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Killing Our Democracy?

Tom Nichols is a elite right-wing-- but non-fascist-- professor at the U.S. Naval War College who, in 2016, described himself as a NeverTrump conservative and who voted for Hillary in 2016, asserting that Trump is too "mentally unstable" to be commander-in-chief. He claims to hate both parties. His most recent book August, 2021) is Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy, and he discusses the topic of American societal collapse in the video up top.

It's unlikely his 2018 pre-midterms essay for The Atlantic, Why I'm Leaving The Republican Party changed any votes but for people like Nichols-- die-hard conservative intellectuals-- I suppose the Kavanaugh confirmation fight really did come as a revelation-- something normal people have known for decades-- that "the GOP is the party of situational ethics and moral relativism in the name of winning at all costs." He wrote that it was Maine clod Susan Collins "who made me realize that there would be no moderates to lead conservatives out of the rubble of the Trump era," although he always wants his readers to know that he also hates the Democratic Party as well, which is, he claims "torn between totalitarian instincts on one side and complete political malpractice on the other... The Republicans, however, have now eclipsed the Democrats as a threat to the rule of law and to the constitutional norms of American society... [O]n the rule of law, congressional Republicans have utterly collapsed. They have sold their souls, purely at Trump’s behest, living in fear of the dreaded primary challenges that would take them away from the Forbidden City and send them back home to the provinces... [They] have completely reversed themselves on everything from the limits of executive power to the independence of the judiciary, all to serve their leader in a way that would make the most devoted cult follower of Kim Jong Un blush. Maybe it’s me. I’m not a Republican anymore, but am I still a conservative? Limited government: check. Strong national defense: check. Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change: check. Belief that people spend their money more wisely than government? That America is an exceptional nation with a global mission? That we are, in fact, a shining city on a hill and an example to others? Check, check, check."

Yesterday Oliver Traldi, a philosophy grad student at Notre Dame, wrote that "Traditionally, a preference for the views of a small number of people with special knowledge over a larger number of ordinary voters has been seen as anti-democratic. I don’t mean to use the term pejoratively; some people like democracy and some people don’t. Plato didn’t like democracy. He was a brilliant guy. Tom Nichols’ new book makes it clear that he thinks the problem with American democracy is all the stupid and ignorant voters. Would Plato approve?"

Traldi continued that "A recent Nichols article, 'Afghanistan Is Your Fault,' exemplifies the political style that made him a well known 'resistance' figure in the Trump era. In his new book, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy, Nichols excoriates the masses for a second time. We must, Nichols argues again, find a way to save American democracy from Americans. Nichols tries somehow to present his view as one that’s supportive of democracy, not opposed to it-- indeed, as one that may help us save democracy in its hour of great need. Here is the central subject of his book, as he sees it: 'If we believe democracy has failed us, we should first ask ourselves whether we have failed the test of democracy.' It’s a trivial observation that democracy would work well with a perfect populace, since anything would work well in that circumstance. For democracy to fail it must be the case that 'we' have failed."

So who are you gonna believe, huh? Voters who only care about their own self-interest are ruining America, but the same voters are also so driven by resentment that they can’t recognize their own self-interest. Nichols has a chapter on how corrosive narcissism and anger are, but his whole book seems spittle-flecked and he frequently breaks the flow of his exposition to narrate his own expert credentials and accomplishments. Nichols castigates people for “exchanging paranoid memes on Facebook” right after saying that “the rest of us are vigilantly scanning the horizon . . . for the shock troops of a mass movement,” and right before claiming that “authoritarianism could arrive . . . on little cat feet, quietly establishing itself while the rest of us are busy watching television, staring at our phones, and speaking to our friends and family through emojis.”
...Our Own Worst Enemy has five chapters. The first argues, Steven Pinker-style, that the world is getting better-- even if its ungrateful inhabitants refuse to acknowledge their good fortune. It’s getting more peaceful: no more world wars, no more Cold War, and fewer hot conflicts across the globe. The wars of anti-terrorism may, Nichols magnanimously allows (he was among their louder advocates), have been somewhat misguided in the end, but Americans sacrificed very little for them compared to other conflicts-- mere trifles, really, which presumably includes the tens of thousands of American men and women who were killed or maimed in the course of their service overseas.
The world is getting more affluent, too, Nichols writes-- it just doesn’t feel that way, since inequality is also rising, which doesn’t matter because inequality is rising only because the rich are getting richer faster than the rest of us. Things don’t seem so great right now because Americans have undergone “hedonic adaptation.” We’re used to how good things are and won’t be satisfied unless they get even better-- we’re all so unhappy now because of how darn happy we all should be! For Nichols this seeming paradox is not a matter just of economics; we should also be grateful that we have all these new gadgets, smartphones, and streaming television to amuse us. In the end, “Democracy is not in danger from new tribulations, but from new achievements: Democracies, it seems, cannot cope with peace, affluence, and progress.” Good times create weak men and weak men create hard times, and so on.

The second chapter mimes Edward C. Banfield. In the 1950s Banfield, a political scientist, visited a small Italian town where nobody ever seemed to do anything for anybody else, and where there were no active civic associations. The town was plagued by amoral familism: People only cared about themselves and their own families, not for others. Nichols goes on to say that modern Italians only possess “the liberty of servants” and agrees with an Italian scholar that they have “servile souls.” He raises, though he doesn’t endorse, the notion that this “moral weakness” is “just how Italians are.” Filthy Italians! Non ti sopporto più! Isn’t this a bit like the United States, Nichols wonders?

Oddly, Nichols seems to blame voters for not agreeing with each other more. He criticizes “the standard trope” that “voters are consistent and moderate while politicians are opportunistic and extreme.” Instead, Nichols says, voters have a bunch of crazy views that only look moderate on average. In fact, I think this Nichols chestnut is right, and it in fact it explains why a standard critique of moderation or “centrism” is wrong. Nichols’ twist on this idea, though, is that it is the voters’ fault that they are now led by people he considers charlatans, like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Nichols, a political scientist, does not acknowledge the fact that it is precisely the lack of correlation among voters’ views that is supposed to buttress the decision-making of the group as a whole, as established way back in 1785 by the Marquis de Condorcet in a formulation well known to experts in the field as the jury theorem. Nichols is able to justify his finger-wagging by failing to distinguish ways in which individual voters would be rational participants in democracy from ways in which a democratic system as a whole would be rational.
The fact that many voters can’t be neatly boxed in evokes real fury in Nichols. Nobody comes in for as much of his ire as Sanders-Trump voters and Obama-Obama-Trump voters. But coherence comes in degrees, and Nichols never really explains why Sanders-Clinton or Obama-Obama-Clinton voting would have been more coherent than the other options. He also doesn’t explain why voter incoherence is so worthy of criticism. Pundits, political parties, and politicians themselves often change their views. Why is crossing party lines-- something Nichols himself did in the Trump era-- so crazy? And why is it irrational for voters to just go with their guts? For most people, the gut is more reliable than the brain. That’s just a fact about the relative capacities with which most people are endowed.
Nichols theorizes that line-crossers are self-interested voters looking for better “deals”-- but he doesn’t explain why this would be the case, or why it would be such a moral or systemic problem if it were true. If the political parties are so stable that coherence can only be found in sticking with one or the other, then why would the same person be able to get a better deal on one side than on the other? Why are those who change party affiliation-- as Nichols did-- necessarily any more self-interested than those who don’t change? Actually, there’s little reason to think a self-interested person would bother voting at all-- the so-called “paradox of voting.” And Nichols attributes to these voters both a comfortable, prosperous lifestyle and a desire for “apocalypse”-- how could that combination be self-interested? Nichols engages none of these debates.
The third chapter covers more familiar ground: There’s an epidemic of narcissism in America, along with rage, resentment, and nostalgia. Of course Nichols’ formless pomposity on this subject cannot match the keen rhetorical incisions of Christopher Lasch, whom he cites. What’s odd about this chapter, however, is that Nichols, now relaying passages from the famous 2005 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, adopts the view that resentment causes Americans to vote against their self-interest. And no, you are not going crazy: Just a paragraph ago, I was explaining Nichols’ claim that the problem with American democracy is that voters act on pure self-interest.
The fourth chapter is meant to address critics of liberal democracy. Like many centrists, Nichols, somewhat accurately, diagnoses a “horseshoe” in these critiques: Left-wing and right-wing critics make the same sorts of complaints. But what’s that supposed to prove? He uses the term “illiberal” as a seeming synonym for anti-democratic. But, like many who claim to be in favor of or against the political philosophy of “liberalism,” he never really explains what it is, or what it would mean to fail to embody it. And isn’t this exactly the opposite of what Nichols said before-- that the dissatisfied people don’t in fact agree with one another? Again, Nichols seems almost offended by the idea that lines might be redrawn, that coalitions might shift. Eventually, he comes to the conclusion that even well-intentioned critics of liberal democracy, who are “drawing our attention to real problems,” are hypochondriacs, and that “treating them as if their complaints are real can do more harm than good.” So much for the trust and reasoned discourse that Nichols thinks can solve our deliberative problems.

Traldi seems to hate Nichols. I can understand why. Recall, however, that just halfway through 2016 Nichols wrote "To me, Trump is an alien presence in the Republican Party, an opportunist who could just as easily have hijacked white working-class voters among the Democrats or as part of a third-party bid. Nonetheless, strangers on social media and friends in my daily life mistakenly assume that my opposition to Trump equates to some sort of new sympathy for liberalism in general or for Hillary Clinton in particular. Some of them actually send me Clinton-friendly talking points, as though I might find them useful. The reality is that in any other year, I would be arguing that Clinton not only should be disqualified from elected office but driven from our public life along with the rest of her insufferable family." I would love to share this with both Traldi and Nichols, although I doubt either of them would be open to the message.

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