A contrarian yet highly engaging account of the spread of illiberal and anti-democratic sentiment throughout our culture that places responsibility on the citizens themselves.
Over the past three decades, citizens of democracies who claim to value freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law have increasingly embraced illiberal politicians and platforms. Democracy is in trouble--but who is really to blame?
In Our Own Worst Enemy, 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. Nichols traces the illiberalism of the 21st century to the growth of unchecked narcissism, rising standards of living, global peace, and a resistance to change. 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.
Trenchant, contrarian, and highly engaging, Our Own Worst Enemy reframes the debate about how democracies have ended up in this dire state of affairs and what to do about it.
Nichols (The Death of Expertise), a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, delivers a searing critique of contemporary political culture and the rise of illiberalism on both the right and the left. He accuses Democrats of seeking to impeach Trump before he took office; lambastes Republicans for refusing to hear evidence in Trump's 2019 impeachment trial and acquitting him for inciting an insurrection in 2021; and sketches the rise of populist and authoritarian politicians in Hungary, India, Italy, and Ukraine. But the fault, according to Nichols, lies not just with these would-be autocrats, but with the voters who put them in office in the first place. He blames social media for boosting narcissistic traits and fostering social isolation ("a terrible confluence of loving oneself more while loving one's neighbor less"), and claims that though people believe they're living in near-apocalyptic times, this is actually an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. In Nichols's view, the scapegoating of shadowy "elites" by voters who are "unwilling to look in a mirror" and behave like "resilient, civic-minded citizens" is setting the stage for the downfall of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, he underplays sources of discontent, including income inequality and the effects of climate change (such problems, he writes, "are within the power of a democracy to solve"), and casts "internet culture" as an ill-defined yet all-powerful villain. This cranky manifesto is unlikely to change minds.