cover image Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy

Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy

Tom Nichols. Oxford Univ, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-19-751887-8

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. (Aug.)