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Historian Heather Cox Richardson puts House speaker's ouster into perspective


The Republican revolt that led to Kevin McCarthy's ouster as House speaker this week has no precedent. And what happens next is unclear. So what does history suggest about the current state of the U.S. democracy? Historian Heather Cox Richardson wrestles with that question in her newsletter, the popular Letters from an American. Her new book is called "Democracy Awakening: Notes On The State Of America." When we spoke yesterday, I asked her how to put this week's events into context.

So, Heather, Kevin McCarthy, really, in his nine months as speaker, lurched from crisis to crisis. And, you know, the government is appearing to be heading toward another shutdown possibly in November. As a historian, how do you view this moment in our democracy's history right now?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, I have to start by saying this is truly an eye-popping moment. We have never before had a speaker vacated from his position, and that entails all kinds of things for our government that are unprecedented. But the place to start with this is that this is not a Congress problem. This is a Republican Party problem. And it's a Republican Party problem that has been coming for a while. If you think about what's happened with McCarthy in his very, very short tenure as speaker, he has indeed lurched from crisis to crisis, but what he has really done is increasingly empowered a small group of extremists to shut down the House of Representatives, therefore the Congress and therefore the U.S. government. And what looks to many people, I think, like ah, the speaker - whatever - is actually a much larger conversation about the U.S. government and not only how it's going to function, but whether it's going to function.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you have concerns about the health of our democracy?

COX RICHARDSON: Well, I always have concerns about the health of our democracy. But yes, I mean, we are in a period in which a small minority, political minority has managed to take control of the crucial nodes of the mechanics of our democracy and are trying to impose their will on the rest of us. And there have been workarounds for a long time because of the guardrails we've had in our system. But those guardrails have been eroded really beginning in the 1980s to the point where we now have a situation that is frankly really astonishing, that we've got at this point eight people - eight people - who have managed to stop our government. And that strikes me as being something that we as a people must figure out how to correct going forward. Now, in the long term, do I have concerns about our democracy? Sure, because democracy is always a work in progress. It has never been perfect. But I'm also extraordinarily excited about the fact that so many people are now paying attention and care again. And I do have faith that we can fix it.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think, Heather, that people should care more?

COX RICHARDSON: I do think everybody should care. And the reason that we haven't in the past, as much as perhaps we should have, is because I believe people thought that the guardrails of our democracy were safe. Now we are in a period when those things are on the chopping block. And if people are not paying attention, they really ought to be, because politics and government is really not something that lives off in a far-off place that doesn't interest people, especially now that the guardrails are eroding, because those decisions that are made at that - at the higher levels have direct effects on your everyday life, like, for example, the right to reproductive health care, which people really did not think we were going to lose, and we did, of course, in June of 2022. So the answer is that it's - sometimes you get frustrated listening to people scream at each other, but what they're screaming about is your life and what things you are allowed to do in your life. And it's a really important thing to pay attention to.

MARTÍNEZ: Is our democracy resilient, or is it just barely holding on right now?

COX RICHARDSON: It is resilient. You know, I am not a doomsayer. Remember, we have been through really terrifically horrible times in the past. But I do - and we've come through them. But I do like to remind people that when they say, oh, we couldn't lose democracy in this country, I always say we already have. Look at the period between about 1874 and 1965 in the American South, which was one-party rule in which the law determined your - how you would be treated based on who you knew and the color of your skin. There was extraordinarily rampant corruption. There was, you know, economic stagnation because capital didn't want to migrate to a place where you had no idea whether or not your business interests would be safe. We have done it before, and God forbid we should do it again.

MARTÍNEZ: Heather Cox Richardson teaches history at Boston College. Her new book is called "Democracy Awakening: Notes On The State Of America." Thank you very much.

COX RICHARDSON: Thanks for having me.

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