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Opinion

Democracy Works: Tom Nichols on democracy's worst enemy

Tom Nichols
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Tom Nichols

Over the past 30 years, citizens of democracies who claim to value freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law have increasingly embraced illiberal politicians and platforms on both the right and the left. Democracy is in trouble, but who is really to blame?

In "Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy," Tom Nichols challenges the current depictions of the rise of illiberal and anti-democratic movements in the United States and elsewhere as the result of the deprivations of globalization or the malign decisions of elites. Rather, he places the blame for the rise of illiberalism on the people themselves. Ordinary citizens, laden with grievances, have joined forces with political entrepreneurs who thrive on the creation of rage rather than on the encouragement of civic virtue and democratic cooperation. While it will be difficult, Nichols argues that we need to defend democracy by resurrecting the virtues of altruism, compromise, stoicism, and cooperation — and by recognizing how good we've actually had it in the modern world.

Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Episode Transcript

Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for democracy at Penn State University, I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I'm Chris Beem

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week we are talking with Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College author of the new book, our own worst enemy, the assault from within on modern democracy, frequent cable news guest and I think he describes himself in his Twitter bio as a curmudgeon or resident curmudgeon or something along those lines. Tom has an interesting perspective about what ails American democracy right now. And he draws from his personal experience in framing this new book, which is a departure from some of his previous work, the death of expertise and others. And I know in particular, we've all been talking about one story that he uses about his father, and the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Chris Beem
Yeah, I mean, so to curmudgeons talking about the book from another curmudgeon, it's, you know, it's likely to be a little bit over the top, but there we are, anyway. Yeah. So in the book, it's like, it's right in the introduction. He mentions his dad is not long for this world. And he is a conservative his dad is actually I think at that point it Tom Nichols was as well. And he says, you know, Dad, I think Obama's gonna pull out this election. And dad said, well, they're both fine men will be fine. Either way. They're both good men will be fine either way. And he notes just how far away We are from that. And it reminds me of this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr where he says, politicians act as if the future of the nation depends on the outcome of an election. But they also have a reserve conviction that that's not true. And I think now, it is true. I think both people on both sides, both tribes believe that the future of the nation does hinge on the outcome of the election. And, you know, I think so. And I think Nichols thinks that, and it just makes for a very, very different society. And nickel starts the books by wondering if we will ever return to that notion of we'll be fine either way.

Michael Berkman
I mean, he's discovered negative partisanship. And just to be clear that everybody you know, that our listeners know, I mean, that's what negative partisanship is. It's where you tend to see the other side, as enemies tend to be very tribal. And I mean, it's a phenomenon that's been discussed in American politics for a number of years now. I don't remember when I think it was Abramowitz first came up with that term of negative partisanship or an effect of partisanship. But I mean, there's nothing new about saying that Americans have strong negative feelings towards those on the other side.

Chris Beem
There is nothing new about it. But what is new is the idea that there is no longer any reserve conviction. There's no longer any sense that, you know, we say we don't like them, and we may not like them. But we don't see the future well being of the Republic as being at stake genuinely existentially at stake in the future of the election.

Michael Berkman
I think what's new about Nichols argument is not that he, you know, not that he's identified and is concerned about negative partisanship. But this notion that he has, that the people themselves are to blame for the situation in which we find ourselves

Chris Beem
We, the collective we is to blame. Right?

Michael Berkman
Yeah. It's a sort of generalization that I have a hard time when I'm not sure who he's referring to. Is he referring to all of us? Is he referring to you? Is he referring to me? Is he referring to people that protest in the streets is referring to people that vote for Donald Trump? Who isn't all of us?

Chris Beem
Right? Yeah. I mean, he says that that's what this is. It's it's a, we have outsourced the responsibilities of being, you know, the one remaining superpower, right, it's a volunteer army, we have no responsibility for that. And for the vast majority of us, we have lived in a period of, you know, peace, right? There have been no demands made on us and the economy has increased to the point where we all are doing well, I mean, in terms of, I mean, the vast majority of us,

Michael Berkman
We rely on institutions rely on guard rails or rely on constitutions to protect democracy. Putting it in the hands of the people themselves, feels like an awfully risky enterprise to me, and I under And that the framers talked about it, and they said, you know, people are going to have to be virtuous in order to do this. But remember that when they were doing this, they were restricting politics, to a very, very, very small percentage of people who they thought were going to be worth. And when I sometimes feel like he's missing in this book is that, you know, a large, diverse country is a is very difficult to manage in a democracy. I mean, we are now living in a country where people that never were politically empowered now are right, so back in the good old days, women were empowered, and African Americans were empowered. And even young people weren't empowered. And now they all are right, in a complete, increasingly diverse country. And yeah, it's messy and ugly.

Chris Beem
And it is, it is high praise for a book when you and I go back and forth arguing in the notes, right? So I mean, it. Right. And so in that regard, at least, it speaks to the quality of this book, it's hard to read it and not have reactions and not have, you know, both shock of recognition. And also, wait a minute, is that true? You know, so in that sense, alone, it's a really good book. And I also want to say that Jenna's interview is really good at laying out some of these these issues and themes, and I think we would be reserving our, our listeners, if we, you know, let her lay those out before we go any farther. So Jenna, why don't we

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, Thanks, Chris. Tom. And I cover a lot of ground here. And I'm excited for everybody to hear the interview. So let's get to it.

Jenna Spinelle
Tom Nichols, welcome to democracy works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Tom Nichols
Thanks for having me.

Jenna Spinelle
So I guess after again, our listeners, I'm sure know you are or will I recognize your name because we talk about your book, the death of expertise all the time on this show, and you know, really excited to talk with you about your new book, our own worst enemy. And you know, as I was reading this, it seemed to me to be in some ways, perhaps a more personal book than the death of expertise was You talk a lot about your family and growing up in Massachusetts, and some of those types of things? And I thought maybe we could start there. Could you, you know, tell us a little bit about your background and how it informs the arguments or the thesis that you're making in this book?

Tom Nichols
Sure, it is a more personal book. And that was a choice. I was actually encouraged in that by a few of my friends and some colleagues who were reading some early drafts. Because I think if you're going to turn to your fellow citizens and say, Look, you know, the problem with democracy here is that, you know, you mean we are, you know, have become unvirtuous people and bad citizens, then you really need to say something about yourself. And you really need to give people some insight into who you are, that, you know, you're being that presumptuous to raise these issues. And I think it was really important to let people know that I did not come from, you know, as people often think professors do, or writers do, I didn't come from a privileged family I grew up in a factory town. And since a lot of what seems to be plaguing us now is this argument about forgotten towns and you know, the the emptying out of the industrial base, I thought it was really important to communicate to people that I came from a place like that. I mean, I grew up literally looking out my window and an abandoned smokestack for all of my childhood. You know, my brother owned a bar on the mostly abandoned railroad tracks next to a mostly empty factory. You know, I that's just the kind of town I grew up in my parents were depression era kids, my neither of them weren't graduated from high school. My mom had a ninth grade education. They're both very intelligent people. They read a lot, but they had no, they had no formal education. And so you know, when people would say, when I would talk about this, even when I was talking about the depth of expertise, now I talked about you know, the need to think about establish knowledge and respect expertise. People would say, well, you don't understand you don't come from that kind of place. Well, I do understand that I do come from that kind of place.

Jenna Spinelle
Sure. Yeah. And I know You talk a lot about the media as well and maybe how that has influenced some of those perceptions. Maybe we can come back to that here in a bit. But you used the phrase civic introspection, which I had never heard before, but I think is really key here and and gets to some of the things you were just talking about regarding virtues and you know The standards to which we all have to hold ourselves. Can you tell us more about what that term means and how it fits in this broader context of what we think about when we mean liberal democracy? Well, I,

Tom Nichols
I can't say I really coined a phrase as much as I just suggested something that would be a good exercise for any citizen of a democracy. We just ask yourself, not just, you know, am I a good person? nobody really wants to sit and say, am I a good person? That's a conversation you have with your mirror, or your priest or you know, your best friend. But at the very least, I think we need to ask ourselves more often, am I being a good citizen? Am I being, you know, is what I'm doing? A part of a healthy democracy. And we, I don't think we do that, because we just assume it. And that's because and I, I know, we'll talk about this in a bit. But that's because we've become a culture, not just in the United States, but in a lot of advanced democracies, that has become just riddled with narcissism. We never look at ourselves except to think about how we are not getting what is our do to think about how our sense of entitlement isn't being satisfied, to think about how other people aren't, you know, properly respecting us. And I think, you know, this notion of civic introspection is really important. Because you have to ask yourself, you know, am I voting for something? Or am I voting just to stick it to somebody else? Which has become a feature of negative partisanship for you not just in the last few elections, but for for some years now.

Jenna Spinelle
So what I mean when we think about you know, introspection is sort of a very, like individually focused thing but we also have this narcissism problems which you've identified so how do you without turning this into a some like psychology podcast is catching you? How do you sort of get to the introspection without the narcissism getting in the way or, you know, what role might other people be able to to do? Is there room for like, group introspection, or, you know, some way to sort of tamp down that sense of, of narcissism that you were just saying is so detrimental?

Tom Nichols
You know, when I first started writing the book, a colleague said, I hope there's more to this than just moral hectoring, which I always think of as my, you know, core skill set. And there are I mean, there are projects, I suggest that the end of the book and some recommendations for change, but I do think that in a democracy, the way we establish the moral and political guardrails is with a certain amount of tough love with each other. You know, I think it's important. It's kind of, again, linking back to a theme in the depth of expertise, when I said how much I hate the phrase, let's just agree to disagree, you know, I really hate that expression. Because unless it's about things, matters of taste, you know, I like cheeseburgers, and you like hot dogs, you know, nine times out of 10. There, things are either right or wrong, they're true, or they're false. And I think the same thing has to happen in politics where literally, and I've done this with people I know where I've turned and said, what you are saying is not only wrong, but it's undemocratic. It's anti constitutional, it's unAmerican, and you need to think about what you're saying. And I have had people say to me, and take issue with me about certain things. But I think once we stop talking to each other, honestly, like adults, all we're left with is childlike tantrums, and shouting on one hand, and silence and avoiding on the other. And I think we have to, I think the only people that can really guard our democracy is us.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. And I mean, the other thing that, you know, kind of plays into this and as you were just talking about the, you know, childlike tantrums, it brought to mind some of your arguments about the role of affluence and, you know, much like children, we're all always used to getting what we want all the time, and we can have anything we want, you know, delivered to our doorstep within hours or days. And that is directly in opposition to some of the hard, boring, slow work of democracy. Can you say more about that role of affluence and and how perhaps it's connected to narcissism and you know, some of these bigger themes?

Tom Nichols
Sure, you know, and that's part of the reason the book was a personal has such a person. It's not a memoir, obviously, but that I included some background about my own life. Because again, people bristle at the notion that we have had a long period of, you know, 30 or 40 years of pretty much unbroken affluence. And of course, the answer is, but there are poor people and there are, there are there is income inequality, and there are super rich people. And, you know, all of that is true, but by and large, across all social classes. You know, we live better now than we lived 40 years ago. And that's always true. You could make that argument about any 40 year period, but this level of affluence combined was a period of peace and it is a period of peace. Even the wars overseas were fought by volunteers and nothing was really asked to civilian society, which is one of the reasons I pointed out recently in an article in The Atlantic that you know, we just forgot about Afghanistan, I'm, you know, those of us who work in National Security Affairs, we remembered it, and we paid attention to it. And people in the military and their families paid attention to it. But, you know, people here in the United States lived in a time of peace, prosperity, affluence, and an remarkably high level of standard of living. So, you know, this, to me contributed to this narcissism, this, I think this contributes to this narcissism, because it allows you to withdraw from the public space, there are not we used to have to cooperate in times of scarcity, or war, or even the Cold War, where, you know, there were some sense that we had to pull together, we now have every form of leisure and work even where we can just be alone and think about nothing but ourselves. Add to this the problem of social media to which I devote a whole chapter where we can just interact with the world through a screen and a keyboard, and I'm looking at every time I talk about this, I admit it, I'm part of the problem. I mean, I, you know, I have a half million Twitter followers, and I spend a couple hours a day, you know, staring at other human beings, as you know, words on a screen. And that becomes very alienating after a while you stop thinking of other people as people, and you just think of them as objects in relation to yourself, and whether or not interacting with them is making you feel good. So all of these things together have created a kind of collective alienation from democracy, because we don't think it's very important, because it doesn't seem to be the thing that's enabling us to live our lives, even though it really does every single day.

Jenna Spinelle
So how do we, you know, both kind of address that without while, you know, without just dipping back into this, you know, narcissistic tendencies are these familiar patterns? And, you know, is there a way to sort of address, you know, one problem without bringing about all the worst tendencies of, you know, everything else that that comes with it?

Tom Nichols
Well, strangely, and I know some scholars have made that case. And I'm not sure they've, they've actually nailed down that case, I think how income inequality corrodes democracy is something that people assume because it seems very logical. And yet, it's been very hard to operationalize how that happens. And there are two things to consider here. One is that the revolt against democracy, the real illiberal streak that you find in Italy, the United States, the UK, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, is not coming from the poorest people. It's not a movement of the poor this is, this is where the model starts to break down. It's coming from a well off middle class. If you look at the people who, you know, were storming the Capitol, and, you know, talking about voting for strong men, and even before Trump, you know that democracy only works if I think it works for me, the Brexit tears Who were you know, the modern new nationalists in Britain, the five star movement, and this wasn't poor people, this these weren't like, you know, the dispossessed of the earth rising up that that makes for a great story. But it didn't happen that way. And I think, what really potentially drives a lot of anger, but democracy is not income inequality, which I think has really bad effects on the economy. It's snuffed out, it concentrates too much wealth. It's snuffed out innovation and snuffs out entrepreneurial ism. You know, I mean, even the ancient Athenians realized that they had to start building Parthenon to get money out of the hands, you know, of the top folks to put it back into society, which is why they did that. I think awareness of inequality can make people nuts. I mean, I don't think most people can really comprehend the wealth of a Jeff Bezos. And what we found in both studies and anecdotally, when you look at you know, talk to people about who they follow on Facebook and things like that, the most of the anger is not directed from the, the middle, the working class or the lower middle class or the poor, toward the super rich, it's directed from the middle class against the slightly better off middle class. And that, to me is a real danger sign when people are bored and surfing Zillow to compare house values and not just to look at the houses of the rich and famous like we used to do back in the 80s but literally on their own streets and well My house is worth $300,000 but you know, Joe's house was worth 320 and now I'm upset that that's really unhealthy. And that that has become you know, part of how bored middle class society entertains itself now.

Jenna Spinelle
And it's of course, you know, reinforced in the media, but both social media and you know, TV and you know, pretty much any type of media and nostalgia always sells and so it you know, people, you know often again don't have that sense of introspection to take a step back and think, Oh wait, what's really going on here because it's the easy thing to do to just sort of sit back and let it all wash over you.

Tom Nichols
Yeah, I talked about this in the book, I talked a lot about nostalgia. And for people who are like 70s and 80s. Rock, metal, there's a nice little detour in there where I talked about, you know, the about decline rock, you know, Bruce Springsteen in his town dying every 10 years, and, you know, the kinks lamenting the end of England, you know, 37 years ago, and how this seems to happen in cycles. And, you know, the problem is that we are nostalgic for a time that didn't exist except in our memories. And there are two quick stories, I'll tell one of them. I mentioned in the book, which is, you know, one of my best friends that I grew up with, we were sitting out front and talking about our neighborhood. And he said, I remember when these debts that Benny pointed at the cyber one that was full. And I said you can't you you literally cannot remember that because you and I broke the windows there, when it was empty in the early 70s. I said it's not it's physically not possible for you to have that memory. And the other is that how often especially young, progressive, analysts will say, well, let's take 1970 is a benchmark because of course, 1970, a single worker, you know, could support a family of four, and afford an apartment in New York City, right? That everybody since 1970, you could buy a small house in Queens, you could live in, you know, a working class neighborhood in Manhattan, you could live in, you know, Boston, in South Boston, or the south end, on and on and on. And then, but they leave, they leave aside everything else about 1970, which is that you could afford it because the job market was pretty good. for White. Again, white union employed men because their wives couldn't work. And didn't work. Because minorities were kept out of the workplace as competition. And even in 1970. I point out in the book 1970 was the year of the hardhat riot in New York City where construction workers frustrated because they felt that the working man was being disrespected, and that no one listened to them. wade into a crowd of Vietnam protesters and beat the living crap out of them. It was called Black Friday in New York,

Jenna Spinelle

You know, especially when you sort of mix in this also like this FOMO or this envy, you know, you were talking about surfing Zillow, you also talk in the book about, you know, things like seven year car loans, and that one really hit home for me, and my dad spent his career as a car salesman, and I was like, the finance guy that would do all these crazy loans. And, you know, he used to come home and tell me all the time how, you know, people are idiots, that was his kind of default assumption, you know, they'll sort of fall for anything. And one of the conversations he and I had, as I was growing up was like, what role? If any, should the government play in that? You know, is it should there be something, you know, akin to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, for the car industry to say that, no, it is not a good thing for our society to be able to let people make these types of loans or, you know, take out these types of loans. And that's a very long winded way of asking, you know, what role do the institutions have in helping to save us from ourselves?

Tom Nichols
Yeah, and um, you know, this is part of the problem that if you propose these kinds of, let's just call them what they are paternalistic solutions, the very same people making these decisions will say, you know, you can't step on my freedom, This is Democracy, I have the right to make bad decisions. Well, you do have the right to make bad decisions, but you don't have the right to then lay it off on the rest of society when those decisions blow up in your face. You know, the one of the examples that people brought up with me a lot when I was writing the book was the housing bubble. And just like your story about your dad, and the seven year car loans, which I mentioned in the book, you know, seven year car loans, you have people that are in their early 20s, that are already rolling in two or three other car loans from new cars that they've been buying, you know, in their teens and early 20s, which is which is just crazy, but you know, we want it and seven year loans have been a product since the 80s when people just wanted bigger and better cars. But with the housing bubble I was I was on the market looking for a house in 1999. So this was well before the bubble. And we were driving around this neighborhood I live in in Rhode Island which has a lot of beach area and you know, it's very nice. It's kind of a mixed income. neighborhood but it's it's got some really nice areas. And I saw these mcmansions that were being built back 20 years ago with four by fours and Kid Toys up front a night there. I asked the realtor I said, you know, I'm almost 40 years old, and I can't afford this, and I'm a professional. I said, How is this happening? And she nodded. And she said, they can't these younger folks cash out a ton of equity in their parents homes, put down downpayment, and then they live right to the edge of what they qualify for. But can you you know, can you put institutions in place, people will rebel against that. Imagine going in and having, you know, the bank saying, well, the Federal gut, because of course, this is why we did these, it used to be that you went to the bank, and the bank said, the federal regulations tell me that I can't give you this loan, because you simply don't qualify. You're not you can't afford this. And people didn't like that. We want to have universal homeownership, which was a bipartisan, as I put point out in the book, Gretchen morgenson. And her co author said this a bipartisan train wreck, you know that. But everybody said, Let's lower the eligibility, let's give out money that people can afford. And people gladly took those loans, and then said the government should have stopped me, someone should have saved me from myself. And I don't again, I don't think you can make a I don't think you can make a democracy work on constantly telling the government to save you from yourself.

Jenna Spinelle
Right? I mean, but I guess do and I know you sort of get at this a little bit when you talk about Thomas Frank and some others who have sort of a more left leaning critique of these sorts of things, like, Is there like where does corporate responsibility play in here? If not, if not the government? How do you kind of square the you know, corporate desire to always make more money and more profits? And you know, more and more and more with this sort of inherent that, you know, our vulnerabilities are our failings as people to fall for these things?

Tom Nichols
Well, you know, I wish I point out in the book that I worked in the Senate, I advised my boss not to vote for most favored nation status for China, this was back in 1990 is over 30 years ago, because I just didn't think China was the kind of regime that had earned that relationship with the United States. And the answer was, basically cheap toy manufacturers were piling into Senate hearing, saying, if you don't vote for this, poor kids are not going to have toys, we bought into that notion that we should have what we want. And what we want was a lot of cheap stuff. And I, I don't know how you preach corporate responsibility, while you don't also preach some kind of consumer responsibility, but I think what the corporation's did was horrendous in the sense of just saying, we will make cheaper and worse and faster and just think quarterly. I mean, that's been the great disease of American business for years. That, that they just think short term. On the other hand, you know, there are other other hands here, people with their people with 401, K's all they care about is the price of their stock. And so as I say in the book, you know, should corporations take less profit and manufacture things in the United States to employ American workers? Well, depends on whether you want a job, or whether you want to see your retirement portfolio increase. I think the other problem is, and I didn't go into this, but as some of my friends who work on this stuff, sometimes object, you know, a lot of these companies just didn't want to deal with American workers, and they didn't want to deal with American regulatory environments, and they didn't want to deal with the costs of location. Here in the United States. I had these arguments with friends, you know, why would you pay $300 more for a television? And the answer was no. Tell the company to take less profit. I said, Well, what if you work for the company? And what if you, you know, what if you What if you own stock in the company? Well, you know, basically, it always came down to the same answer. I want what I want, and I don't want to hear about costs. So I agree with core I think actually one place we could start is there's a lot of money to be saved in the government that basically amounts to corporate welfare. I don't think the US government should be in the business of subsidizing really anything unless we really need it. And you know that I think there's a lot of room for bipartisan agreement there. But you're still not going to stop the problem that people want cheap stuff. They've made a choice that consumerism is the new religion in America and corporations responded quite happily to that. Right and encouraged it I mean, not not to let them off the hook and encouraged it and told us that it was a good thing to consume and own and buy and have a lot of toys.

Jenna Spinelle
Right and you know, you talking about some of the You know, policy reforms just there I think gets us to some of the solutions you offer. We could go on and on, I think about some of these bigger quandaries and I think, you know, keep keep on with the moral hectoring as it were. But let's, let's bring it around to some, some solutions, you offer three modest proposals, as you call them. So let's run through those. The first is about, the party should decide, I don't know if you're meaning to harken back to the famous political science book there. But that phrase will certainly be familiar to our listeners tell us more about that

Tom Nichols
The party decides is a really well known book that now doesn't look, I mean, I don't want to slag the authors because it's a landmark work, and they did a great job. But it got kind of overtaken by events around 2016. Their argument was party structures are too strong, and basically subverting democracy by picking winners losers. And I think that was, you know, as a looking backward explanation for a lot of what happens in American politics, there was there was a lot of merit to that. The problem is a 2016 really showed that the parties had don't really have a lot of control over what's going on. And there's a lot of reasons for that, including super low turnout. And the effect of primaries where you can use the IRS social media, to mobilize a lot of people to show up and do things that the parties really don't want you to do. And two examples, there are on the right, and the left one was Alexandra ocasio Cortez is when, in 2018. I mean, she beat the guy that was going to be the next speaker of the house. And nobody really saw it coming. But on the other hand, you know, when you only have about a 12 or 13% turnout in a primary, that's the stuff that could happen. So that was definitely not the choice of the party. You had a Democratic primary, where in 2016, where you had a really strong challenge to the party, standard bearer, Hillary Clinton, from Bernie Sanders, who never bothered to join the Democratic Party. I mean, you literally had an major challenge from a guy who hadn't even bothered to register as a Democrat. Meanwhile, over on the right, you have Donald Trump, a lifelong Democrat, who just decides on this great, great scene at the beginning of Bob Woodward's first book, where he's talking to Bannon, and he's Trump's Steve Bannon. And he basically says, okay, so I was pro pro choice, fine, I'll be pro life. While I've done it, I donate it to a lot of Democrats, fine. I'll give some money to Republicans, you know, and these political entrepreneurs and hacks can ride right in hijack the process in again, in these at the beginning, what are these kind of load turnout, supercharged, ideologically, or emotionally supercharged primaries, and then the parties completely lose control. I mean, I would have been really happy to see both the Democrats and the Republicans, I think the Democrats should have turned to Bernie Sanders and said, you're more than welcome. But you know, you really do actually need to be a Democrat, to run in our party. And I would have loved to have seen the republicans turned to Donald Trump and say, You are not welcome here. You are not going to be on our debate stage. If you want to run third party, go ahead. But you are never a Republican, you are not a Republican in any identifiable way, ideologically, or in terms of policy, and you are certainly not going to stand on a debate stage, and just hurl insults at people's wives, but instead the party's coward and they said, well, the people want this. I think people don't understand that parties are not public utilities. They are private organizations. And they can decide what they stand for. And I think parties ought to do that. Again.

Jenna Spinelle
How are you feeling about the prospects for any changes or any momentum moving in that direction of the getting back to the the party deciding?

Tom Nichols
Yeah, I'm not very, I'm not very optimistic about it. I mean, the republican party has completely collapsed as a party. I mean, it just just does not exist as a party anymore. When the Republican platform in 2020, when they had that complete Carnival of nonsense that was, you know, multiple violations of the Hatch Act and federal law by having a, you know, a party convention on government property, and then said, you know, the platform is whatever Donald Trump says it is, you know, that's not a party. That's just a cult of personality. That's just a vehicle for an individual, the Democrats, unfortunately, lack of party discipline is something that Democrats take pride in. They love to come up. Every time I bring this up, Democrats love to throw that Will Rogers quote at me, I'm not a member of an organized political party. I'm a Democrat. And I keep saying the democrats stop saying that as if it's a good thing, because you know, in this environment, particularly, you really need to have a more organized party and I talk in the book about David shore, who's a data analyst who works on progressive causes and short Pointing out. Look, all parties are national now because of social media and the internet and cable news. So what someone says in a D plus 55 district where they can't lose, and they can walk around yelling about defund the police and college should be free and, you know, taking all of that, you know, America to NATO for whatever their you know, whatever the range of the day is, that hurts someone who's in a, you know, d plus one or r plus one district. And that that's how parties lose elections. That's how the republicans lost some elections. Back when you had nincompoops out in in, you know, Missouri, talking about legitimate rape, and, you know, the women's bodies can shut down unwanted babies and all of that it cost the republicans in other areas significantly. So, you know, the republicans just don't exist as a party. And I don't I don't know what happens there. I, I left the republicans years ago, and I don't I don't know what just what happens to the remnants of that party, I think it will become a succession of cults of personality. There's a lot that still needs to be done. And I think, you know, part of the problem is people think that well, defeating Donald Trump, this was all about Donald Trump, I wrote the book, because this is something that has been going on for 40 years, and Donald Trump was a symptom of it. And something that made it worse. But I think if we just kind of sit back and say, Well, okay, we fixed everything. Now. I don't think we're even close to being out of the woods. And I think people need to kind of take a deep breath and think about how they're going to reengage as citizens of a democracy.

Jenna Spinelle
Indeed, well, that is that is a great place to leave things. Tom Nichols, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tom Nichols
Thanks for having me.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, well, Chris, I agree with you. I think that was really terrific interview by Jenna and really brought the flavor of the book out. And, you know, one way I kind of read this book is as a different kind of take on the rise of populism in the United States and elsewhere, too. And, you know, so we've heard from people here and we've been, you know, we obviously have talked a great deal about the role of economic anxiety or the role of status anxiety, or the role of race and ethnocentrism in in popular sentiments, and, and he kind of wants to put it somewhere else doesn't he kind of wants to put it on people themselves? And if I'm reading it correctly, I'm hearing correctly, we're just not really being good enough.

Chris Beem
Not I mean, it is, you know, we have said on this on the show many times that democracy makes demands on us, right. And that is what he's arguing that, you know, we, you know, there's one point where he says, The only people that can really guard our democracy is us. And so, you know, to say that it's corporations or its its government? Well, that's all in some sense, I think he would argue us. And so the, as well. And so it's, you know, this is not an argument about politics, per se, it's an argument about culture, and about how how much we value and how much we exhibit these kinds of commitments in ourselves and in others. And I, you know, I mean, I'm inclined to agree with that. I think there is a, you know, for a variety of reasons, and it's not a matter of, you know, it's a matter of people responding to the environment in which they're in which is just something that human beings do.

Michael Berkman
You know, some I was really struck by this part where he goes into, you know, basically blaming the 2008 2009 recession on people for wanting really big houses and cheap credit. And, you know, yeah, there's some to that you shouldn't take out a loan you can't repay. I there's certainly something to that. But that's not why the economy crashed. And that's not why people buy houses, actually, the federal government has been incentivizing home purchasing for 50 6070 years. They did it by building the interstate highway system. They did it by giving you a tax break on your mortgage, but not on your rent. I could go on and on the ways that home ownership has been encouraged by the federal government, and then he's pissed the people because they want to own a big home.

Chris Beem
These are things that changed within the banking industry. They weren't things that changed in government. And even if you Even if you say it's the government His argument would be that it's because of the government only responds to incentives from voters. And if the voters are okay with that, then there's, then that's what's going to happen.

Michael Berkman
Here's the kind of thing I guess I'm trying to get at. And you know, nowhere in his book does he mentioned these enormous protests of white people protesting blacks treatment by the police. Yes, I agree. No. Where does he talk about huge marches for women's reproductive rights? Nowhere does he talk anything about protest activity, about increased voter participation, even just about the fact that maybe, maybe people are participating in politics and thinking politically, in different ways than they did 50 or 60 years ago. And he's having a hard time with that. You know, one of the things that one of the findings, I've mentioned this before, but I'll bring it up again, and the mood of the nation poll is that we found that younger people and older people think about democracy very differently. And that younger people tend to think about democracy in terms of mass political participation, and that older people did it. They thought about it in terms of this more attainable, I think, freedom than necessarily, you know, real mass participation in a political system designed for minority rule. So whenever I hear accounts, that want us to go back to a better time, I don't know I get really uncomfortable with it, because you can't isolate that better time, from the fact that politics and much of American life was deeply restricted to white men.

Chris Beem
But, you know, it reminds me in Biden's inaugural address, he said something along the lines of, there's always been enough of us to carry the our project forward. And so that doesn't mean that the and I think Nichols would agree with that. So it doesn't mean that we are always that we were in a former state, we had plenty of we were all virtuous, it doesn't mean that it means that we're enough people who had enough concern for the condition of the society to move it forward through every crisis that happened, right. And so now he's arguing that we don't, and that there are there are too many people who are behaving in ways that are undemocratic insofar as they are not sufficiently concerned with the condition of our democracy and their own condition as citizens. Yeah. So it's, it's it's like, it's not that we are in this totally different world, it's just that things have progressed in a way that is, in that degree alone is not good for democracy. And so if we are going to improve our the way our democracy functions, and that includes the pressure we put on corporations and the pressure we put on government, if that's going to change, we need to think about more than just what am I getting out of this? How am I being misled by the status quo,

Michael Berkman
I think we should leave it there with a good clear statement of his position?

Chris Beem
You know, I mean, I think, obviously, this the degree of debate and argument and investment in this argument is reflective of just how, you know, it's really good. It's really a good read. It's not the most uplifting book, it's actually kind of depressing in parts. But and in and I guess I kind of agree with Michael that the ending is the, the prescriptions he has at the end are a little thin, and he admits it is really, but in any case, it's it is a an interesting account of where we are as a democracy. And it's it's worth your attention. So for democracy works, I'm Chris Beem.

Michael Berkman
I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
Thanks for listening.