encouraged by Dr. Richardson’s example to reflect briefly on the trajectory of this commentary project to thank those who read these essays.
I published the first Soundings on January 17, 2010, and now have written these analytic essays for almost 12 years. I began the series on the prompting of two colleagues, who suggested that I should write more often than I was already doing in Tidings columns, which I had begun producing quarterly in July 2008. Their kind urging, and my sense that it was appropriate as a leader of a research institute to play a role as a public intellectual, persuaded me to take the proverbial plunge. I wrote frequently, if periodically, for the first two years and then began to publish weekly essays in January 2012. In January 2015, I began writing somewhat longer reflections on American politics and democracy every two weeks and I have written for the series on that schedule since.
I compiled a book comprised of Soundings and Tidings essays, Fragile Foundations and Enduring Challenges: Essays on Democratic Politics and Governance, in 2019, and as I developed that volume, I reflected on the analyses I had written to that time and was struck afresh that the nation’s governance arc had been quite negative, in democratic terms, for some decades. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan convinced millions of Americans that their birthright of self-governance was not their greatest privilege but, as he opined in his First Inaugural Address, “their problem.” His argument had gained traction in the wake of the Vietnam tragedy, Watergate and the stagflation of the 1970s. But many in his Party had embraced that view of common public action since the early 1960s and a significant share had done so since the 1930s and before. These individuals had accepted the ideological claim that government should be hobbled in favor of rule by capitalism, and on the belief that if all were permitted to vote and exercise their full rights, democratic institutions would serve the undeserving—i.e., the nation’s minorities—and such should never be permitted, as both unduly costly to the wealthy and unnatural in its elimination of a supposed legitimate social hierarchy.
As I prepared the Fragile Foundations collection, Donald Trump was in office. His presidency of cruelty and lies is already being evaluated by historians as among the most corrupt and corrupting in American history. Nonetheless, Trump, like Reagan in that respect, convinced millions of citizens that he alone cared for them and understood their problems, despite pursuing policies that resulted in deepening social and income inequality in the nation generally, and, perversely, for many of his supporters, more particularly. While Reagan employed race coyly as a mobilization tool, without openly embracing racism, Trump made racism and scapegoating of minorities an obvious central part of his efforts to build a political coalition. As a result, the United States today finds Trump’s party, the Republican Party, populated by ever more radical officials eager to play to the worst discriminatory instincts of their followers on that key valence of American identity and pluralism.
Whether one turns to explanations that emphasize ideology, quest for material wealth and political and economic power, or to tortured efforts by citizens to obtain a false security by depriving others, or to combinations of these arguments to describe this phenomenon, the country now confronts a major political party whose partisans are assaulting the rule of law, the idea of the commons and the civil and human rights of targeted groups of Americans; in short, the foundations of our democracy. As I write, the nation is in the midst of a deep governance crisis and it is unclear whether the would-be architects of a racialized and plutocratic hierarchical America will prevail or whether those seeking to maintain freedom, civil rights for all and the possibility for equality of opportunity will do so. The choice before the country is clear and stark. What is less clear is whether democratic self-governance will prevail in an ongoing contest for popular support.
Abraham Lincoln, too, confronted a nation in an existential emergency, with similar arguments and partisans arrayed along opposing sides concerning equality, freedom and the rule of law. He refused steadfastly to countenance those embracing inequality and calling for rights for only a select few, manifest as support for slavery when he lived. He examined those concerns in his masterful Cooper Union Institute Address in February 1860, which he concluded by observing:
If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong. … Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
I have produced these commentaries in a sustained attempt to share what I take to be considered views and to do so while highlighting policies, values and norms that will secure full freedom and democratic rights for all of this nation’s citizens. I have surely erred on occasion as I have sought to point up the increasingly venomous sophistry, venality and meanness of those who have opposed those aims across the years I have written these essays, but when I have gone wrong, it was not for want of belief in the possibilities of human rights and freedom. Believing deeply in the right of Lincoln’s clarion call, I will continue to write these articles. Following Richardson’s example, I want to thank all who have read these analyses and commented on them over the years or who have helped me think through ideas as I worked to bring them to fruition. These 12 years have surely been a difficult time to be deeply concerned about democracy in America, but, as Lincoln often pointed out, freedom must be earned afresh each day by those who enjoy its fruits. I will continue to hope that these essays can play some small part in that essential struggle.
 Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, September 15, 2021, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com, Accessed September 15, 2021.
 Stephenson, Max Jr. Fragile Foundations and Enduring Challenges: Essays on Democratic Politics and Governance. Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech Publishing, 2019.
 Reagan, Ronald. First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981, Reagan Foundation, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/media/128614/inaguration.pdf, Accessed September 16, 2021.
 Lincoln, Abraham. “Cooper Union Address,” February 27, 1860. Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/cooper.htm, Accessed September 17, 2021.
 Lehrman, Lewis. “Mr. Lincoln and Freedom,” Abraham Lincoln.org, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://abrahamlincoln.org/features/essays/mr-lincoln-and-freedom/, Accessed September 16, 2021.
September 20, 2021