“Democracy is an act of will…” Kepler’s hosts the renowned international affairs expert (and Jeopardy champ) to discuss his new book Our Own Worst Enemy.
When it comes to our nation’s tumultuous trajectory, author Tom Nichols is quick to confess that he is not particularly optimistic with where we go from here.
“I think I’m more worried now than when Trump was president,” he bluntly expressed to The Six Fifty during a recent interview.
As a Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, frequent contributor to The Atlantic and a notable Never Trumper, Nichols has consistently taken the sort of stances that have proven so alarmingly elusive to the GOP outlook over the past few years. Nichols was wary of the initial prospect of Trump’s candidacy, as well as highly outspoken during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and the events of January 6. In this regard, his current concerns should already be rattling cages in the run up to the 2022 mid-term elections.
On August 26th, Kepler will host Nichols for an online event to discuss his latest book, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy, which is a no-punches-pulled point of view against what he sees as the flimsy yet popular narratives that have sought to explain so much of the tension and conflict within our nation during these past few years. Where many pundits have cited economic anxiety and elitist-driven alienation, Nichols points to a lazy, narcissistic population that is more prosperous than any other in history and yet can barely be bothered to vote. In this regard, he might be the singular American voice arguing that “The great enemy of democracy in the 21st century is boredom.”
We caught up with Nichols by phone this week to discuss his new book, his Twitter code of conduct and why America has become a victim of its own affluence.
Take a look…
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
[The Six Fifty]: To start, I was wondering if you could quickly explain some of your motivations for writing this book and if any particular events of the past few years were a prime catalyst for that motivation?
[Tom Nichols]: As much as I’d like to say it was because of the last year or two, I actually began writing this book a few years ago, and I’ve had concerns about these issues since the end of the Cold War. I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that the end of the Cold War, a period of economic expansion, seemed to be making us a less serious people. There was a sobering influence in having an alternative model of autocracy out there as well as living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. But when all of that went away (or we thought it went away), we not only took a vacation from history, but we took a vacation from responsibility.
When I wrote the Death of Expertise [in 2017] that’s when I started wrestling with these questions about narcissism, and inevitably people would ask me: “What are all the implications of this for democracy?” And I would find myself saying: “Well, it’s not good.”
So I finally began to tackle this because when this illiberal and authoritarian tendency picked up steam in the U.S. after 2016, I wasn’t satisfied with the explanations. I just didn’t think that “economic anxiety, or globalization or the elites” or any of those other explanations seemed to explain very much. And the thing that really struck me was that a lot of the explanations about economic anxiety or globalization were very America-centric and couldn’t explain why very similar things were happening in Italy or the United Kingdom or Poland.
One of the key themes in the book is that our democracy is threatened by its own prosperity. You write: “Democracies, it seems, cannot cope with peace, affluence and progress.” I think your book goes into great detail in making the case for that, but I’m curious how you would tackle that on a very down-to-earth level. Like, if you were having a beer with someone and they said, “The country is going to hell,” how would you counter that narrative?
I did. I actually had that exact discussion with a childhood friend in Newport one day. He said “Everything is terrible and we need to change it.” And I said: “You barely graduated from high school, and yet you found a job, put your kids through college, bought a house…and you own a boat! Yet you think the country screwed you?” And he shook his head and said, “You just don’t understand.”
One of the things that really strikes me, is how a lot of the people who I talk to in places like my hometown think that all the bad stuff happened five years ago, when in fact it happened 40 years ago … And I think there is a sort of white, male mid-life crisis going on here. They simply won’t accept that because it blows up the narrative of tribal blame that lets them vote the way they want to vote.
It’s so interesting to me that the U.S. capital attack on January 6 occurred while you were writing a book about the perilous state of our democracy. How did those events land on your radar at the time?
It was an accident of timing that I still had the manuscript on hand. I was supposed to deliver the book before that, but I was behind.
It’s funny because I had conversations that day with editors and some of the people that were reading for me, and I said: “This is everything that I’ve been talking about for two years.” I think the one thing that January 6 really did was put an end to all of these distractions about economic anxiety and income inequality. When the people who tried to overthrow the capital are real estate agents taking chartered jets…that whole thing about a revolt of the poor and the forgotten really just falls apart right in front of you. And all it did was confirm that the conclusion I was drawing from the research was accurate.
I think you cite in the book that 40% of the insurrectionists were actually business owners…
Yeah, that was from a University of Chicago study where they looked at all the arrest records and said: This was not a bunch of poor people. I mean, poor people don’t have the time to do this. And fabulously wealthy people have no interest in doing it because the system works in their favor anyway.
From there, it seems like one of the first things that happened after you shipped your book to press is the Republican Party focused on restricting voting rights, despite all of the many other tumultuous things that had occurred in the past year and need to be attended to. Where does that leave us in terms of where we go forward from here with our democracy?
Well, it’s a reminder that so much of these attacks on democracy are a result of racial anxiety among middle class whites. The Republican Party has basically accepted outright that they want to engage in minority rule and there are a lot of people who have decided that that is okay. And that’s why we live in a post-policy world. We’re not really arguing about tax rates, we’re just arguing about who is going to be in power, without really any agenda behind it other than getting power and keeping power.
The thing that I push back on with people from the left is when they say that democracy is impossible because of gerrymandering and voter suppression. Everyone knows that these moves only work in marginal elections. They do not work with large turnouts. They just don’t.
So my answer to people is: Yes, gerrymandering and voter suppression are problems and the way that you solve them is to vote in state and local elections to control the mechanism of voting. You can’t just show up for a presidential election while other people sit on the voting boards and the city councils and the state legislatures. It just doesn’t work that way. Democracy is an act of will, it is a repeated set of behaviors. People have to show up.
With that in mind, I’m curious where you think the Republican Party goes from here in terms of the 2022 mid-term election and then the presidential election in 2024?
I have written consistently for many years now that the Republican Party has to be deprived of votes at every level of government. It’s that simple. I mean…I am not a partisan for the Democrats, I am not a member of the Democratic Party. The GOP no longer stands for anything other than raw power. And a party in a liberal democracy that stands for nothing but power has to be defeated at every level of government. I think as a vehicle of ideas, the Republican Party is dead. It no longer means anything.
The problem is that I’m worried that the Democrats are not taking this serious enough either at the elite or the rank-and-file level to really respond to this as the electoral emergency that it is. I have a running joke with friends that Democrats will do anything for democracy except show up for elections. I think the Republicans can be in unified control of the government by 2024 again.
Our publication is based in Silicon Valley, so I really like that you take the time to look at technology’s role in all of this. In terms of steering these modern technologies in a better direction, to what degree do you think that falls to people like Mark Zuckerberg and to what degree to the individual user?
I wish Mark Zuckerberg had more of a social conscience. But that’s a way of saying, I wish more businesses had more of a social conscience, and the only way to do that is through the choices of ordinary citizens and consumers. Look, I have a Facebook account, it’s a great place to keep up with my high school friends, but I don’t get my news from Facebook and I don’t stare at it for four hours a day. We can make a choice.
But you are an avid user of Twitter, so what’s your approach in terms of wielding it as a tool for progress and positive ends?
Mostly I try to use Twitter as a way of sharing my views, which — and this is really important — I share them under my own name, with the willingness to engage. I think a big part of the problem with the internet is the anonymity that just breeds contempt. The internet has become a way that frustrated people go, turn on a computer and do the equivalent of kicking the family dog..and then turn it off and walk away.
I have always tried since the time that I started with 100 followers, to now having a half million, to be honest and upfront, and to own it when I make a mistake. I mean…I’m a technological optimist. I love the internet. But on the other hand, just like telephones became a way to make obscene phone calls, eventually we’re going to have to get comfortable with this technology and stop using it as anger therapy. And I think that will happen, but the question is — Will we mature and use this technology more responsibly or will we let the consumerist impulses behind it destroy us?
Now that you completed this book, I’m wondering about your level of optimism right now about the direction of our democracy?
I think I’m more worried now than when Trump was president. When Trump was president it galvanized people. It reminded people that there was someone in the White House who was in cahoots with our enemy overseas and was intent on destroying our constitutional system. And I think between the pandemic and our usual short attention spans as citizens, we’ve decided that that problem has mostly been solved, and it has not been solved in any way. Nothing has been solved.
You know the Republicans had practically held up the entire business of government over Benghazi, the Democrats should be treating January 6 as bigger than Watergate. Again, for people that think conservatives are too louche about this, George Will has said — and I agree with him — “January 6 ought to be burned into our minds the way 9/11 was.” When a guy like George Will is taking this more serious than Chuck Schumer? That’s a problem.
So, I was presently surprised by 2018, I was relieved by 2020 which was an immensely dangerous election, and now I think that was just a brief respite before the Republicans capture the House in 2022, capture the Senate and then capture the White House. And I have never wanted to be more wrong in my life.
Yikes. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk, I really appreciate it. Actually, I have a silly question tacked on the bottom here for you, if you don’t mind: You’re a five-time Jeopardy champion, so if you could choose any person living or dead to be the new host, who would it be?
My gut instinct is to say John Houseman, just because it would be hilarious. But of the actual contenders, my favorite of all of them was David Faber. Jeopardy needs a low-key non-celebrity host who is pleasant, reassuring and doesn’t take the attention off of the contestants and the game.
I don’t like the stunt casting, I didn’t like LaVar Burton, [Mayim] Bialik, Savannah Guthrie…I just didn’t like any of the star vehicle stuff. David Faber was quiet, confident and kept the game moving. He’s my choice if they’re still looking.
But imagine John Houseman: [gruff voice] “The categories, ridiculous as they are…your choice, although I dread your next words.”
Kepler’s Literary Foundation hosts Tom Nichols tonight, 6–7pm, for a (virtual) discussion of his new book Our Own Worst Enemy, with host Angie Coiro.
Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy is out now via Oxford University Press
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