Heather Cox Richardson Offers a Break From the Media Maelstrom. It’s Working.
Dr. Richardson confuses many of the media’s assumptions about the moment. She has built a large and dedicated fan base on Facebook that is widely and often viewed in media circles as a home to misinformation and where most journalists do not see their personal pages as useful channels for their work.
Economy & Economy
Dec. Dec. 23, 2020 at 8:59 p.m. ET
It also contradicts the stereotype of Substack, which has become synonymous with new opportunities for individual writers to transform their social media following into careers outside of the big media, and seems at times to be the place where cleaned up ideological factions regroup . That goes for Never Trump Republicans, ousted from conservative media, whose publications The Dispatch and The Bulwark are the biggest brands on the platform (just above and below Dr. Richardson’s revenue, respectively). This goes for left-wing writers too.I have bitterly broken with elements of the mainstream liberal consensus, be it race or national security, from Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald to Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias to arsonist Matt Taibbi, the Dr. Richardson was dropped from first place later in August.
Dr. Richardson got into this media business boundary by accident. When readers on Facebook started suggesting that she write a newsletter, she realized she didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars a month for a commercial platform, and she jumped to Substack because it allowed her to send her or her free emails she could send readers. Substack makes its money as a percentage of the authors’ subscription income. She felt guilty that the company’s support team wasn’t getting paid to fix her recurring problem: her bulky footnotes were triggering her readers’ spam filters. She found it very uncomfortable to talk about the money her work brings in.
“When you start doing things for the money, you are no longer authentic,” she said, adding that she knew it was both a professorship privilege and an “old Puritan view of things.”
Like the other Substack authors, Dr. Richardson succeeds because it offers something you can’t find in the mainstream media that many editors would find too boring to assign. But unlike the others, it’s not her politics per se: she views her politics as a Lincoln-era Republican, but she’s a pretty conventional liberal these days, disrupted by President Trump and his attacks on America’s institutions. She is a historian who studied with the great Harvard Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, and her work on 19th century political history seems particularly relevant right now. That spring she published her sixth book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Struggle for the Soul of America, “an extensive assault on the kind of nostalgia that enlivens Mr. Trump’s struggle to preserve the Confederate symbols . The face of the south in Dr. Richardson’s book is a bitterly racist and sexually abusive planter and Senator from South Carolina, James Henry Hammond, who mentioned Jefferson’s idea that all men are equally “ridiculously absurd.”
What is unusual is to include a historian’s confident context in the secular politics of the day. She relied on Senator Hammond when Rep. Kevin McCarthy and other Republican leaders signed a lawsuit in Texas to overturn the presidential election, comparing Republican action to moments in American history when lawmakers made the idea of democracy explicit questioned.
“Ordinary men, Hammond said, shouldn’t have a say in politics because they want a greater share of the wealth they produce,” she wrote.