Tom Nichols

The End of Democracy in America

Air Date: August 23, 2021

U.S. Naval War College scholar Tom Nichols discusses his new book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome back to our broadcast, Tom Nichols, professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College and author of the just released book “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy.” Tom, did you anticipate at any point since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, that an entire branch of the U.S. political infrastructure would become committed to authoritarianism or committed to suppressing the vote?


NICHOLS: I didn’t. I suppose some of that was just innate optimism. But I think the more terrifying story here is that it’s not just limited to one party or one country. The growth of illiberalism and authoritarian versions of populism have been on the rise around the world, including in places that we would think of as consolidated democracy. I mean, obviously you know, places like Russia and other places where democracy didn’t really get off the ground have had their troubles. But we’re really seeing the growth of illiberal, anti-democratic movements in the UK, in Brazil, in India, in the United States and even in the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic. This is an, for the United States national problem, and although heavily concentrated in one party, no doubt about it. But it’s also an international problem.


HEFFNER: Tom, it was on our broadcast in 2018 that you made reference to the potential for a global pandemic. And you said specifically that maybe only in the circumstance of a pandemic, would we become more alert as active citizens, in effect that would wake us up, and maybe it did ultimately, maybe it hasn’t still. What’s your verdict on that?


NICHOLS: Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up, Alex, it’s an expert prediction I got wrong!


HEFFNER: Well, right and wrong!


NICHOLS: Well, and I had actually suggested the three things could snap us out of our kind of self-absorbed torpor and that those three things were a war, a depression, or a pandemic. And it just didn’t happen. I mean, we retreated to our camps. We turned medical science into a partisan issue. I think that was going to happen to some extent, no matter what, but I certainly didn’t count on an administration being in power that would actually use a national emergency to be divisive and partisan, and eventually to try to use it to save the skin of a sociopathic president. And so that part really surprised me. I mean, I’m 60 years old, I’m used to periods of national tribulation where whatever our differences, in the end we pull together. Even after Vietnam, we, you know, we kind of healed the country at some point. In 9/11, the great recession, the oil shocks of the seventies, we somehow kind of came out of it stronger and linking arms and trying to be a better country. And that simply didn’t happen this time. I mean, the wound, I think from this pandemic was deep, but it exposed a preexisting condition, to use a medical term.


HEFFNER: In thinking about your book and thesis or theses in the context of the United States, and I do understand that it’s a global trend and you and Yascha Mounk and Anne Applebaum and others have written most compellingly on it. Is our own worst enemy to you fundamentally, the idea that we’re voting for that gluttony, we’re voting for the self-absorption, we are actually making a decision of our own volition to not inoculate ourselves, you know, to instead kill our democracy?


NICHOLS: Yeah. I like the way you put it Alex, because one of the things that really has depressed me about debates over democracy in the past 10, 20, 30 years even, if you look back to the end of the Cold War, is how often we remove any sense of agency from the voters. You know, well, the Russians put a lot of memes on Facebook. So the Russians stole our election. No, that’s like saying that because there’s junk food on every corner, you know, you had to eat it. You made a choice. You went to Facebook; you went to looking for the memes and the jokes and the crazy videos that would confirm you in what you already thought. I’m one of the folks that really pushes back hard on stolen election narratives about, you know, Russian propaganda interference, because you know, the Russians didn’t change any vote totals. They didn’t go in and steal any voting machines. None of that stuff happened. They put plates of poison out there on the common table and we ate it up because that’s the kind of society we’ve become. And we did it voluntarily.


HEFFNER: Right, and millions of Americans volunteered to reelect an American creed of authoritarianism in Donald Trump. And that is what you identify as, you know, dangerous and, you know, whether or not it’s irredeemable, is it, is it rectifiable? Can we, can we rectify it because you referenced the politicization of the pandemic, the self-absorption and wanting to care for the Republican governed states and to deprive the so-called blue states and Democratic governors of critical protective equipment. Nevertheless, millions and millions of Americans voted to re-elect, you know, Donald Trump. And we know now that state legislatures want to actually eliminate the Electoral College now so that they can overrule how the vote goes down in their state. So, I mean, what is your assessment of kind of voting for your worst enemy of democracy in 2020 since tens of millions of people did do that?


NICHOLS: Yeah, we’re, I think we’re in more danger now than we were three or four years ago. I genuinely believe that. I mean, I think people who focus on the personality of Donald Trump and his kind of, you know, capering and mugging, and, you know, again, sociopathic weirdness are missing the point that tens of millions of people are in the grip of what I talk about in the book and again, I don’t want to both sides this too much, but it is a national and longstanding problem of narcissism where people simply cannot stand to lose elections. They cannot endure being told they’re wrong. This was a theme, you know, we talked about when you and I talked a few years back about the death of expertise is that people simply cannot endure the idea that they are wrong about anything, because they have welded their sense of themselves, their personalities to what they believe, especially about politics. And so I think you’re going to get millions of people who will say, yeah, democracy doesn’t really matter as much as getting what I want, and that, and unfortunately getting what I want is no longer a desperate idea about, you know, safe streets or a job, or, I mean, this is a middle, this is a bored middle class. The people who showed up on January 6th, for example to attack the capital, these weren’t armies of poor and unemployed people. These were people who chartered private jet to go to Washington. This is this is really a dangerous problem when, when the middle class of a country becomes bored and sort of, you know, hungry for drama. And so I think that, yeah, there, I think that there are millions of people who will basically say sure, if the election doesn’t go my way, overturn it. You know, that’s what I’m voting for my state legislature to do.


HEFFNER: Is it at all pedantic or orthodox in the sense of people conflated or began to confuse liberalism and illiberalism? I asked Yascha Mounk the same question, but this idea that to be conservative today is actually to be autocratic or authoritarian. Some way the wires, the circuits kind of blew up, or maybe this is just revisiting old history. But this idea that, that you had liberal conservatives, right, you had, and now that is a tortured idea. Who would, who would in the United States and the Republican party ever be a liberal conservative, or a conservative who supports liberal democracy? And, and that just got kind of torn asunder. And I wonder how much of that is involved in the insurrection and the, you know, devolution of conservatism or Republican politics today.


NICHOLS: I would love to tell you that this is about ideas and notions of ideology and conservatism and liberalism, but it isn’t. It just isn’t. It’s about feelings and emotions and resentment and status envy and relative deprivation. I mean, this is something we don’t talk about much in the United States because people on the left for example say, well the big problem in America is income inequality, people on the right say, well, it’s the heavy hand of government, when the real problem in my view are people in the kind of working, middle class stratum of the economy who aren’t comparing themselves against Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, they’re comparing themselves to each other, constantly. We are constantly looking in on each other’s lives. And that’s not an ideological issue. That’s, you know, if you talk to the voters and I point out a lot of examples of this in the book, both from polling data and from anecdotal, you know, talking to caucus goers and primary voters, people have no coherent ideological stance in this country. Ask a person, ask them what they think conservative means. They say I’m a conservative and I think the government should tell big tech what to do, which of course is the most, anti-conservative, you know, the idea of empowering the government to run big tech or to, you know, engage in censorship or, I mean, it’s crazy. What it really means is people on both the right and the left have said, look, I want to control the mechanisms of government. And I want those mechanisms to do what I want them to do, and I want them to do it for me. So when you talk about liberalism, you know, with a capital L, classical Liberalism, that’s what conservatives used to call ourselves. We used to; I was a conservative. We used to say, we’re classical liberals, free market, toleration, secular government, limited federal power, all that. That’s all gone. Nobody, nobody really has those arguments. And I think one of the things just as a kind of final comment on this, think about how much over the past three or four years, even now, even as President Biden is trying to move all these different packages and legislation in his first year, we are a post-policy society. Nobody talks about policy or ideas. We talk about winning and losing. We just talk about who’s in charge and who’s going to be my guy or their guy.

HEFFNER: And, and you’re saying quite clearly, Tom, that intellectualizing it is not going to be a recipe for fixing it, right, so how do we, that’s part of the book, how do we fix things from the perspective of those Arizona or Pennsylvania legislators who, you know, want to conduct these fake audits? They, they’re trying to say that there was a sham in their states. It was not. Biden won Arizona. He won Pennsylvania. Is the way that you approach those legislators the same way you approach the people who insurrected on January 6. I mean, I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem by just ignoring the people, whether it’s those state legislators who want to impose this kind of anti-democratic dictate, or whether it’s the actual people who invaded the Capitol, right? I mean, just ignoring the problem isn’t going to correct anything.


NICHOLS: Well, part of my pessimism is that I have really come to believe that for, you know, some, I don’t know, 30 percent of the public, you are not, they are, they’re not coming back. They’re done. And you are simply going to have to outvote them until they literally pass away and out of the voting demographic, because most of them unfortunately are people close to my age. And I just don’t think you are going to. I don’t think, you know, three years from now, people are going to wake up and say, well, I don’t know what I was thinking. You know, part of the story we’ve told ourselves during this rise of authoritarian politics in the United States is well, and I, I was part of this, you know, the fever is going to break. People will have a moment of clarity. They’ll understand suddenly there’s going to be this, what am I doing here, Washington, you know. That’s not happening? In the book I put forward a few ideas, but mostly I, you know, again, I hate to say that I had to resort to kind of pleading with my fellow citizens, to robustly and publicly defend civic virtue and democratic ideals, as a way, for example, of shaming, those Arizona legislators, you know, to say look, this is not about budgets. It’s not about, it’s not about Venezuelan voting machines and bamboo ballots from China. Shame on you. This is about the constitution and you know, I actually was encouraged because there were Republicans in Arizona and in Georgia who both stood up and said, wait a minute. You know, I am no friend of the Democratic Party. I didn’t vote for Joe Biden. I don’t want to do, but this is, this is un-American. And you know, we’ve taught ourselves over the years, never use that phrase, never question someone’s patriotism, to never use the term un-American. I mean, you know, Joe McCarthy dirtied up that term well 60 years ago, 70 years ago. And so, but I do think we have to somehow turn, even to our neighbors and to say, no, I am not going to tolerate this view. I am not going to, I’m not going to have a conversation with you about how Joe Biden and Hugo Chavez stole the election. I think that’s the only way to put those guard rails back is to be vocal and to be definitive in a way that we used to. In the book I talk about what happens when your neighbors that you might like, turn out to be bad citizens, because we really have to confront that, that. You know, the guy that lives next door, you wave, mow your lawns. You have a beer together. But you know, at some point you have to be able to say, you know, you’re my neighbor and I like you well enough, but no, I am not going to agree with you that, you know the government should be censoring Facebook. And you know, that Newsmax is real. I’ve had that conversation with close friends. I have a close friend. He says, I only watch OAN. I said, then you are, you are literally poisoning yourself. And he, he didn’t take that well, but I think we owe that to each other to say those kinds of things.


HEFFNER: So your, Dr. Nichols, your first prescription here is to be direct and honest with neighbors and fellow citizens about whether you’re poisoning yourself with disinformation or misinformation.


NICHOLS: What is the point of a constitution if we are not going to engage in its full-throated defense when it matters? You know, I’m tired of people saying, well, you know, politics is uncomfortable. Yes. Well, this is an uncomfortable time. And I don’t encourage, I mean, I just want to be clear. I don’t encourage like walking up and down the street and saying, hey, who did you vote for? And I want to have a fight with you. But you know, there, I’ve had it happen in my own life where someone I respect, I’ll give you an example. Someone, I respect a lot who I think of as an intellectual, is a good guy, but, we’ve known each other a long time. He said, hmm, yeah, this election, shady, lotta, lotta, lotta shady in it. And I said, look, we’ve been friends for a long time. You’re wrong. And what you’re, what people, and I said, people trust your opinion. And I said, what you’re, what you are suggesting to your fellow citizens is poisonous and wrong. And I said it, and if you care about the constitution of the United States, you should stop saying it. I shouldn’t, I don’t, I don’t think he’s ever going to change his mind, but I do think we have to somehow put those social guardrails back in place. Now, with that said, I don’t want people to think the book is just kind of me yelling at everybody. Although there is some of that because it’s a book by me. And so I do some of that. But I do talk about things like, you know, structural reforms here in the United States, but the size of the House hasn’t changed since 1913 you know, Washington DC has no senators. And Vermont has two. We have to start talking about service, not a draft, but some kind of military-related service because I’m also very worried, as I began my career studying several military affairs. And I should say by the way that I work, you know, in the Defense Department, but I don’t represent any of the views of the Defense Department in any way. I’m really worried about the creation of a new class of Spartans, think of themselves as better than the civilians, because we have outsourced wars and imperial policing and national duty to an ever-smaller pool of people who have come to think of themselves as both heroes and victims at the same time. So I have a lot of prescriptions in the book, but the first one is to begin with saying the constitution matters, the values of the constitution manner, the values of a liberal society matter. And we need to say it.


HEFFNER: You know, and I was a bit about some of the structural elements, because I know that you are conservative in the way that we used to understand conservative. And I think you’re, you’re recognized,


NICHOLS: Which we should say means resistance to dramatic change.


HEFFNER: Right, but, but you’re someone who has said for instance, that the notion of expanding the Supreme Court is unlikely one to be realized, but you are acknowledging the structural necessity to represent people where they live in the, in the case of DC, the DC versus Vermont, versus North and South Dakota comparison. So you are not proposing new amendments to the constitution or possibly yes, but, the conversational element of what is prescriptive is not going to be sufficient structural. So you’re really a great person to ask, how do you feasibly approach the structural change, knowing the gridlock that exists even within the Democratic party and Joe Manchin and Kristin Sinema as the obstacle to Joe Biden’s agenda right now?


NICHOLS: Well, and this is where I’m going to direct a lot of my comments to my friends over on the left. One of them is pick your battles and then concentrate all of your efforts on something that’s winnable. I have had so many discussions with people about the Electoral College, where they said, we have to get rid of the Electoral College. It’s got to end and it’s unfair and it’s not okay. I actually think there’s a reason for the Electoral College to exist. We are a federal union of states. It wouldn’t break my heart if the electoral college went away, I used to be a much stronger defender of it. But it’s not going to happen because the mechanism of constitutional change means that, you know, my home state of Rhode Island, which has a whopping, you know, four electoral votes they’re not going to make the, they’re not going to vote to let the Electoral College go away and turn Rhode Island into, you know, a campaign stop as a suburb of Boston. I mean, we have four electoral votes. We’re not going to give those up, you know Wyoming, Vermont, you know, Montana. This isn’t just right-wing states, you know, underpopulated or small states are going to, or I shouldn’t say under, but loosely, sparsely populated states are not going to give this up. So stop having dramatic screechy arguments about the stuff that isn’t going to happen. I think there’s a great case you could make as a bipartisan case for expanding the House, because the partisan issue there, I don’t think is this clear, I don’t, I’m not sure that Democrats really win a lot that way, but it changes the dynamics and it forces members of Congress to, you know, not be in these big blobby districts. Again, gerrymandering, we have to get rid of gerrymandering. Let me break everyone’s heart and say, you’re not going to get rid of gerrymandering. You’re not going to have computer drawn districts unless you change the constitution and Democrats and Republicans alike love gerrymandering, and they’re not going to let it go. So what can you concentrate on…


HEFFNER: So in this post-policy world and you and I spoke in Sydney, Australia at the Post-Truth Initiative, and now we’re post-truth and post-policy, but hopefully we’re not post the possibility, the prospect of structural reform. So if you’re basically advising Democrats or liberals who very precariously control the United States Senate and the Congress right now, you’re saying, look, pick the issue, whether it’s DC statehood or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, you know, voting rights more broadly.


NICHOLS: That’s a great example, right? Joe Manchin, as we speak this summer, Joe Manchin has killed H.R. 1 in the Senate and he’s killed S.1. Okay. Instead of having long windy arguments about Joe Manchin, because remember, the most important thing about Joe Manchin is he’s a vote to prevent Mitch McConnell from being the majority. No matter what else you say about Manchin, he caucuses. This is something I try to explain to students, think about who’s caucusing and who supports which leadership. Manchin and Sinema you can, you can aim boiling oil at them all day long. It didn’t happen. So now, what is the package you can pass? Don’t sit around talking about how it would have been great to do this and great to do that. I guess what I’m saying is people on the left need to be hard-nosed, cold-blooded and realistic about how to pass legislation. You know, I used to make. You probably remember this Alex, but I used to make liberal friends really mad when I’d say, look, Mitch McConnell is the gravedigger of democracy. I grant you, you know, he’s terrible. He’s probably the least principled human being. Although that’s quite a competition in Washington. He’s one of the least principled human beings to ever serve in government. And yet I would tell my liberal friends, be like Mitch. He is completely focused. He holds his coalition together. He passes the things that he thinks he can pass in, in small increments and piles up those wins. And I think Democrats really have to get over the idea that you’re going to save democracy in a day. We didn’t get here in a day. It took us 25 years to get here.


HEFFNER: Bottom line time is you think that statehood, DC statehood is a far more achievable proposition than expanding the Supreme Court?


NICHOLS: Yes. And I also think expanding the Supreme Court’s just a bad idea.


HEFFNER: You made that allusion to the, your conversation with someone who said this past election was shady. And I just wonder how you relate that to the narrative around 1960. I mean, and also 2000, but the, the kind of accusation or allegation about shadiness,




HEFFNER: It was folklore. And it wasn’t really in the historiography so much. I mean, if you pick up an Alan Brinkley or David Brinkley textbook, you’re probably not going to see allusion to, you know, Kennedy stole Illinois. Right. And there was funny business going on in Chicago.


NICHOLS: But he might’ve. You know, I actually brought this up with my, I said, this is this, this is like the election of 1876. I said, or I don’t know, 1960, 2000. I said, you know, this is what. I think what a lot of these folks are saying is I, I think we’re reverse engineering a lot of our beliefs about things based on our tribalism. Because the election didn’t go his way, he is reverse engineering a reason that it couldn’t have gone that way. And I think millions of people are doing that instead of simply saying, sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. We are catastrophizing every election. And I talk about this in the book. We have to stop going to every election saying, this is it. This is the one this has been, you know, and I actually did that with 2020 because I did believe that. I thought a second term of Donald Trump was not survivable. But if you’re one of the people who said Joe Biden, you know, is the end of American democracy then you really need to, you know, take a deep breath and get a grip on yourself.


HEFFNER: Fair enough, my friend. Tom Nichols, it is always a pleasure to see you. You are most insightful and direct in your recommendations. Thank you as always. And I hope to see you in person soon, out there in Newport, I’d like to see you out there in Rhode Island. I’m going to come pay a visit.


NICHOLS: In Newport and New York, hopefully. It’s good to see you again Alex.


HEFFNER: Sounds good. Be well.


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