In September 1787, an onlooker is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government he and the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall had given the United States. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” Can we still keep it? That’s the question at the heart of Tom Nichols’ provocative new book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy. Nichols, a professor at the United States Naval College, joins Geoff Kabaservice to discuss how responsibility for our eroding democracy ultimately rests with America’s citizens themselves.
Nichols ticks off the factors that, in his view, have made American democracy increasingly unsustainable: citizens’ willingness to embrace illiberalism and conspiracy theories, the ingrained culture of complaint and its corresponding neglect of civic virtues and civic responsibilities, the degradation of public life and public service, and the social atomization that accompanies the spread of social media. At the same time, he cautions against the dangers of nostalgia for a bygone era of American greatness that never really existed, at least not as many Americans choose to selectively remember it. And while Nichols worries about the ways that the dystopic novels Brave New World and 1984 are coming to fruition in today’s America, he also offers hope that Americans can bridge a widening civil-military gap and shore up the foundations of democracy through collective action.
Nichols quotes Abraham Lincoln’s warning that “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” The threat to American democracy over the next few years, in his view, comes not only from populist Republicans’ inclinations toward authoritarianism but from Democrats’ failure to respond seriously to the reality that “we are in an existential crisis of government that requires an emergency response from a broad coalition of pro-democracy voters.” His message comes as a rallying cry to both center-left and center-right to recognize the dangers that confront us and respond accordingly.
Tom Nichols: The real issue is, can you sustain a democracy on people who contribute almost nothing and yet complain endlessly and talk about how shafted they are by their own system of government? And my warning is you literally cannot sustain a republic on this.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Tom Nichols. For many of you, he will need no introduction. He is a stalwart presence on Twitter as well as a commentator on much of American media, but for the past quarter-century he has been a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He’s been a columnist for the USA Today newspaper, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and he also is a lecturer in Harvard’s Extension School. And more to the point, he is the author of the recent and fantastic book, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy. Tom, I’m so happy you’re here. Welcome.
Tom Nichols: Good to be with you, Geoff. Good to see you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great. Now, I feel like I get to bathe a little bit in the reflected glory of this book, since I did read some of it in manuscript. And I thought it was tremendous then, and it only got better in the published version. I’m curious… The book has been out for a few weeks, is that right?
Tom Nichols: About a month? Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay.
Tom Nichols: Almost a month.
Geoff Kabaservice: So, given that we don’t really quite have book tours in this strange re-pandemic era, what kind of response have you gotten from people who’ve read it — and reviewed it, for that matter?
Tom Nichols: Well, first I’m going to not let you be so modest. You read the book in draft form and I think much of what’s best in the book, including a lot of the autobiographical stuff, really was your inspiration and your very welcome advice. So if people are liking those parts of the book, they can thank you more than me in some ways.
Thanks for asking. Yeah, I’m surprised. I actually, as you well know because you were helping me kind of think through a lot of these issues, I was really kind of curious about how the book was going to land. I really was apprehensive about a book that basically turns to a lot of my fellow citizens and says, “You’re the problem. Stop blaming Facebook, stop blaming globalization, stop blaming the elite, stop blaming Critical Race Theory, stop blaming right-wing talk show hosts. Look inside you and think about your responsibilities as a member of a liberal democratic society.”
Of course, as you and I said many times, this was a throwback to the founders as well, who really believed that public virtue couldn’t exist without private virtue. Civic virtue was the underpinning of the entire constitutional theory of the United States. And the reaction, remarkably enough, is that… I’ve even been surprised by people who have said things like, “Well, of course, Tom,” when I thought there would actually be quite a lot more pushback about that. I’ve had some folks telling me that I should think more — I mean, there was one review I thought was interesting that said, “No, no, democracy is in trouble because people are mad about climate change” — which I thought was an interesting topspin on that, because there’s no evidence for that.
I think the thing that was most gratifying about it was that people intuitively grasped the thing that I thought they would intuitively reject, which is that… They intuitively grasped the idea that this really isn’t just a kind of raw Marxist explanation or a class-based or economic explanation, but that there’s something gone really wrong culturally with us — and not just here in the United States but in Britain, in Italy, in Poland, in Turkey and Brazil and India and other places.
We can talk more about that whole theory. But that was really gratifying to me, that there were people who instead of simply as a knee-jerk rejection said, “Yeah, there’s something about this that’s intuitively making sense to me that I hadn’t thought about before.”
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things, of course, that makes your book so great is that although the subject is pretty dark in a lot of ways, you do manage to leaven it with a lot of humor, which I think makes it more endurable than it might have been otherwise. But some of this…
Tom Nichols: Well, I was a little worried. I thought… There’s a lot of pop-culture touchstones in the book, and I worried, because I have a tendency to be a little too precious when I write sometimes about stuff like that. Also, because I’m 60 and I’m nostalgic about… There’s a reference to “Lost in Space” that I thought was just kind of cute because I’m an old guy and I remember it when I was a kid. But I also put it in there because it is a dark subject. I wanted people to have some reference to it, some touchstones or reference points, that weren’t just raw data or polling numbers or unemployment figures or something. I wanted them to have some sense, some way to be able to relate to the argument in it without having to chew up a ton of data and facts and figures. So I tried my best to put a few smiles and a couple of laughs in there.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, and you succeeded. I was actually just reviewing George Will’s latest collection of columns for the Washington Post as I was rereading your manuscript. And there’s sort of a common theme between the two of you — who admittedly are both coming from somewhere on the center-right — which is that the public has become infantilized to some extent.
Tom Nichols: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a great quote you had here toward the end of the book, which is that: “After decades of international stability and rising living standards, the public wants what it wants and they want it without any guff from their elected leaders about ‘costs’ or ‘risks’ or ‘trade-offs.’ Such a society is not a democracy, it is a troop of ill-tempered toddlers.” This is a funny quote, but again what’s missing here seems to be a sense of adult responsibility towards the maintenance of our democracy.
It’s probably been overdone, but Benjamin Franklin famously replied to a woman who asked him, after the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government have you given us? And he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And maybe the issue now is whether we can keep it or not.
Tom Nichols: Well, you’re right that Will and I are coming in that sense from the same place. I had the pleasure of meeting George and spending a little time with him a while back. One of the comments I remember that he said — and he’d written a column about it many years earlier that stuck in my head while I was writing this — was he was marveling at the fact that, based purely on how they dress and deport themselves, you cannot tell fathers from sons in modern America.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, George Will has a lot say about the scourge of denim, but he has a point.
Tom Nichols: Yeah. And shorts — that these are grown men wearing shorts and t-shirts and baseball caps. And they are, other than height and facial hair, they are indistinguishable in their dress and behavior from their nine- or ten-year-old sons. It really is a kind of a funny and sort of sneering observation that’s true. But there is a deeper problem behind that, which is… and we saw it with Afghanistan. I mean, I wrote a bit about Afghanistan a few weeks ago when we pulled out and the American public was absolutely enraged. And I was very critical of Biden. I was very critical about a too-quick, peremptory pullout. But I supported the policy because in the end, after twenty years, this is what the American public wants.
And yet they were enraged. They wanted a pullout where everything is okay. They wanted a pullout where the Taliban doesn’t come back and nobody gets hurt and everybody just sort of packs their stuff up neatly and comes home. And that was never an option. Whether it was Joe Biden or Donald Trump or anybody else, that version of a pullout was never on the table — and adults knew that. But the American public didn’t care. They want what they want, and as I said in the book, they want it without any backtalk.
Geoff Kabaservice: You made the same point in your book as you did in that Atlantic piece, which is that there’s a lot of talk about “forever wars.” And yet we’ve had none of the disruptions to society or the shouldering of responsibilities on a societal-wide basis that usually accompany actual wars of that kind.
Tom Nichols: Except for the whining. As you know, I still work at a military institution, which I will be retiring from or leaving federal service later this winter after, as you pointed out, twenty-five years of teaching military officers. And I’ve seen on whom that burden falls. It falls on military people and their families, the volunteers. The people that are walking around, college kids, talking about being war-weary or people that don’t even know a military family or have never seen any of this cost… Anybody who’s been in a military community or military family, they have every right to say they’re tired of these long wars, they’re tired of multiple deployments. But when a 60-year-old grandmother in Oregon or a 22-year-old college student in Syracuse says, “I’m war-weary” — that’s not only laughable, it’s slightly offensive. You’re not war-weary, what you’re weary of is hearing about it. And that’s different.
We were in Afghanistan for twenty years and we lost 2,600 people. We were in Vietnam for ten years and we lost 57,000 people — drafted people, people whose lives were interrupted by the mandate of government service, who had to leave and never came back. Whether you agree with Vietnam or Afghanistan or any of these deployments, the real issue is, can you sustain a democracy on people who contribute almost nothing and yet complain endlessly and talk about how shafted they are by their own system of government? In the book, my warning is you literally cannot sustain a republic on this. It’s not possible.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, I agree. This book, obviously, to some extent grows out of your previous book, The Death of Expertise. And to some extent you could be accused in your previous book of advocating technocracy, and to some extent in this book you could also be accused of issuing an elitist summons to your fellow citizens to live up to their adult responsibilities. But one of the reasons that I thought it was so important to include some of your personal and biographical perspective in this book was that you managed to achieve the difficult stunt of issuing a summons to elitism without coming across as an elitist. And for this reason, I would like to talk a bit about how you grew up, where you grew up, and how you came to your present perspective.
Tom Nichols: Yeah. And again, I have to thank you, Geoff, because I was reluctant to do that. I’m not really a fan of the confessional approach to opinion writing. But I think in an era where people immediately draw assumptions about your background, I think it’s important — you and others convinced me of this — it’s important to put your cards on the table and say, “Look, the assumptions you’re making about me — that I grew up in some tony suburb with a couple of left-wing college professor parents — is bullshit. And you need to know that it’s bullshit.”
You’re right about some of this coming out of The Death of Expertise. And interestingly enough, people thought I was advocating for technocracy when in fact I was warning about technocracy, where I was trying to issue — and I do this again in Our Own Worst Enemy — that you are going to get a mildly authoritarian technocracy by default if we don’t change our ways. And by “change our ways,” I don’t mean showing up and trying to lynch Mike Pence and smearing poop on the walls of the Capitol. That actually will lead to a carefully isolated technocracy even faster than everything else. Because in the end, the lights have to stay on, and the mail has to get delivered, and the Wi-Fi has to keep giving you five bars and all that stuff.
So my background — and this, as you know, this is why it was so painful for me to write — I grew up in a factory town. I say to people that I grew up in Massachusetts and, of course, most people who aren’t from Massachusetts, they say, “Oh, church steeples and college campuses.” But they forget that there’s a whole part of the Connecticut Valley, everything west of Worcester, that is much more like upstate New York or even parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. That part of Massachusetts, you can even hear it in my voice. I mean, our linguistic map even sounds, when you get west of Worcester, we sound more like upstate New York and the Midwest than we do like Bawst’n and your cous’n from Bawst’n and The Cahs.
I really wrestled with this because I made the class transition, from working class to middle class to upper-middle class, through education. And to turn to the working class that raised me, that birthed me and raised me, and say, “Listen, you are part of the problem,” was very difficult. My parents were very intelligent people, but my mom had a ninth-grade education, my dad had a tenth-grade education. My growing up was full of all of the pathologies of the white working class: alcoholism, violence, good times, bad times, bankruptcy, all kinds of that movie-of-the-week stuff that makes people talk about the “forgotten towns.” My hometown, by the time I was in college, my hometown was already mutating away from the diner and the corner store and the barber shop to the abandoned storefronts, the Spanish churches, the liquor stores and bars.
So I felt that it was really important to say that, because I understood what I think people were trying to talk about as anger about change. But I also felt it was important to talk about that because of how much I thought that explanation didn’t explain anything. Most of the de-industrialization where I grew up was already complete by the 1980s. This was not… One of the things that made it so hard to write the book is that I felt like I was — you know that great line from Zoolander — I felt like I was taking crazy pills, where people would say, “Well, you know, these past five or six or seven years have been a response to globalization and forgotten towns and factories closing.” And I would look around and say, “Guys, that happened thirty-five years ago. For some of you that happened before you were born. It is not possible for you to remember those days because you were not born yet.” And I thought that that rejoinder could only come from somebody who had seen it firsthand.
Geoff Kabaservice: You grew up in Chicopee, Massachusetts. I grew up outside of Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is, or was…
Tom Nichols: Another garden spot.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, a scary mill town. But what people don’t realize is that places like Lowell had their economy devastated in the 1920s…
Tom Nichols: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …when the mill owners began to move down to the South and their textile operations got set up in that non-union, low-salary terrain and all that went with that. So this has been going on for a long time.
Tom Nichols: That’s why I included… There was a really beautiful quote. It’s always intimidating when you’re writing about something and you run into somebody who’s a much better a writer than you are. But when I was trying to evoke that reality that you’re talking about in Lowell, I took a passage from the memoir by Andre Dubus, the writer. He talks about moving to Haverhill, another Massachusetts mill town that you and I both know. He talks about how Haverhill was already flat on its ass by 1972, because the shoe industry that had sustained it was already gone, as you point out, by the 1920s. He talks about moving into Haverhill with his mom. His class transition goes backwards. His dad is a writer and a veteran, and the family breaks up, and he ends up sliding down the socioeconomic ladder and living with his mom (as a single mom) in Haverhill. He points out, the stores are all boarded up. Their windows are full of dust and dead moths. The only real places that have any activity are bars that are always full. There’s drug abuse. There’s crime.
His memoir by the way, which I would recommend to people — after they buy my book, of course — it’s called Townie. That’s what we called people like us, the townies. I think it’s hard for people to understand that no matter what I do now, my early teen years could have ended as easily in jail as in college.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, you mentioned that, which I thought fascinating.
Tom Nichols: I think people just don’t… They think that’s new. They think that’s something that only happened a generation ago or ten or fifteen years ago. I think we have to get past that. We have to get past that idea that everything bad that’s ever happened, happened five years ago.
Geoff Kabaservice: I really did love that quote from Andre Dubus about Haverhill in the early 1970s: “It was a town of boarded-up buildings, the parking lots overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash. Most of the shops downtown were closed too, their window displays empty and layered with dust and dead flies.” Because I remember Lowell like that, too.
Tom Nichols: Yes. Well, and I saw it happen to the town I was born in, which is one town over from Chicopee: Holyoke, which used to have this thriving main street. Of course, when that main street died, the people in my town said, “Well, you know who did it? The Puerto Ricans.” That was the villain. That was the villain where I grew up, the Puerto Rican community. And then it was, “Well, the factories closed and that was the rich guys and globalization.” But they all ignored the clear culprit, which was the mall. In the early 1980s, they opened a gigantic mall a few miles away from that main street, and it instantly killed everything. And people just don’t want to remember that. Why? Because they were going to the mall.
When I go home I ask, “Well, did you go shopping on High Street after the mall opened?” “Well, that’s not the point.” No, it is the point. And I say this in the book over and over again, that we as Americans, we are totally unwilling to think about the second- and third-order effects of our own choices.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. It’s funny you mentioned the mall… The last book I wrote was actually a history of women in the town of Corning, New York, which is in the Southern Tier in upstate New York. And no sooner was the mall opened nearby than the Main Streets and the Market Streets of every single town in that area died — just dried up and died.
Tom Nichols: Yeah. The barbershop in my hometown… I was having an argument about this with a guy — now of blessed memory, I’m sad to say, rest in peace — but a guy I went to high school with. I said, “You just don’t like that Hervey’s” — this barbershop that was run by a French-Canadian guy named Hervey — “you just don’t like that it’s a Spanish church now. It just bothers you.” And he’s like, “Yeah. Things don’t have to change that way.” I said, “That barbershop… Where were you getting your hair cut? You were going to the mall. We all did. We didn’t go there anymore. The last hair cut I got from Hervey was when I was like eleven.”
We want to scapegoat somebody because the idea that we might’ve done it, that we might’ve killed our beloved main street, is simply beyond our reckoning. And we can’t accept it because that’s our nature as — a word we haven’t used yet but that figures prominently in the book —because we are narcissistic. We are narcissistic, a narcissistic consumer society, and we don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want to hear about what that does to our society.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember hearing you talk about another conversation you had with a high school friend where he was remembering when the factory in town was vital and thriving and supporting this intact community. And you said, “Well, no.” Tell me about that.
Tom Nichols: My best friend growing up, I… Despite how dicey my childhood was at various points, I did have a best friend who literally lived so close that I used to be able to lean out of my window out of my bedroom window and yell to see if he was home — which of course our neighbors really loved, right? But my best buddy lived just a couple of houses away from me. And we were little vandals. We weren’t bad kids. We weren’t hurting anybody, we weren’t bullies, we weren’t taking anybody’s lunch money. But, you know, we were doing a whole bunch of things our parents wouldn’t have approved of. And he said to me, just a few years ago, he said, “Well, somebody’s gotta pay because there’s that… I remember when that place was booming.” And I said, “That’s literally not possible for you to remember that because you and I broke the windows over there in, like, 1972.”
And the building he was remembering, it had had companies move in and move out and kind of roost there temporarily. And then during a boom in the early ‘90s, they did some shift work, and then that was gone. But he was remembering this time where it was like a big, full, bustling, lit-up factory. And I said, “Dude, the memory you think you have literally could not have happened.” He nodded for a minute and he looked a little stunned, like that it didn’t occur to him that that was possible. He just kind of shook his head and he said, “Well, you know what I mean.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. When I was reading through some of your book, I was trying to think of who the quote was and who said it, and I think I finally came up with it. It was Robert Nisbet, the conservative sociologist, who said, “Nostalgia is the rust of memory.” And so much of what you’re talking about is memories that didn’t happen, or that got things so wrong. And this is relevant because the former guy who was in the White House ran on the campaign slogan of “Making America Great Again,” which is in itself an appeal to a kind of nostalgia that probably doesn’t even exist.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, I talk a lot about nostalgia in the book as a really corrosive influence on democracy, because liberal democracies cannot compete with nostalgia. When you say “Things were better in 1980,” no matter how wrong that is, no liberal democratic government can tell you that it’s wrong. And they can’t go back in time, because what you’re really remembering is when you were twenty-one.
The same fellow I was talking to about the factories, we were having a talk about who he voted for. Of course, like most Americans — and we should definitely talk about this in a bit, Geoff — but like most Americans, his voting record was fairly incoherent, right? He votes for Reagan twice. He votes for Bush. He votes for Clinton twice. He votes for Bush again, another Bush. He votes for Obama twice and then he votes for Trump. And I said, “What are you doing? What do you want?” And he said, “Well, the economy’s better with Republicans.” And I said, “But you voted for multiple Democrats.” “Well, yeah, but those were not those rich Republicans that were trying to screw me over.” And finally, he said — and this was the nostalgia at work — he said, “Nothing’s been good since Reagan.”
And there’s two kinds of nostalgia at work here. One is the people like my middle-aged buddy. I think a lot of people around the world are having a midlife crisis. And particularly white men are having this terrible kind of midlife crisis where their mortality, their fading influence, their demographic relevance are all kind of slipping away from them and they’re losing their minds. And so they’re remembering what they think is a really good time in 1980 or 1985 or 1990, when in fact their fathers were bitching about everything and how much better the 1950s were.
But the other kind of nostalgia is almost more dangerous, and that is the nostalgia of young people remembering things that didn’t happen before they were born. There are a couple of social scientists that I mentioned in the book who said this is actually happening around the world, where people are being sold — literally being sold — false memories of times that didn’t exist. I’ve had this argument so many times with younger people who say, “Well, you know, people your age, Tom, you don’t really understand us. Because in the 1970, things were much easier” — which of course for anybody who’s lived through the 1970s is an instant belly laugh. I mean, the 1970s were horrifying. They were miserable.
Economically, they say, “Yeah, but college was cheaper.” And I’d say, “Well, because so few people went to college.” When I began college in 1979, 14% of American women went to college. It’s like, okay, college was a lot cheaper. That wouldn’t have been relevant to you because you would have had to stay home. Because what you were going to do at twenty-one — or, excuse me, at eighteen — you were going to graduate from high school, you were going to get married, you were going to have babies, and you were going to go to work in some unskilled job. You weren’t going to go to college. Congratulations, you don’t have to worry about college costs — because you weren’t going.
Healthcare was a lot cheaper because you died at fifty-seven. That first brush with breast cancer or a heart attack or prostate cancer just took you right off the board — and suddenly your healthcare costs when you’re seventy were no longer an issue. And they don’t want to hear that part. They’re like, “No, everything was great. Everybody could afford everything.” The idea that women didn’t have, were not fully empowered members of society, that minorities were only within a decade of the Civil Rights Act being passed and still treated like lesser citizens who weren’t allowed to compete in the job market…
The standard of living that’s involved… This is something… I have to bring this up and then I’ll get off this soapbox. But every time we start having this discussion about generational change and standards of living, people my age bring up air conditioning. We all bring up the same thing. I talk to my wife, who’s exactly my age, and I said — I was at a book thing and talking to a student — I said, “What do you remember about the 1960s?” She said, “Sweating.” And, you know, how miserable it was in schools and your home and offices, un-air-conditioned offices with people sitting in them and smoking? Things like that. And you try to explain this, that what you think you’re remembering about the 1970s or the 1980s is simply not true, and you are burdening yourself as a citizen by thinking that the government can do this for you.
Geoff Kabaservice: These sorts of things make you feel old, I hate to say. I remember in junior high where the designated smoking area was.
Tom Nichols: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember going to high school in Florida in classrooms that did not have air conditioning. This is Florida. It was hot. This would be considered child abuse nowadays.
Tom Nichols: In my high school, they called the teacher’s room… First of all, there was a men’s teacher’s room. There was a teacher’s lounge, but there was a men’s-only teacher’s room. So imagine that right off the bat. And it was informally known to students and faculty alike as “The Bunker.” You’d walk into it and it was a cloud of nothing but cigarette smoke and kind of guy stink. It was literally called “The Bunker” and there were guys in there smoking pipes and cigarettes all day long on their break. The idea of that now… First of all, to say, “I’m sorry, this is the men’s teacher’s lounge. You ladies will have to go down the hall.” Imagine trying that now. But this is the time that that younger people say, “Oh, that must’ve been a great time.” No, it was a terrible time.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, David Frum, among others, has pointed out that very few Americans, if they actually could go back to the 1950s, would do so. Because, as you say, the standard of living was so much lower then. Society was more violent. Class roles seemed to be much more fixed in so many ways. And life was just physically difficult. Part of the reason that America could actually afford even its vestigial beginnings of its Medicare program was that people who smoked dropped dead at age fifty-seven, as you say, and they didn’t burden the healthcare system in that sense.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, the going back in time… Kevin Williamson has made that point many times. He says, “Look, you can have the lifestyle that your parents had.” Because one of the complaints, one of the knocks about democracy — because this isn’t just about people bitching about life. The problem that I identify in the book is people bitching about life and then saying, “And this is why liberal democracy has failed as a system of government.” Kevin Williamson made the point. He said, “When you say, ‘Well, one of those failures is that I can’t live the way my parents lived at my age,'” he points out what an absurdly false thing that is to say. He said, “You can have a 1957 life quite cheaply if you want it.”
But as they say in entertainment, you’re going to really have to commit to the bit. If you want that 1957 life, it means throwing your phone away. It means having one television with three stations on it in black-and-white. It means not having a car and taking public transportation everywhere. It means living in square footage that is tiny. And if you’re married and have children, it means multiple kids in the room next to you in a two- or three-bedroom apartment with a common kitchen without a living area. I mean, it means all of those things. And when you talk to people about this, they say, “No, no, that’s not what I mean. I want the opportunity and the…” What they really want is a 2021 lifestyle at 1975 prices, and that’s just not on the menu. You can’t have that.
Geoff Kabaservice: I find myself nodding along with everything you’re saying, but then this produces in me the counteraction to want to say, “And yet.” So here’s where I add the “And yet.” I sure would like the Republican Party of 1957 back.
Tom Nichols: Oh yeah. Oh well.
Geoff Kabaservice: And this goes along with some other things too. Yours is the second-most depressing book that I read this year, Tom. The most depressing actually was a book by Robert Putnam, whose work Bowling Alone you quote a lot in your book. But his book The Upswing really should be called The Downswing. Because it’s a story about how Americans’ understanding of our need for community, our concern for each other, our trust in government and other social institutions, our shared prosperity and public institutions began from a very low level in the Gilded Age (which very much resembled the current age), and yet improved through the Progressive era, with obviously dips in the Depression, but then a real coming-together during World War II and on and on upward into the late ‘60s — at which point it’s pretty much been downhill ever since.
And I think young people do have kind of a point when they point out that more young people now are living at home with their parents than at any time since a hundred years ago, that young people have less sex than previous generations had as well as less marriage and obviously fewer children… that there weren’t these deaths of despair in the previous century that we now see. So some things actually have changed for the worse.
Tom Nichols: But I’m going to take issue with almost all of that. First, it really raises the question, the decline since the ‘60s. And I say that accelerates — I talk about it in the book — that really accelerates after the end of the Cold War. Democracy seemed to be really good at coping with scarcity and conflict. They don’t seem to be very good at dealing with peace and abundance. And in part, this is where you get this kind of weird, right-wing movement of the Catholic Integrationists and the sort of back-to-tradition roots evangelicals. And all that’s saying what we really need is some kind of old-timey religion, where we’re all sort of told what to do rather than let loose and able to pursue our decadent, leisure interests — which I think is nuts. But there’s a point under it which is that, left with nothing to do, idle hands are the devil’s plaything.
I think Eric Hoffer, who I actually lean on in the book… Hoffer called it in the 1950s when he said the biggest danger and the biggest risk of a mass movement arising is when people are bored. When you have a leisure society and a middle class that is bored out of its skull, they start looking for great causes and crusades to get on.
But let me take issue with these arguments about, “Well, we’re living with our parents. We’re having less sex. We’re not having kids.” I didn’t live with my parents at 24 or… I’m trying to remember what year it was. Yeah, I was 23, 24, and I remember that I was within an inch of throwing in the towel and saying I needed to go and crash with my folks for a while — because I was broke. And the way I dealt with that was to share an apartment that was a two-bedroom apartment that had been turned into a three-bedroom apartment with no living room. We had basically created a dirt-cheap living situation with another student and a carpenter — my other roommate was a carpenter. I always thought that was kind of cool. We had roaches and broken tiles and a shower that didn’t quite work, and the super lived underneath us and smoked cigars all day. I mean, it was crap. But it was affordable. And I valued not moving back home so much that I was willing to do that.
And I think that part of the problem is that younger folks have experienced such a high standard of living that they are not capable of taking the hit to the standard of living that living alone requires when you first go out on your own. This was something I think generations before you understood. Living with mom and dad, that was pretty nice: home-cooked meals and your parents had a nice television. But it was just part of the deal that when you moved out, you were going to have a knife, a fork, a plate.
I can’t speak to the issue of them having less sex and less dating. But again, there’s this kind of weird self-isolation that has taken place because of the virtualization of everything. I don’t know how to reason with a society where people say, “We spend money on all the wrong things, and giant corporations tell us what to do, and we’ve destroyed our social life.” And yet we have entire generations who live their entire lives mediated by electronic devices in a country — and I point this out in the book — where the one corporation that can rival the online presence of Microsoft and Apple is Pornhub.
Once again, how much of this is because of our own choices? If you look at just what we spend on sports, gambling, and pornography in this country, you could fund the Green New Deal, the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Marshall Plan probably all at once from what we spend. And I say this as, as you know, a recreational gambler. I’m not a big sports guy. I have a, shall we say, libertarian and morally neutral approach to pornography by consenting adults. But the idea that somehow all these terrible things are happening, and yet we throw up our hands as if it’s a mystery to say, “How is there a casino in every city and a multi-bazillion-dollar porn industry?” Well, I’m sorry, this is not because of aliens. This is because of us.
With that said, absolutely housing is too expensive. And NIMBY regulations that don’t allow multifamily housing — sure, that’s a local issue. If you’re that mad at San Francisco, go vote. Deal with it in New York or San Francisco. But that’s not because… If you’re a 25-year-old and you want to be a writer living in Brooklyn and you can’t afford it, it is not the fault of the Constitution of the United States that that life was not afforded to you.
Geoff Kabaservice: At some point, I want you to wade into the issue of meritocracy, because this obviously is a big subject of discussion nowadays. And chances are pretty good that those angry DSA socialists in Brooklyn who went to the fancy colleges will turn out just fine in the long run. But on the other hand, that’s not so true about the people in the working class and the sub-working class, let’s say. And here you raise the specter in the book of two dystopic novels coming to fruition at the same time, even though they seem to be in tension with one another, one of which is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is a sort of vision of soma and the feelies and distracting ourselves to death. And you say we’re already there.
Tom Nichols: Right. That’s what we’re living in.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. And the other is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984, and specifically a little-noticed part of that book which is the fate of the proles. And these are people who, as you point out, are living under a dictatorship, an authoritarian society, and yet they pretty much live their lives unmolested by authorities — not because they’re above suspicion, but because they’re beneath suspicion; because they actually have nothing in mind, again, other than their appetites and cheap entertainment. And there are also no leaders among them who could actually put ideas in their heads about changing the way things are.
Tom Nichols: When I was first drafting out the chapters of the book, this was just before the pandemic and I was working out, I was listening to audio books. And I said, “I got to drop some pounds and I’m going to the gym.” And being on a treadmill’s boring, so I said, “I’m going to revisit the classics.” And the only part… I mean, when I was a kid during the Cold War… And of course my first academic and professional experience was as a Russian-speaking Soviet expert. So the parts of 1984 about the Inner Party and the torture and the political control, that spoke to me when I was younger. That seems less relevant to me now.
The part that stuck in my head and bothered me — and I still remember the night, I was just on a treadmill at night and I was listening to this book, and I had to go home and write down that section — was Orwell talking about the Party slogan, “Proles and animals are free.” Where the proles — the people that were not educated like the Outer Party, the bureaucratic/clerical class that inhabits the outer layer of the Party in 1984 — he’s talking about the people that are just factory workers and the bottom rung of society, but actually the most numerous. Again, a part of the book that, as you point out, people don’t concentrate on. The reason Winston Smith puts his hope in the proles is because he knows they outnumber the Party; that in sheer numbers they could control things in a flash if they were organized.
And he talks about how the life of the proles is beer and sports and lotteries and petty infighting, and the first blossom of sex that then turns into kids and miserable and early death in middle age. And that was the part I said, “We’re not going to need the Inner Party. We’re not going to need the boot stamping on a human face. The proles are going to be a self-creating part of society that will take themselves out of the political equation by default.”
And I felt like that’s where the intersection with Brave New World came. Because as you point out, in the meritocracy… I love that notion of the DSA kids who went to good schools. They’re smart enough to know that, “No, my life is not going to just be football and gambling and fighting and sports and drinking.” They make it out of that at some point because they think they should. They’re still mad because they can’t afford a house in Westchester or they can’t afford living in the Bay Area. But they make their way.
But I really worry about these glittering cities with favelas in every direction around them — and not because of globalization or because of corporate policy, but because we’ve just tended that way left to our own devices. And this is why I worry so much about a technocracy, because I think there will be very clever people who will say, “Hey, you know what? As long as those folks have warm houses and a Burger King and McDonald’s on every corner and 180 sports channels and a lot of internet porn and beer, they’ll be fine.” It’s cynical, but I think that’s not wrong either.
Geoff Kabaservice: The shadow of Charles Murray also falls a bit on your book, even though I don’t think you mentioned him. Part of his thesis, particularly in Coming Apart, was that meritocracy has precipitated out the natural leaders from the working class. And what you have left are really the proles. And the people like your parents who are intelligent but didn’t go to college — people like your mother who would have run for local office, people like your father who was smart and played a civic role — those people aren’t there anymore. And that’s part of why you have the societal decline.
Tom Nichols: You’re absolutely right that the shadow of Charles Murray, at least on that book, is there. And I didn’t feel the need to quote him or bring him into it because I feel like he has been — I don’t want to say intimidated, but I think when forced to pick sides between the populists and the elites, Murray, whose book was very much a plea for the elites, I think chickened out. I saw him give interviews shortly after Trump was elected where he had the opportunity to really hammer some of those themes from Coming Apart, and he backed off of them because I think he knew how they sounded. And I’m not impugning Murray here; I’ve never met him. To me, he came across as knowing how those themes sounded in the age of Trump, and he didn’t want to give aid and comfort to the class enemy.
But remember that Charles Murray is the guy who said something that people would have expected to hear from me. He literally said the white upper-middle class should preach what it practices. That line always stuck in my head. He said they need to go out to the white working class and say, “Hey, stop knocking up your girlfriends. Stop living off of unemployment. Stop getting high every day.” The things that conservatives once said to minority communities, right? “Pull up your pants. Stop taking drugs. Stop knocking up the girls in your neighborhood.” Murray was very clear that the white upper-middle class should be saying that to the white working class.
Trump got elected, and Murray just got quiet about that all of a sudden. Because of course Trump’s message — and this comes back to creating this kind of movement of the proles by default — Trump’s message was, “Hey, all those things they’re telling you about, the opioids and the kids out of wedlock, and the persistent unemployment? Not your fault. Not your fault. You were screwed over, bro.” And I’m like, what? I’m sorry, this is the Republican Party? These are the same people that were going to minority neighborhoods in the cities and saying, “Pull your pants up. Put down the pipe.” Suddenly Trump’s going around and saying, “Yeah, all those pills you’re taking — we’re going to get even with somebody for that.” Literally it was the same argument — that drugs are being pumped into your neighborhood by heartless people — that minority communities believed in the ’80s about crack, Trump was replicating about opioids.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, and unfortunately, this is still with us. Murray, I think, wanted it both ways. He understood that the elite model of living is the right model and they ought to be preaching that, and yet he can’t feel like he’s going against the “real Americans.” Trump is the same way. Trump knows, for example, that the vaccine, which he helped develop through Operation Warp Speed, works wonders. It’s a modern medical miracle. Everyone ought to take this vaccine so we can get beyond the pandemic. But he can’t preach that to the “real Americans” — because they would boo him, among other things.
Tom Nichols: Murray, who has been this dark, hated figure for the left because of what he said about IQ and race — a debate that I can’t stay far enough away from, because I hate the way that whole debate is phrased — but Murray has this little revival for a while of going out there and saying, “Listen, the problem with the white working class is the white working class.” And suddenly Trump gets elected, and as you say, it goes away. Because now it’s almost like you’re accidentally canoodling with the enemy, the class enemy, to point these things out. And I mean, I thought it was just great when Murray was saying things like, “If your neighbor’s kid is unemployed and living with you and thinks that mowing lawns to make money is beneath him, then you should be judgmental about that. You should look down on someone like that who does not want to take an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.” After 2016, all that goes away.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. I mean, it would be completely off-brand for Donald Trump to summon his followers to their best selves. I mean, really what he is… One looks at violence on airplanes right now. He’s like the Great Eye of Mordor. His damage calls to the damage in his followers to be their worst selves.
Tom Nichols: The thing about people fighting on airplanes… Again, what’s the buried lede about ordinary working-class folks who’ve “had enough” fighting on airplanes? The buried lede is ordinary working-class folks fly enough that they can be pissed off on airplanes. Before deregulation — and I’m talking to one of the godfathers of the studies on this stuff, you being at Niskanen and having written the things you’ve done… But for people listening, I think it’s almost like people can’t envision this, but before airline deregulation in the late ’70s, only about 15% of American adults had ever flown on a commercial flight anywhere in the United States or internationally.
Imagine that. Fewer than one in five Americans had ever flown on a commercial airliner. And now it’s like a bus. I was on a flight back from Ireland once, and the guy behind me was telling his seat-mate, “Yeah, I’m a grad student in Boston, and I’m a little hungover because a buddy called me from Berlin, and so I got a cheap flight and I went to Berlin and we went out drinking for the weekend.” I’m like, I just wanted to turn around and say, “I was a grad student once and I had trouble eating. I was eating boxes of pasta to get by. How the hell did you go to Berlin for a weekend?” And it’s just really common that people just get on airplanes: “Well, I’m going to go visit a friend. I’m going to take a flight.”
I’ve gotten off planes… I got off a flight in Austin once, I remember, where a couple of young guys, no luggage, and I was like, “Wow, you travel light.” And they go, “Yeah, we went to see a buddy in Chicago for a couple of days.” They didn’t pack, took a duffle bag or a backpack, hung out. And I thought, “Wow, that is a great…” And let me just say, this is a good thing. It’s a great thing that somebody can say, “Yeah, I’m going to fly up to Chicago and see a friend.” But you can’t then complain about how arduous and difficult it is that our rigged and horrible system of government made flying mildly inconvenient for you.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is also why people used to wear coats and ties on planes, because it was an elite experience and so much more expensive for it.
Tom Nichols: Yes. It was an elite experience because you were paying for it like it was an elite experience.
Geoff Kabaservice: On a slightly different subject, Tom, part of the reason why Congress worked better in the 1950s and ’60s is that so many of the members of Congress had served together in World War II. And we really have seen a declining percentage of members of Congress who have any kind of military experience, and this is part of the reason why it’s easy to say that they are some evil Other since you never served alongside of them. And your most recent piece in the Atlantic is about the Milley affair, of course, and this issue of Mark Milley reaching out to his opposite number in China before and after the 2020 election saying, “Calm yourself. Donald Trump is not in any immediate danger of declaring war on China.” And you’ve taken this discussion in some interesting directions.
But I guess what I’m more interested about is where does the military fall in this strange situation that we’re in right now? Because you actually conclude, at the end [of Our Own Worst Enemy], that part of the way forward is that more young people — particularly, I think, from those who are going to elite colleges — need to have some kind of closer contact with the military, so that it can’t be both this isolated and somewhat privileged caste.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, I’m very worried about the state of civil-military relations in the United States. And again, I wrote all of that before January 6th — although I literally had to pull the manuscript at the last minute to include January 6th. I mean, it was on its way to the publisher. But I wrote it all before the Milley business and a lot of the revelations that have since come out.
I think we have two separate problems. One is that the American public has almost no contact or understanding with the military. The late Charles Moskos, who was the dean of American sociologists of the military, he said the problem isn’t that people haven’t served in the military; it’s that they don’t even know anybody who served in the military. I mean, I didn’t serve in the military, but… You’re sitting here, and people can’t see this at home, but I have a flag on my bookcase. That flag was on my mother’s casket. She did a couple of years in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. In fact, I felt kind of left out… Everybody I knew had served in the military: all three of my brothers, my father, my mother. Although I should go clarify, my half-brothers, because I say in the book I’m an only child. I was raised as an only child, but I have half-brothers and half-siblings who are much older, and they served.
So that’s one problem is that you have people who have just never experienced or even walked through a barracks. They have never set foot… They have no idea when they say, “Well, the Navy should do X, Y, and Z.” They’ve never seen a submarine or the inside of a ship. They have no concept of what they’re talking about.
On the other hand, we have a Spartanism problem among the professional military now, because they are the volunteers in a self-selecting group who live separately from us, who have endured greater burdens than the rest of us, who have been deployed multiple times. We have a military, I think, that is getting up a head of steam in the way militaries always do, but which has become even more dangerous in America. They are the good and virtuous and patriotic Americans, and the rest of us are decadent and second-class citizens. We’re entering a kind of Starship Troopers danger here, that the people who serve think of themselves as the only real citizens, and that’s dangerous as well.
Now let me give a shout-out to the military, because one thing that I think is really admirable about the military is that a lot of them really are uncomfortable with this adulation that they get from the civilians. I can’t tell you how many times combat veterans and others have said to me, “I wish people would stop thanking me for my service. It was my honor to serve. It was my privilege to serve. It was my duty to serve. Stop thanking me as if I did you a favor, because I didn’t.” I think that there are veterans who are uncomfortable with the, “Oh, please, sir, to the head of the line” — that very Soviet, “Oh, you’re a veteran of the Great Patriotic War.” You and I both spent a lot of time in Russia. We know this. Like old guys still wearing their decorations…
Geoff Kabaservice: Да, конечно.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, really. “Мест нет” — except for veterans. “No seats in this restaurant, unless you’re a veteran of the Great Patriotic War.” And I think that every time I see a license plate with somebody’s medals on it. And I know that’s unfair, but I think it’s unhealthy. I tell the story in the book that my father’s best friend growing up — I did not know until he died that he had won the Silver Star for this harrowing “Saving Private Ryan” moment where he literally wipes out a German machine gun nest by himself and saves his squad.
And I said to my dad, “This guy, he ran a janitorial business in Chicopee.” And my father said, “He just didn’t want to talk about it. He did his duty.” I think, like a lot of guys who have had to kill other people, he felt conflicted about some of the things that had happened. But he said, “Well, it’s war time. I did my job and I came home.” And the idea… If you had said to my dad or to his friend, “Put it on your license plate that you have a Silver Star,” they would have found that almost offensive. And I think we’ve got away from that.
Geoff Kabaservice: The idea that the people I knew who fought in World War II would have referred to themselves as “warriors” is absurd, laughable. They never would have done that.
Tom Nichols: Or even Vietnam. I mean, I just didn’t know anybody who’d been in Vietnam who… Even the ones… And I don’t mean people who came back bitter or angry or damaged. I mean, just people who had done their time and served in Vietnam, been in combat, been in the shit, man… They didn’t come back and say, “I’m a warrior.” They’d just say, “Look, there was a thing. I had to do it. I went. It’s done, I’m back. That’s not who I am.”
And I think it’s very dangerous in a democracy when we develop a caste of warriors and a disengaged civilian class that live so separately and think of each other so differently. And in the book — just so people don’t think I’m advocating a draft, because I think a draft would be a bad idea. But I do think that four to six weeks of going and saying, “All right, here’s your National Service. You’re going to go live on a military base. This is your summer after high school. We’re going to teach you how to stand up straight and make your bed and eat crappy food. And by the way, here’s what a gun looks like” — I think it would be really great to demystify the culture of guns in America. “Here’s what a gun looks like. Here’s how to shoot it. It’s very dangerous. Now put it back, and now go to college or go to your first job or go get married or whatever you’re going to do. And if there’s ever a national emergency, we’ll call you. And if not, you’ll never hear from us again. And if you liked this, feel free to join and we’ll give you credit for the month or month and a half you spent doing this and you can continue on with a military career.”
I don’t think we should turn that national service into “Go pick up litter for internship wages.” That I think has always been a mistake. I think it encourages people to put that on their resume as a merit badge. Do something that isn’t about you, that you might not like, that you just have to do and get it over with at some point in your life.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. One of the other conclusions you reach is that, paradoxically, political parties need to be strengthened in America, not weakened. This seems like an idea that you share with Jonathan Rauch and some other commentators as well.
Tom Nichols: Yeah. That’s another place where I expected a lot more pushback from readers, because everybody hates the political parties, right? “The parties are the problem. We need to have real democracy, not party functionaries.” And my answer is: The parties are a hot mess because they are too democratic. Because they can be hijacked as flags of convenience by anybody who has enough activists who show up for a primary, and you get really strange outcomes. Now, the Republican Party — which is now I, think, dead, and isn’t coming back. I mean, I think anybody who held out that hope, sitting here in the fall of 2021, I think that that’s a non-starter.
But how did it happen? A guy who had voted… A New York oligarch, who had spent his life as a Democrat, decided he wanted to be president. And for anybody who doubts this, read the opening of Bob Woodward’s first book on Trump, where Steve Bannon walks in and says, “But Donald, you can be president, but you’ve been pro-choice.” And Trump goes, “Okay, fine. I won’t be pro-choice.” “But Donald, you’ve donated to all these Democrats and you’re a registered Democrat.” “Fine. I’ll donate to right-wingers and I’ll become a Republican.” The Republican party should have had enough political antibodies in it to say, “You’re not a Republican. No, you can’t come to our debates. No, you can’t get access to the Republican National Committee…” But of course, Reince Priebus rolled over and said, “If that’s how we have to win, that’s how we’re going to win.”
And before Democrats start feeling too good about this, remember that the standard bearer in 2016, one of the things that contributed to her loss was a spirited challenge from her left by a senator who hadn’t even bothered to join the Democratic Party. Now, call me rigid and old-fashioned, but I think if you want the nomination of a party, you should, I don’t know, have to actually join the party.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is part of the reason that Rauch referred to both Trump and Bernie Sanders as political sociopaths.
Tom Nichols: Yeah. Rauch has a great line… I actually quote a line from Rauch in the book where he says they share a notion of anti-politics, which is that: “Just elect us and everything is okay.” Even though both of them… And I think Rauch is absolutely right that both Trump and Sanders knew there was absolutely not a prayer in hell that anything they wanted to do was actually going to get done. They didn’t care about that. They were like, “Look, I’m just a disruptor. I want to break the system. ‘I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.’” And they ran that way. And again… I’m not going to draw an equivalence between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I mean, Trump was an actual sociopath and Sanders is just an opportunist and an offbeat goofball in politics. But they did run the same way, which is “The parties are just vehicles.” And I think parties need to stand for something.
I think parties need to tell their members, “Look, if you’re going to be a member of the Democratic Party, you should at least share some values with us that are distinguishable from other parties. If you’re going to be a Republican, there are core values that we actually believe in as Republicans. And if you don’t believe in them, you really shouldn’t be a Republican.” And this has happened. Remember when George Bush — you and I, us both coming in our misspent youths as Republicans — when George Bush said to David Duke, “You are not a Republican. This guy is not our party. He can call himself whatever he wants, but he’s not a Republican and he shouldn’t be elected.”
Those days are gone. We are so tribal and so desperate for the win, that our guy has to win, that we just don’t care who it is. And I think the other problem with this, Geoff — and I know you and I share this pain quite often — we live in a post-policy world. Nobody cares about policy. You and I and others with people that we know on the left and on the right, we have arguments about stuff that once upon a time would have been central to elections. And now it’s just a bunch of wonks like us talking about tax rates and national defense and things like that. People don’t care about that. They care about winning and they care about sticking it to the other guy. And to return this to the themes of the book, you can’t sustain a democracy on that. You literally cannot maintain a democracy based on that kind of voting and that kind of attitude.
Geoff Kabaservice: This echoes to some extent one of your more famous essays, which was again in the Atlantic: “Why I’m Leaving the Republican Party,” which you wrote back in October 2018. I take it you haven’t had a whole lot of reason to think, “Maybe I should’ve stayed with the Republican Party”?
Tom Nichols: The bigger mistake I made was that after the 2012 primaries, when Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, I said, “Maybe this whole being a Republican thing is just over.” I deregistered for a while as a Republican because I just thought maybe I should vote in Democratic primaries and maybe push their candidates to the center or something. But I couldn’t identify with a party that took Newt Gingrich seriously as a presidential candidate. And then I came back and I said, “You know, it was like a trial separation.” I think most people that have been married will tell you — I’m divorced and remarried — most people that have been through a divorce will tell you that a trial separation is really just a starter divorce. And it’s pretty rare that after a trial separation, people say, “Yeah, we should really be back together.” Usually a trial separation is how you know that it wasn’t working.
And I should have known that. But I came back and I said, “If you and I leave, and if others like us leave, then the Republican Party has no sensible center.” But I left finally in 2018 because of Susan Collins of all people, who convinced me that there was no sensible center left, that Collins would put up with any kind of right-wing chicanery if it meant that Susan Collins got to stay in the Senate and be a senator. And that was finally when I pulled the ripcord.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, I have somewhat similar feelings about Elise Stefanik. I sure wish I had back all that time I spent praising her as the future of the Republican Party.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, and there are similar people among the Democrats, but let’s not both-sides it. I mean, because of the education gap, the Democrats actually are now… I think roles have flipped over the past thirty years. It used to be the Democrats who had to live with a lot of cognitive dissonance, right? They were an educated elite leading a working-class and minority party that by and large they didn’t want to live near. The NIMBY liberal was a real thing: “I really care about the poor and the working class and communities of color, and that’s why I live in Scarsdale and they’re not going to live anywhere near me.” I think those roles have flipped now. The Democratic base and the Democratic Party are actually more aligned on more issues than they used to be, through growing education and communication and cultural demographic change. The Republicans, like Elise Stefanik, have now become this hideous group of charlatans who go to Ivy League schools and then pretend that they are morons.
J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Elise Stefanik, Ted Cruz… Every time I see Elise Stefanik or Josh Hawley, I think what they’re really telling you is, “Look, I didn’t go to Harvard just to be on the city council up in Potsdam, New York. I was slated for greater things. And if I have to feed the rubes a bunch of prolefeed” — to go back to 1984 — “If I have to shovel a lot of crap at stupid people so they’ll keep voting for me, well, I belong in Washington.” You know, Josh Hawley: “I didn’t go to Yale and Stanford so that I could hang out a shingle in Sedalia, Missouri. I’m sorry, that’s for other people, that’s not for me. And if the way that I stay in Washington is by fist-pumping white supremacists, so be it.” And I think that probably one of the worst things that has happened in American politics over the past twenty years is the emergence of a bottomlessly cynical Republican elite that knows exactly what it’s doing.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, one of the terrible things about the Republican Party is that it is coming to be the party of the working class and yet virtually none of the members in Congress who are Republican actually come from that working class or have any real sympathy or understanding of it.
Tom Nichols: George Will, somebody we name-checked earlier… George Will has said multiple times, “We have an historically unprecedented situation, which is that a major American party” — the Republicans — “fear and hate their own voters.” George has pointed this out many times. He says Republicans are terrified of their own voters and they don’t like them. And so their goal is to stay far away from them and keep them placated and keep their rage focused on other people. And again, an unsustainable situation — a completely unsustainable major party in a democracy. And I think that’s how you end up with things like January 6th where…
You know, it’s not even a working class party, Geoff. It pretends to represent the working class. What it really is is the party of a bored and disaffected middle-class who think that they’ve been screwed somehow. And a white middle-class — let’s stop dancing around race — it’s a white middle-class that thinks that somehow it’s not getting the cultural and political respect that is their due. And that’s how you end up with something like January 6th, where you have real estate agents on charter jets Instagramming themselves in the halls of the Capitol.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, these middle-aged, out-of-shape LARPers…
Tom Nichols: Yeah, right: the “Gravy SEALs.” And there were and there are dangerous people in that movement who are professionals, law enforcement, military…
Geoff Kabaservice: The Oath Keepers…
Tom Nichols: Yeah. But by and large, it was like a day-camp outing for bored middle-class professionals. There was a study, a couple of folks at the University of Chicago just kind of went through all the arrest records. These are accountants and dentists and real estate salesmen. And this was not like the army of the dispossessed and the out-of-work and the downtrodden. These were people who thought they were having a blast, and flying their flags and hanging out and camping out and wearing their stupid T-shirts.
And I guess what I would say in terms of this as a democracy to the people who are encouraging them — to the guys at National Review or other places that have said, “Well, we really have to understand the anger of these folks and it’s legit” — if that were your son or daughter, or if your son or daughter were marrying somebody in that crowd, would you be okay with that? And if the answer is no, then stop writing goddamn editorials about why it’s okay. Because it’s not okay. And that’s where we have to start. We have to start by turning to each other and saying, “This is not okay. This is not acceptable.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Tom, as a last summing up question… You paint some pretty dark scenarios for where the country could go. And of course, we’re all very nervous about what might happen in 2024. But do you have some, on your more optimistic days, any feeling that maybe things actually might turn out well? Are there things you’re looking for that might give you hope?
Tom Nichols: Oh, you’re not going to bait me into optimism at the end of all this, man.
Geoff Kabaservice: You can’t fault me for trying.
Tom Nichols: You think I’m not hip to your tricks, man? Well, all right, let me say something really depressing and then try and be optimistic. My worry about 2024 — and I’m going to lay this on the Democrats. I am going to now make all of the people listening who are to our left really pissed off. If the Republicans win and return to unified GOP government in 2024, which I think is at least — and people can’t see you, but I can see you nodding; I think we both agree that’s at least a 50/50 shot if not better for the Republicans — part of it is going to be because Democrats have refused to take this seriously. A lot of us voted for Democrats, and I will still vote for Democrats, based on the idea that we are in an existential crisis of government that requires an emergency response from a broad coalition of pro-democracy voters.
I wish the Democrats would act like that. Instead, they’re nickel-and-diming each other and doing hand-to-hand combat over the infrastructure bill. And then they go on recess. Sorry, but if you’re in a crisis and you’ve run for office and your party has come to power on the notion that we’ve just had a near-death experience for our democracy, you don’t get into pissing matches about the infrastructure bill and then go on recess. You just don’t. You don’t show up… I had a big fight with a bunch of my friends on Twitter who are to my left and who generally agree with me but think I was being really mean… You don’t show up at the Met Gala in a “Tax the Rich” gown. That’s like practically making an ad for the Republicans. And all of these little stupid cultural miscues and this general lack of seriousness by the Democrats is going to make it possible for the much better organized, much more fervently committed Republicans to come back to power. And if that happens and their nominee loses in 2024, we are going to have national violence again.
Okay. The good news is that none of this is demographically sustainable for the right. I think the kids are all right. I think that part of the reason that these middle-aged LARPers are fighting the way they’re fighting is because this is a last hurrah for a lot of them. The most illiberal forces in America — as well as in Italy, Great Britain, Poland, Turkey — it’s all people over 55. It’s your Uncle Bill who retired on a disability and spends all his days staring at Facebook and who’s sending you crazy memes all day. They’re not going to live forever. And they are already — and this is the most optimistic thing to tell people listening — they are the minority. Again, a Russian throwback here, these are like the Bolsheviks calling themselves Bolsheviks — which in Russia means “members of the majority,” right? But in fact, the Bolsheviks were always the minority within the Russian revolutionary movements.
The same thing is happening here. These people are saying, “We’re the silent majority. We’re the great unspoken middle of America. Donald Trump represents the majority of America.” This is simply not the case. This is about 30% of the country. But because of the distribution of votes, the Electoral College, the way Senate districts tilt red and so on, they are mimicking the behavior of a majority. And it’s not going to last. The question is how much will they burn down and how much of that damage will be irreversible before this demographic bubble finally pops in fifteen or twenty years? And I think we’re in a period of maximum danger over the next five to ten years.
Geoff Kabaservice: If we make it through those five to ten years, Tom Nichols, you will be one of our most clear-sighted guides. So thank you so much for your latest book, Our Own Worst Enemy, and thank you for joining me on this podcast.
Tom Nichols: And thank you, Geoff, for all of your sage advice and for having me on. Appreciate it.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.