By Bliss Bowen
Political scientist Tom Nichols elaborates on themes in his book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy.”
“People are no longer just expressing their political views. They’re intentionally trying to draw the foul from their political opponents. You can’t function or sustain a democracy on everyone trying to (tick) everybody off all day. It comes from people being so narcissistic that the only validation they get from politics is this draining kind of emotional vampirism that says, ‘The only way I know I exist and I matter is if other people are pissed off enough to notice me.’”
The book by Nichols, author of 2017’s widely acclaimed “The Death of Expertise” and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, USA Today and MSNBC, is out from Oxford University Press.
Throughout a spirited, 90-minute conversation, the lifelong conservative addresses voter turnout, the Constitution, the political stability of the U.S. military, the Jan. 6 insurrection and civic responsibility. The cause of our poisoned politics, he says, is not globalization, “elites” or maligned others. It is us.
“This is a fundamentally unserious political culture,” he observed while driving through his home state of Rhode Island. “We used to be very serious. Hannah Arendt said, with the exception of Scandinavia, very few people have the political seriousness of the Americans. Today, it’s completely laughable to say that.”
Arendt is one of numerous political figures, philosophers and writers cited in “Our Own Worst Enemy,” a civic tough-love mandate Nichols calls “the hardest book I ever wrote.” He’s discussing it at a Vroman’s Live Crowdcast event Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Wisecracking about his “moral scolding,” Nichols nonetheless asserts a need for public morality. Not the kind fixated on, say, abortion or sexuality, but morality that honors tolerance, respect and compromise as virtues exemplifying good citizenship and upholding what’s left of the small-“d” democratic public commons.
“It’s not so much that the public commons has been trashed — it has — but there aren’t any people in it. The public commons is like a really nice park where we all used to walk that now just has vandals and criminals in it. I know that’s depressing,” he acknowledged. “But the way that is going to come back is for people to make very small decisions, person to person, at the level of community involvement. The great enemy of that is the virtualization of everything we do.”
Constant connectivity via electronic devices and the internet is lambasted in “Our Own Worst Enemy,” though Nichols named the internet as the most effective weapon against authoritarianism and notes his regular use of Twitter, where he’s staked out a curmudgeon corner as an equal-opportunity critic.
Left-leaning voters wearing “Defund the Police” sweatshirts draw his ire as much as Trump supporters refusing COVID-19 vaccines. Likewise, he champions California’s Democratic Congresswoman Katie Porter (“She’s very good at detail and cares about actually legislating”) as well as Republican operatives who “fund, feed and water” local- and state-level “farm teams.” Agree or disagree with his scathing political critiques, but his common sense and factual analyses are refreshing.
Democracy, he wrote, “relies as much on reflection as it does on civic interaction,” and while the republic’s founders could not foresee an America whose citizens continually compare themselves to each other in a virtual world and “performative culture” that eats up time for reflection, they did understand “the existential link between virtue and democracy.”
He assails escalating resentments expressed by mostly white Americans and skewers their argument that screwups by “elites” prove democracy’s failure by demonstrating how they are bad policy — and policy, like citizenship, is something many Americans don’t address seriously unless it hurts people they want to see hurt.
This willfully uninformed civic narcissism, he writes, constitutes an existential threat “deadly to the social trust that allows democracy to endure in hard times. By definition, a democracy is a community. By definition, a narcissist is incapable of holding or granting membership in a community. … No society can maintain a good democracy — one that respects human rights and puts the needs of the individual over the interests of the state — if it must rely on a population of bad citizens.”
In conversation, he shoots down the suggestion that more stringent education in history, civics and media consumption could produce more discerning citizens. The problem of people insisting on their own facts and digging into isolated, ideological foxholes will only be fixed, he says, by demographic change: “America’s going to get younger, browner, more diverse. … I’m never going to say less education. I’m never going to say less civic virtue. But some of the least civic people in this movement of seditionists and insurrectionists are middle-aged, well-off, perfectly well-educated white guys.”
Self-identified as “an old-school, conservative federalist,” Nichols is known for upbraiding millennials and Gen Z followers on Twitter but believes “the kids are alright. I think they have good hearts.” But he worries about their lack of resilience: “When people think that life is constantly letting them down, that’s when they develop resentments that tell them, ‘It’s not just life letting me down, it’s democracy, and somewhere there’s a big daddy who’s going to solve all my problems and punish the people who hurt me.’ Everyone is vulnerable to that if they don’t have a certain amount of stoicism and maturity.”
That maturity entails understanding that citizens have not just a role but a responsibility. From Nichols’ tough-love perspective, that means shaming friends who don’t vote. It means speaking frankly with loved ones with opposite politics to identify common ground.
“One of my friends on Twitter said, ‘I can have a conversation with you if we start from Joseph R. Biden won the presidential election fair and square and the Constitution is more important than any single policy,’” Nichols recalled. “I said, ‘That’s pretty much where I am.’”
A longtime professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, Nichols said his work supplies “comparative context.” “Years of studying the Soviet Union, I’m sorry to say, helped me with this. When I taught comparative authoritarian systems at Dartmouth, I would give very confident lectures and say, ‘This is why they don’t exist in Britain and the United States,’ or why France came out of it, or Greece, etc. Now I feel like an oncologist who is recognizing something uncomfortable in my own blood tests.”
In his closing chapter he writes, “Democracy, in the end, is an act of will, a continual reaffirmation of faith in a system of government that enshrines and protects our rights and the rights of our fellow citizens.” That faith has been profoundly tested by the Jan. 6 attack on America’s constitutional system, and “detailed fixes” he intended to include in the book won’t work without a civil society.
“I hope people understand that I wrote this because I think we’re getting near the point where we’re going to be out of time,” Nichols said. “I felt a sense of urgency when I wrote it.”
Tom Nichols’ livestream discussion of “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24
WHERE: Vroman’s Live: crowdcast.io/e/w96oq60q
COST: Free; register in advance