The Substack writing of Heather Cox Richardson

June 6, 2022 • 10:15 am

Reader Steve sent me a link to a Heather Cox Richardson post along with a comment:

You may know that Heather Cox Richardson is the top Substacker in terms of number of subscribers and amount of earnings. I think her opening paragraphs here are the perfect summary of how the USA got to this point in its history.

If a future historian writes about this time, like Gibbons did about the Roman Empire, he or she could use the Reagan presidency as the start of the decline and fall of the USA.

In fact, I hadn’t heard of Heather Cox Richardson (mea culpa), but found out that she is a Professor of History at Boston College, author of six books on history and politics, and is indeed the most widely read author on Substack. Below is the piece I was directed to, which you can read by clicking on it (but subscribe if you read regularly):

I’ll let you read the first three paragraphs for yourself; they recount how Reaganism led to the concentration of wealth among Americans, and, even though Democrats kept getting elected, Republicans started to delegitimize elections, culiminating in the January 6 insurrection. Perhaps she’s right about Reagan, but perhaps she’s not.

I was more interested in this, though:

Today, Maggie Haberman reported in the New York Times that on January 5, Marc Short, then–vice president Mike Pence’s chief of staff, told Pence’s lead Secret Service agent that Trump was about to turn against Pence publicly and that the vice president could be in danger. Clearly, members of the administration anticipated violence on January 6 and, astonishingly, expected it because of the actions of the U.S. president.

Click to read the NYT story. It’s worrisome, but I don’t see any serious evidence that Pence was ever in physical danger—at least from Trump. As hotheaded as Trump is, I can’t believe he’d think he’d survive in politics after masterminding an attack on his own Vice President:

Back to Richardson’s piece, though. It’s about economics, about which I know little and am not inspired to learn more. It’s also a news summary and I don’t see a lot of original thought. But remember, this is the first piece I’ve ever read by her, so the rest may be better. As for this one, I wasn’t inspired by snippets like this:

On Tuesday, Biden published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal touting his economic successes and explaining how he plans to transition from the red hot economy of the past year to stable, steady growth. He promised to work with anyone “willing to have an open and honest discussion that delivers real solutions for the American people.”

Will any Republicans take him up on it? Something else Biden wrote makes me doubt it: “I ran for president because I was tired of the so-called trickle-down economy. We now have a chance to build on a historic recovery with an economy that works for working families.”

Or this, which I already knew because a. it’s three days old (the column is June 3), and because it was reported in all the major media.  Likewise with her last paragraph:

And on Wednesday, as the horrific murders of schoolchildren and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, have been followed by several more mass killings, Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson claimed that Democratic efforts to promote gun safety are not about public health. Instead, he said, Democrats want to disarm the people because they’re afraid of a popular uprising against them because “they know they rule illegitimately.”

Well, yes, I’d heard that, too. In truth, this piece looks more like a news summary than a thoughtful analysis of the news. I read another of her columns, which was more of the same, but with perhaps a bit more analysis.  Still, I read Substack alongside the regular media (which also has op-eds) to garner long-form analysis and original thought, and I haven’t seen a lot of it in the three pieces I read. Still, perhaps people want a thoughtful yet short-form summary of the important news, which might explain Richardson’s popularity.  One of her advantages, too, is that she can explain current events in light of history, as she did in a third column. Still, I find other Substackers more intellectually challenging.

To each their own.

52 thoughts on “The Substack writing of Heather Cox Richardson

  1. On Trump’s threat to Pence, Trump would not order a “hit”. Instead, he makes his wishes known to his coterie and hopes they’ll take the initiative. This is, of course, just like a mob boss who keeps his hands clean. Unlike a real mob boss, Trump is mostly surrounded by sycophants that have never killed anyone in their lives and probably don’t intend to. Even though they’re corrupt, they probably aren’t psychopathic like Trump. Trump attracts all kinds of ugly people but they all seem likely to want someone else to do the dirty work.

      1. Right, but the lack of killer instinct on the part of the intermediaries makes it an ineffective tool for Trump. If he becomes president again, this will change. He’ll have access to the military and will have a better handle on hiring his lieutenants than he did in his earlier administration.

      2. According to a May 25, 2022, NYT piece by Maggie Haberman and Luke Broadwater, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6th insurrection has heard testimony from witnesses who were present that Trump chief-of-staff Mark Meadows walked from the Oval Office dining room, where he had been watching the tv coverage of the riot with Trump, into his own office and told colleagues that, while the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”, Trump complained that Pence had been whisked to safety by the Secret Service and said words to the effect that, “Maybe they [the rioters] should hang Mike Pence.”

    1. I am not saying this was done in good taste, not at all; I was bored by it, but it stirred some people at the time.

    2. “he makes his wishes known to his coterie and hopes they’ll take the initiative”

      AKA “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

  2. I’m the Steve who sent Jerry this article, and I’d like to correct my typo. It was Gibbon, not Gibbons, of course, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

      1. Yes, she has summaries of many events in each column. As does WEIT. And that’s what I like about both!

      2. Yes, much better than having to wade through the purported news to identify and winnow out the click bait slant that all providers (NPR included) seem to think is the important part to emphasize – guess that’s just capitalism.

  3. Richardson’s daily email is indeed often a summary of the day’s events, so there is repetition. But sometimes the historical context is fascinating (I believe her specialty is the Reconstruction), and often chilling.

    1. As an historian, Richardson is probably best known for her 2014 book “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.” I began to read the book a few years ago, but I stopped after a few chapters because I found her explanation of the origins of the Republican Party overly simplistic.

  4. I’m a daily HCR reader. If you have ever wondered how we, as a country, got to where we find ourselves (politically, historically, morally…) then HCR puts it in context. Given the inadequate knowledge of history (myself included) in this country I find her writings an incredible asset. Of course if your history knowledge is top-of-the-class then I can see where one might not be challenged.

  5. Richardson’s daily posts are brilliant, in my opinion. She explains what’s going on from a historical perspective that clarifies how the current political situation came into being.

  6. We have another trickle down that seems to be having the effect of deconstructing the thinking process of too many. A daily barrage of weird, false, and bombastic commentary seems to have caused serious damage.

  7. I’ve never read any of Richardson’s summaries before. Based on just this latest one, they seem to be a unique (in my experience) combination of relevant history and daily news. If you are going to read only one source, perhaps it works but it tells me stuff I already know. Her take on history is mildly interesting but its brevity limits its usefulness and I have no real reason to prefer her take over so many others.

  8. “Still, I find other Substackers more intellectually challenging.”
    Jerry, would you please suggest a couple?

    1. I’m not Jerry, but here are a few suggestions:

      1. Astral Codex Ten, by psychiatrist Scott Alexander: a miscellany of topics including artificial intelligence, philosophy, ethics, some commentary on current events, weird short stories, and more.

      2. Slow Boring, by Matthew Yglesias. Thoughtful analysis of current events from a left-ish perspective. Yglesias has some bonkers ideas (he thinks there should be one billion Americans, and has written a book about it), but I like his Substack a lot. He has an “ask me anything” feature every Friday.

      3. Freddie deBoer’s eponymous Substack. He’s a self-proclaimed Marxist and I disagree with him a lot on policy, but he’s very interesting to read and he’s a great prose stylist. Warning: lots of swearing; also, Freddie got pissed off with his commentariat last month and turned off all comments until June 13 as punishment.

      4. The Bulwark – current events/politics commentary by a collection of Never Trump conservatives.

  9. There is a substack with the very tart name of “Fisted by Foucault” which is written by the very sharp commentator Niccolo Soldo.

    The substack I attach link to is about inflation and the European economy…..and the inflation is brutal for everyday Europeans.

  10. Dear Mr. Biden, how can you call an economic system in which FedGov spends and distributes $6 TRILLION in Social Services each year out of a total of $7 Trillion total (and collects around half in taxes) “trickle down capitalism?” It’s a tsunami of ever-more-watered-down fiat currency poured over the heads of us as if “spending per se” is magically the same as sound currency, production, savings, investment, and individuals building their fortune?

    I don’t blame “Dem” or “Repub.” We had a system of private enterprise and hard money, based on individualism and small but strong watchkeeper government. We voted it away. I blame every citizen, activist, thinker, worker, and businessperson who went along with Keynes’ Big Gamble.

    [yes, I know I’ve been told here this is a “conspiracy theory.” Just because it might be so classified does not mean it is not the raw, brutal, devastating truth. We cooked our own golden goose.]

    1. While social spending has gone up, it is the direct result of increasing income inequality and loss of economic mobility. People at the bottom are so numerous and poor now that the government needs to spend more just to keep the country going and avoid chaos in the streets. Meanwhile, we have people at the top making more and more money relative to the rest of the country. I don’t blame the billionaires but our government by allowing such an imbalance. Part of the blame for the imbalance is the so-called trickle-down theories that seem to think that the upper classes and corporations need a break but it is ok because they’ll give it to those less well off in the form of jobs. That hasn’t worked out and never will. Rich people and corporations tend to hang on to their money. Their investment is based on expected return, as it should be, not in a perceived need to do their part in keeping people out of the poor house.

      1. @Paul Topping

        “People at the bottom are so numerous and poor …’ is caused by the prevailing collectivist system I described in my post. It causes the (endlessly invoked in error) “income inequality” as well. We voted it in, we cooked our own goose.

        1. I don’t think Griffin has ever met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Thanks for the reference though, it is revealing.

  11. “Finally, as of January 6, 2021, they have rejected the idea of democracy and have convinced their followers—and perhaps themselves—that the only way to save America is to destroy it.”

    It’s like that village in Bến Tre province in 1968 déjà vu all over again — only this time writ large & at home.

    1. > Finally, as of January 6, 2021, they have rejected the idea of democracy

      They passed that point a long time before that. How often have you heard people proclaim ‘It’s a republic, not a democracy!‘. The trouble is that many of them don’t know what a republic actually is – a government without a monarch; they end up confusing ‘federation’ (system with many states making their own laws) with ‘republic’. The funny thing is that an electoral college is still the most federalist way to appoint a president – not that I want either one, an electoral college or a president.

  12. It’s about economics, about which I know little and am not inspired to learn more.

    Not for nothing did Thomas Carlyle dub economics “the dismal science.”

    1. I don’t recall the reference but remember reading that Carlyle came up with the term “dismal science” to disparage economics in response to an essay by JS Mills that used economics to argue against slavery.

      1. Carlyle was a reactionary. But a good turn of phrase is a good turn of phrase, even if offered to advance an ignoble end.

        Carlyle’s epithet also inspired Nietzsche to title one of his books The Gay Science.

  13. I subscribed to Richardson’s newsletter for a while, but quit. It did not add much insight over reading the sources, and too often was obviously selective and biased, even for this lib.

    1. I should add, having seen more other comments, agree she does add some interesting historical context. But still, I didn’t find the juice worth the squeeze vs. spending time elsewhere. Just MHO.

  14. I found Richardson boring and lacking in new information or insights. The most interesting and
    informative (and honest) writers are rarely found on line but in print: Anne Applebaum, George Packer, Sean Wilentz, Timothy Snyder are my top sources for history and foreign policy. Lex Fridman has an on line interview show and his interview with Stephen Kotkin was beyond belief…..Kotkin, without any spare ups or ohs or yo knows, spoke perfectly, articulated, logical thought and explained in two hours everything you need to know about Russia and Putin. Go watch it now!!!!! And delete Chomsky and Mearsheimer and Greenwald and Hedges and The Intercept, all of whom are nothing but doctrinaires without any moral sense to boot. For journals, The Atlantic and Harper’s are the only trustworthy ones. Forget the New Yorker and The New Republic, and stay away from counterpunch!
    The internet is a slimy trap into which people fall, never to regain their brains or sanity. However,
    it is useful to watch and listen to the doctrinaires and ideologues to become aware of their lies and distortions. Finally, heartfelt thanks to Jerry and this blog for the leading example of truth and honesty untainted by the epidemic being spread by the exploiters of the internet.

  15. I’m a fan of hers, especially when she provides historical context for today’s events (her professional specialty is 19th century American history). And I’m a regular listener to “Now and Then”, a podcast she does with Joanne Freeman, an 18th century American historian from Yale. Of particular interest to visitors here would be the recent three part series they did on free speech – it is not a rehash of current debates, but rather an in depth discussion if free speech controversies in American history.

  16. Looking at Richardson’s writings, I saw several that I had read before. She does not write from a position of objectivity, she is an activist. She describes conservatives as “evil”. and seems to have a special dislike of Reagan. She was quoted recently as suggesting that Biden declare war on republicans just as Lincoln did on slaveholders.

    The gun control debate, at least the motivations behind it, can be confusing. A solid understanding of current and proposed gun laws does not necessarily make those motivations clearer. People like to understand the motivations of others, and will tend to come up with their own explanations if an obvious one does not present itself.
    When gun control laws are proposed which will not prevent or lessen the incidence of violent crime, but will instead punish law abiding gun owners, it is not unreasonable to suspect that they want to disarm us because they want to do something to us that they would be unable to do if we could defend ourselves.
    I do not personally believe that explanation. It makes no sense from a strategic standpoint. What I have come to believe is that the advantage of gun control as a political issue is the fact that it is polarizing. Going after guns is really a way of going after the sorts of people who tend to own guns. The democrats get their base fired up about the alleged evil of republican gun owners, and get their enthusiasm worked up at the idea of kicking down their doors, disarming them, and demonstrating exactly who is in charge. Conversely, the republicans fundraise on the idea that they are defending their base from people who want to send rough men to kick down their doors.
    The focus on AR-15s, instead of the types of pistols used in most homicides, could well be because republicans are more likely to own them. 20% of democrats own guns, but are more likely to own a pistol, which they keep for protection. Kicking their doors down would not be an astute political move.

    1. “Going after guns is really a way of going after the sorts of people who tend to own guns.”

      Yes, I really don’t like the sort of people who tend to own guns. Do you want to know why? They own guns!

    2. The democrats get their base fired up about the alleged evil of republican gun owners, and get their enthusiasm worked up at the idea of kicking down their doors, disarming them, and demonstrating exactly who is in charge.

      Can you cite an instance of a Democratic officeholder or Democratic party official advocating such a thing, Max?

      Because, even among people who wish the US had a firearms’ policy closer to those of the European democracies, I’ve never heard a single one advocate “kicking down [gun owner’s] doors, disarming them, and demonstrating exactly who is in charge.” Never, not a one.

      1. Beto’s campaign sells a T-shirt that reads “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
        He is a member of the democratic party, was the House representative from El Paso.

        Admittedly, his view on gun confiscation changes, depending on his audience. That strategy was more common, and more effective before everything started showing up on the internet.

        “Take” is not the same as “restrict sales of”, or even “demand you turn in”. I don’t personally believe such a thing is likely to be attempted anytime soon. There are something like 50 million households with guns in the US, and nobody knows exactly which households they are, or which ones own what sort of guns. That is a lot of doors, and actually kicking them in is pointless, since those folks are not really causing any trouble.
        Talking about doing it might be politically useful, but doing it presents the possibility of Grandpa who liberated Dachau getting shot during a botched search for contraband.

        1. What he’s advocating is to get rid of assault-style weapons such as the AR and the AK, not all firearms. We did that for a while in the 90s, and it was somewhat effective except for major loopholes in the law. So it’s worth discussing, although it’s not on the Democratic Platform.

          1. The 1994 law primarily restricted sales of some rifles and magazines. People who already owned those sorts of guns did not have them taken from them.
            Banning the commercial sale or importation of them would be seen by gun owners as a pointless gesture, which would not measurably decrease gun violence.
            Things have changed a lot since 1994. Back then, if you looked behind the seat of a rancher’s pickup, there was probably a Remington 700 back there, wrapped in an old blanket, or even an old lever action rifle. These days, there is an AR back there.
            Beto used the word “take” deliberately, because he believed his base would be very enthusiastic about the idea.

  17. I hate banging on about this, but all who can, should make a point of reading Naomi Klein’s incredibly detailed book, “Shock Doctrine” – and learn about the pervasive (and toxic) influence of the Chicago School of Economics (Milton Friedman’s cohort), and how it has shaped Republican attitudes, and the damage it has encouraged the USA to do to other countries (Chile, and yes Russia) in the name of Free Markets. Reagan embraced Friedman’s views, as did most subsequent Presidents.
    I should also point out, that the commentary on HCR’s postings can be very informative (much like those here in WEIT)

  18. I’ve never seen a WEIT post with the title: Richardson. That being my surname, I had to click. Just kidding, I click on all WEIT posts. Either way, I saw it as Jerry yelling at me (in a good way): Richardson! I had plenty of teachers, esp. in junior high, where “Richardson” was often finished with “F” for the day. Ahh, the good ol’ days. We had scholastic grades and citizenship grades where I went to school. I had a lot of “A/Fs”…my parents were concerned, but that’s too long a story.

  19. A normally reliable informant referred me to Richardson and told me that her virtue was being strictly factual and unbiased.

    She is not.

  20. An interesting read but I fear those opening paragraphs miss some context. Yes, the Republicans delegitimized electoral results with the 6th being painfully egregious, but it was simply an inevitable outcome of the game both sides have been playing.

    I’m an external observer of US politics and only recently an avid one, but I recall the 2000 election; hanging Chads and ‘Gore really won’. I also recall the furore around the ‘rigging’ of the 2016 election by ‘the Russians’ and the election of their ‘stooge/agent’.

    Perhaps I remember incorrectly and certainly 6th Jan pushed things to a whole new level, but it does seem as if delegitimising the electoral success of the other party is hardly unique to the Republicans?

    1. The Democrats never tried to formally challenge the election results, and Gore congratulated Bush and admitted that he, Gore, had lost.

      It’s like saying that people without guns are also violent because a gunless liberal punched someone, sometime.

      1. On 6th January 2017, during the counting of electoral votes, democratic representatives from Mass, Maryland, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and two from California objected to the certification of electoral votes. None of them had support of the Senate, so their objections were not debated.
        In 2005, democrats from Ohio and California did manage to force the closure of the joint session and debate the legitimacy of the electoral votes.

        It is interesting to look back at the transcripts, and note that some of the representatives who praised democratic objections as a “valuable public service” went on record as saying that republican objections were “grossly irresponsible”.

        If you look at the joint session of 2001, it went much as 2017, with 13 democrats objecting to the certification of electoral votes. After they were certified anyway, rep Johnson (D-Tx) went on CNN and made the following statement- “There is overwhelming evidence that George W. Bush did not win this election, either by national popular vote or the Florida popular vote…he should be on notice that without justice, there can be no peace.”

  21. There is one ecenomic meme/conspiracy? that seems to be onto something, called “WTF happened in 1971” — possibly related to the Nixon, not Reagan. It’s possibly related to the Nixon Shock, when he unhinged the dollar from gold, and other effects of his presidency. Reagan seems to have quadrupled down from there.


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