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Who's To Blame For America's Polarized Politics? Tom Nichols Says 'All Of Us'

(Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
(Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

International affairs expert Tom Nichols says democracy is under assault. What’s causing it? Not media, not special interests, not the political parties. He says the enemy is all of us, joyfully marinating in a culture of narcissism.

You, you, you. Nichols says that kind of sales pitch didn’t always work in America.

“When washing machines were first developed, they were marketed as ‘you deserve it.’ That actually backfired because there were a lot of women who felt that was wasn’t appropriate,” he says. “Now, it’s all about you. You are worth it. You deserve it. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Today, On Point: Does America have a culture of narcissism? If so, how is that poisoning politics and threatening democracy?

Guests

Tom Nichols, national security scholar at the U.S. Naval War College. Author of  “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy.” (@RadioFreeTom)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

On what’s causing a sense of fragility around our democracy at the moment

Tom Nichols: “I don’t think it’s just a sense of fragility. I think that’s a real fragility, and it’s happening not just in the United States, but around the world. One of the reasons that I wrote the book is that I didn’t think this was just a kind of flash in the pan problem because of one election, or the past two or three years. When you look around at places like Italy, India, Poland, the United Kingdom, Brazil, all of them are in the grip, or have been in the grip recently, of populist movements that are based on just unfocused rage, voting as revenge, voting as punishment of other people.

“One of the things you hear a lot of is a quote I used in the book … is the voter who said she had voted for President Trump, that she was unhappy now because he wasn’t hurting the people he was supposed to be hurting. All of these attitudes are completely uncivic. You can’t sustain a democracy on weaponized voting on … ‘our president vs. your president.’ And basically, electing people for entertainment value.

“And so I think that fragility is real because I think people no longer think seriously about politics and take politics seriously. They don’t participate. That’s another problem. That even when we talk about, my God, you know, the country is in such a mess and what are we going to do? You know, in 2020, we patted ourselves on the back for getting about 65% of the public out. And only about half of the youth vote. And we thought we’d done a great job.”

On American affluence

Tom Nichols: “People bristle because they say, Well, we’re not really an affluent society. Well, yes, we are. There is income inequality, which is a political problem and a different problem. But that’s different than rising living standards. We are a country that’s been at peace, even though people again scoff at that and say, but we were in Afghanistan, we were in Iraq. But we, particularly since the Vietnam War, we have asked almost nothing of society, since we outsource this to brave volunteers who do it as a tiny minority of the country. And they carry that burden for us.

“And we have gotten used to remarkably high living standards. I mean, we are the country that loses our mind if the Wi-Fi goes out. We’re the people that get upset when we stand in line at the DMV for a car that our parents would have thought was a technological miracle and a luxury. And the way this happens is that there’s a thing, a term I didn’t coin, but it’s hedonic adaptation. It’s people get used to a very high standard. It’s kind of like if you slept in a king bed all your life, queen beds suddenly seem like a real imposition.

“And they’re terribly uncomfortable. It’s that people have gotten used to these things in part because they have come so easily. And on top of this, of course, there’s a culture of narcissism, which we’ll come back to it. But in a sense, we live in a situation where when you’ve lived with a lot of convenience and long life and health. My dad had a heart attack in 1974, and there was practically a wake that convened at my house that day. Because they were certain that you have a heart attack, that’s the end for you. My father lived another 35 years.

“So this combines with the narcissism problem. And for 40, 50 years now — and this is empirical — social psychologists have tracked this around the world. We are becoming a more narcissistic society. We are becoming more a society of loners. We are people who do things alone. We don’t care about other people. We think about ourselves. We believe that our views are the most important thing in the world. We are performative.

“This was a word that even Christopher Lasch talked about when he wrote a landmark book about narcissism over 40 years ago. That we’ve become a performative culture where we think that nothing that doesn’t happen in the public eye matters. And when you put all of that together, democracy simply becomes this kind of annoyance. Where you just expect everything to work. And you don’t think you really have to participate in it very much if it doesn’t please you.”

On how a lack of civility among Americans creates further divides

Tom Nichols: “I wrote the book because of the shopping cart issues. That was it. The last shopping cart I moved, I said someone ought to write a book, and that was it. But you know that’s a small part and I’m laughing about that. But there is something to that, the kind of daily lack of basic cooperativeness and incivility really is an indicator of how much we just don’t care about each other anymore. I mean, it really is. I mean, in your daily life, and when people say, What can we do about this? I say, Be the example that you want to set. Hold a door for somebody. It’s amazing how little rituals of of civic life can improve that.

“But, you know, when talking about things like medical care, I mean, I accept all of the education, housing, medical care. You know, these costs are out of control and these are policies that we actually can fix. These are all within our grasp. What I took issue with, and part of the reason I wrote the book, was that people, voters, you know, ordinary citizens of democracies, jumped from, ‘These are bad policies that need a better solution.’ To, ‘this entire constitutional experiment is completely screwed up. And we should just dump it. And somebody strong should come in and hurt people I don’t like and reward me.’ And that is not the answer.

“I actually point out in the book, you know, part of … was actually talked about by a guy named Philip Converse, and then Fenno Paradox. Richard Fenno’s observation first that people don’t really understand political ideologies and they use parties as kind of markers for location of their general wants and desires. But also that people don’t want to throw the bums out. They want you to throw your bums out.

“Everybody talks about how much they hate Congress, and yet they love their own congressperson. They reelect them. You know, the United States reelects its members of Congress like 95% rates. … A bad year for the Senate is when only about 85% making it. You know, one of the reasons I wrote this is because after Trump was elected, there was this constant talk about a populist revolt, a populist uprising. And I kept looking around and saying, if you were a Martian … you’d see no evidence of this.

“And in fact, I think it tells you something that the people who elected Trump ostensibly on policies like the deficit, and health care and education, he did nothing for any of those things, exacerbated them, handed tons of money to the rich, made income inequality worse. And they loved him for it. Because it’s about a culture war among people who want their self, that for politics is self actualization and soothing their internal resentments about their own problems with their life. And when that is what democracy becomes about, it’s no longer a democracy. Then it just becomes a war of all against all, because you can never satisfy those kinds of resentments and angry, weaponizing of politics.”

On how to fix our culture of narcissism 

Tom Nichols: “I’m not sure I have a good solution. But a couple of your callers have said, Well, the answer is in our institutions, like education. And I have to be Debbie Downer here and tell you the most liberal people in the United States, which is to say the people that are really driving this in the United States and in Western Europe, are middle aged folks. Again, people closer to my age. When I went to school, that was the golden age of public education. I had civics. I didn’t go to a private school. I came from a working class family in a working class factory town. And I had to memorize Supreme Court cases in eighth grade.

“You know, most of us of that age had that education. And yet this generation of safe people, 55 to 75, they’re the ones that are sitting around passing around Facebook memes about Barack Obama being born in Africa. So education can teach you facts. It cannot teach you virtue. That has to come from within families, that has to come within communities. It has to come from being a participant in the life of your community in some way. Even again, if it’s just putting a shopping cart back.

“… We have never been a more educated public. We have universal high school graduation. We have remarkably high rates of college attendance and graduation. And that’s not helping anything right now. So education is great, but virtue is the answer. And I think we have to, again, look within ourselves. We should, as one last solution, take on small projects that people of both parties can do and succeed at. Stop trying to solve the Constitution all in one shot and in one election, and take this piece by piece and get used to working with each other again.”

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy by Tom Nichols. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tom Nichols. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

From The Reading List

USA Today: “Trump is not ruining democracy, we are. And it’s been anguishing to confront: Tom Nichols” — “I’ve written about a lot of unpleasant, even frightening, subjects. For most of my career, I have been a specialist in national security affairs, a cheerless area of study.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.