Heather Cox Richardson: a must-read historian with contemporary influence

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Heather Cox Richardson self-describes as “a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics.” She is a Professor of History at Boston College, and an expert in nineteenth-century America, specializing in politics and economics. With degrees from the Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, she is an accomplished academic with a scholarly record of books and other publications. She also serves as president of The Historical Society, an organization that brings academic history to general readers.

A year ago, she started writing daily reports on US politics. She publishes them in newsletter form, and on Facebook and other social media. She also produces podcasts, and assorted other forms of popular communication including occasional mainstream media interviews and contributions. Her Facebook page has over half-a-million followers, and her daily posts consistently gather reactions and shares in the tens of thousands, with thousands commenting.

Her writings will be invaluable for future historians to understand how America has changed, leading to, and specially during, the Trump administration. Future readers will recognize how deeply different, and far weaker a country, we have become. The Trump candidacy and administration have divided us deeply, and have made us more insecure (across all wellbeing metrics) and dangerously less tolerant and safe. This administration has also made the world a far more dangerous and unstable place—where radicalism finds new breeding grounds, and conspiracy theories blur people’s perception of fact and belief in science.

But Professor Richardson seems also fully aware that—rather than just observing—it is essential to reverse this downward trend. It all starts by re-establishing decency and competence to the White House. Only then can we, as a People, re-embrace our fundamental values and purpose. Her daily reports are thus no longer just the detached accounts of an historian, if they ever were.

Increasingly, her reports express disgust and frustration with the many failings and corrupt behaviors of this administration. She has not abandoned a commitment to civility and fact-based analysis. However, as time evolved, her reports became powerful guidance—not by abandoning the truth, but by letting humanity and opinion permeate her commentary and choice of topics.

It is admittedly subjective, but I read in-between the lines the struggle of an historian who knows that she has become a ‘social influencer,’ and must carefully choose the lines she won’t cross—while also embracing her ability (and patriotic duty?) to influence.

There are only vague parallels between her writing and mine. As a retired oceanographer, I don’t have the historical knowledge she does. I also don’t aim at the same daily consistency, and my research on political matters is far narrower and not as deep. Although my analysis is also fact-based, and I am equally committed to civility, I am openly pushing for a specific November outcome. While I remain an independent voter who advocates for a multi-party system, I unambiguously oppose Mr. Trump’s re-election and support Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party in the 2020 election.

My journey to political writing is also very different than Professor Richardson’s. Throughout my research career, I chose to translate oceanographic science into objective information, avoiding politics and leaving policy choices strictly to society and its various levels of government. But Mr. Trump’s attacks on decency, facts and science made me reconsider. As a citizen and a grandfather, I owe my family, community and country to also express myself outside science—and specifically express policy and political concerns when appropriate.

I first did that, in any substantive manner, in an open letter to my Republican congressman, explaining my opposition to the president and the party that so heartily supports him. I have since written frequently, mostly in this blog. Without initially meaning to do so, I have de facto documented multiple aspects of a failed presidency. More recently, I also started a series of “Letters to an unfit president,” with the deliberate purpose of chronicling our times for my grandkids (and theirs), while also influencing some voters, if possible.

That said, my blog does not make me a journalist, and my articles certainly don’t make me an historian. A highly trained historian is what professor Richardson is, and chronicling current events (although not traditionally in an historian’s job description) is something she does exceptionally well. What my writing does give me is a deep sense of appreciation for how hard it is to do what she does (effortless as she makes it look).

She has established herself as a voice of civility and reason, in a society where both attributes are in increasingly short supply. She does it from a professionally authoritative perspective, and with a superlative quality, consistency and commitment.

It is heartening that her audience is measured in the many tens of thousands, perhaps more. She might have a real shot at making a difference in the upcoming election, particularly if her readership extends to swing states. But there are over 200 million eligible voters, of which 97 million chose to not vote in 2016. She is not reaching nearly enough voters—which is both their loss and a loss to our country.

If you have not yet, please consider following and sharing her writings. You will become a much better informed voter, as you get exposed to history in the making via her inspired prose.

— Antonio Baptista

PS: Some useful links by or about Heather Cox Richardson:
• Her Facebook page, with daily reports and live videos
• Her newsletter “Letters from an American
• The Freak Out and Carry On podcast that she hosted with Ron Suskind (discontinued in 2018)
• Her Wikipedia profile
• Her Boston College profile, including a list of her books

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