Heather Cox Richardson also offered a call to action: If you don’t like what your government is doing, speak up, march, organize and vote.
Heather Cox Richardson discusses the future of the humanities with Brian Naylor at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine on Friday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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There’s a lot to be gloomy about, especially when it comes to politics. We feel hopelessly divided with little chance of returning to calmer times.

Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor who lives in Maine and shot to national prominence with her Letters from an American newsletter, made a strong case for optimism last week.

Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, was the University of Maine’s Clement and Linda McGillicuddy Humanities Center homecoming speaker on Friday.

As reported by the BDN, she spoke of the economic and geopolitical reasons for hope, but as she does in her newsletter, Richardson also focused on our government and its inner workings. Here, too, she paradoxically found reasons for optimism.

“I feel better about this country than I did 10 years ago,” Richardson said in response to an audience question. And that’s because people are paying attention to their government and how its power has sometimes been misappropriated.

She gave the example of signing statements, which are like notes presidents append to bills when they sign them saying what portions of the law they don’t intend to follow. For years, she said, she and others raised concern about them, but they didn’t capture the public’s attention until they were taken to an extreme.

The statements are one part of a movement that gained prominence during the Reagan administration to move power away from Congress to the executive branch, Richardson said. She cited a memo, written in 1986, by Samuel Alito (who is now a member of the U.S. Supreme Court) who then worked for the Department of Justice, urging greater use of the statements to increase the power of the executive to shape laws. The statements were used on mostly inconsequential laws but their use was widely expanded by former President George W. Bush to carve out parts of hundreds of laws that he did not intend to follow.

When he was president, Donald Trump took the idea of executive power to ignore or overrule Congress to a further extreme, Richardson explained.

Richardson included the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United, which ended many restrictions on campaign spending, and Shelby v. Holder, which weakened voter rights protections, especially in southern states, in her list of things that Americans should have paid closer attention to. But, she said, “the fact that people are now saying ‘hey, hang on a minute, we need to stop this’ — it’s a little bit late in the game; it would have been nice if we’d decided to stop it 10 years ago — but, at least we’re trying now and I find that incredibly exciting.”

In addition, Richardson said, Americans are realizing that they and their neighbors are pretty decent people, and they want to be represented by people who reflect these values and who aren’t divisive and angry all the time.

“I promise you, we’re in better shape now than we were when no one was paying attention,” she said, recalling other times when people paid attention and took action, in the 1760s, 1850s and 1930s.

Because she is a historian, Richardson, of course, looks backwards to assess our condition today. She noted that America looked poised for a decent into facism in the late 1930s, when there was a massive Nazi rally in Madison Square Gardens and a popular movie portrayed an authoritarian takeover of the White House. That slide into facism didn’t happen because people spoke up and took action to stop it.

In that sense, Richardson offered a call to action: If you don’t like what your government is doing, do something about it. Speak up. March. Organize. Vote.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...