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Democracy in Danger: A Conversation with Tom Nichols

Image via Tom Nichols' Official Facebook Page

Tom Nichols is one of America’s leading intellectuals, political and cultural commentators, and experts on international security, Russia, threats to democracy, and nuclear policy. Nichols is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of the book, The Death of Expertise. His ideas on why Americans have begun privileging lay opinion over expertise, landed him the #13 spot in Politico’s Top 50 “ideas blowing up American politics” nearly six years ago. Tom Nichols also taught at the US Naval War College and Harvard Extension School, was a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and appeared in an episode of Succession.

Ariella Reynolds: What motivated you to start writing for The Atlantic about some of the most pressing issues of our time, from international conflicts to challenges to democracy, to what you see as the collapse of the conservative party? Why did you choose to write for The Atlantic in particular? 

Tom Nichols: I didn’t envision my career as a writer. I had my first tenure track at Dartmouth College in my late twenties. I always thought of myself as a career academic. I wrote books for academic presses on my specific areas of expertise, including international relations, Russia, and nuclear weapons. Even from the beginning of my career, I always thought it was important for scholars, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, particularly political science, to be outward-facing public intellectuals. So, I wrote my first national op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor about 32 years ago. Every now and then, I send off a piece to get published: I wrote about NATO in the Boston Globe and a few other pieces in the Christian Science Monitor. But I didn’t set out to become a writer at The Atlantic. And I started because I was a conservative for much of my life. I wrote for places like National Review, usually by invitation. But I have been a dedicated Atlantic reader since I was in college. So when they called me up and said, “Would you like to write a piece for us?”, I felt like I’d gotten an invitation to dance on Broadway. So I wrote a piece, and at some point, I became a contributing writer. And then they started a newsletter, and they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, and at some point, I took over The Atlantic Daily

I think that the survival of democracy is the defining issue of the 21st century, and I wouldn’t have said that 30 years ago. Like Fukuyama and others, I thought that argument had been settled at the end of the Cold War. The Atlantic is a particularly wonderful venue for this because its motto is, “Of no party or clique.” It’s a nonpartisan magazine. We are defenders of the American idea. And that’s what I want to do. I am no longer registered with any political party. In fact, I wrote about leaving the Republican Party for The Atlantic six years ago. And I just think it’s the most important thing in the world to write about right now. American democracy is hanging on by a thread, as it is in other countries around the world. And I think especially for someone of my age, who lived through the Cold War, this is just a compounded tragedy because we thought somehow that democracy had won the day over 30 years ago. And yet here we are fighting for it, even here in the United States.

AR: It seems as if The Atlantic has become a last mainstay of bipartisanship. We hear it constantly: Political polarization is getting worse, according to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in 2022. The average ideologies of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have moved away from the center, the Republican shift being greater in magnitude, which we’ll get to. But we don’t just see this in Congress. We see it in our personal lives, too: In 2016, 63 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats stated that they would not want their child to marry someone who supports the opposing political party, as opposed to 5 percent and less, respectively, in 1960. What happened here? How did we get to this state of division? And how might it evolve by 2024 and beyond? 

TN: I wrote a whole book about this, but I’m not sure that even in a book I was able to get my arms around it completely. Some of it is physical sorting in that we don’t live around each other anymore. We move to neighborhoods that are full of people like us.

AR: Are we constructing echo chambers around ourselves, then?

TN: Almost. But they’re also regional bubbles. Fifteen years ago, Bill Bishop wrote a book called The Big Sort where it was already clear that people who live in red states don’t want to go to or live in blue states. People who live in blue states don’t want to go to or live in red states. It used to be that you could walk down the street, you’d have a Democrat, a Democrat, a Republican, a Democrat, a Republican, a Republican. That just doesn’t happen anymore. We live among people that are more like us. We also don’t want to talk to people who are not like us. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is the unintended effect of making college education a mass experience.

That may seem odd, but it takes people who ordinarily may not have gone to college, out of their neighborhoods so that you end up with hollowed-out neighborhoods of people who move to live among other college-educated folks. That’s part of the big sorting. There’s also the problem of siloing the press and media. We did not have tailor-made 24-hour buffets of closed epistemic reassurance all day long—Fox, in particular, is practically a propaganda organization at this point. It’s very tribal, and it reinforces that big sorting among us. I think social media, too, has been a brutal influence on this, particularly among older people. The people whose brains have been most broken by the Internet are people who are 55 and older, who have a lot of spare time to stare at Facebook and exchange crazy memes, go down rabbit holes, and spend their afternoons on YouTube. It is remarkable to me that the young generation has a political literacy problem. 

There was a book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death that talks about how we’ve just become a leisure entertainment society, and that entertainment is geared toward reinforcing our biases. I also think that we’re facing a unique problem in America where the dominant group—which is to say white Christian males in my generation—will be the minority within 20 years. In any country, for the dominant social group to see the end of its dominance just ahead on the horizon, is a traumatic thing. It doesn’t happen to be for me because, again, I live in a different environment. I don’t feel as threatened by this, but there are people who say this means the end of the whole world that I’ve ever known. And that contributes a lot to polarization.

AR: So you would say that this clinging to our in-groups, either epistemically or just in terms of proximity, is a large driver of our polarization?

TN:  I’m not sure of the cause and effect there. Do we cling to our in-groups because of polarization, or do we have a lot of polarization because we cling to our in-groups? I think it’s a synergy. The other thing that I should probably mention, and I talk about this in the book, is that we are a society that has become increasingly narcissistic and increasingly lonely. We spend a lot of time inside our own heads now. We don’t spend a lot of time in the community. I can spend all day here in my home office, connected to the world whenever I want to be. I don’t have to talk to anybody at the store. I don’t have to go to a social club. This is the “bowling alone” problem that Robert Putnam talked about 30 years ago. And it’s just gotten worse. People who are big TV watchers tend to not be big joiners. There’s one thing Putnam found in his research. So the things that I remember as a kid that built bridges between groups—going to church, Halloween parades as a kid—they’re less common. My hometown used to have a Halloween parade for all the kids. The cops would close off the streets. You can still find communities like that. But one of my friends summed it up beautifully when he was looking at American architecture: He said that we used to build houses with porches. Now we build them with decks. We don’t sit in front of our homes anymore. We sit behind them. Which I think is a really revealing comment.

AR: All these factors seem to be so structurally ingrained. What can we, as people who don’t have much control over these events, actually do about them? 

TN: I don’t know. Newport had its end-of-summer street festival recently, which I attended. I think people should participate in events like that. Go to public events, go to public lectures, go to a street festival, get out of the house. But I think it’s a spiritual problem. You just have to be willing to accept other people as human beings, no matter how harshly you disagree with them. And as you know from my writing, I don’t spare the horses when it comes to disagreement.

AR: Absolutely not.

TN: It amazes me that I get paid to do nothing but watch the news and have opinions. Yet I spend less time doing that than some people in America who are glued to their televisions for 10 hours a day. When I give public lectures they say, “What can we do?” I’m like, “Turn off your television, put your phone away for an hour, go take a walk.” Touch grass, as you kids say, go touch grass. I’m supposed to watch the news for a living and I don’t spend as much time with it as some of the people that I’ve met out in public. We really are toxifying ourselves. We are poisoning our own brains.

Young voters are obsessed with solving the big problems of the world, right? Like the war in Israel and racial justice throughout the land. Well, you do that by voting at the local level for the school committee, the city council, and the state representatives. If more people showed up for primaries, city, and local elections, you’d see the country change over time. Right now, the American right-wing—and I know because I was a Republican—we show up for everything. My recollection is that in the 40 to 42 years that I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ve missed maybe two elections. And I think people think that’s boring. They’re addicted to the big, dramatic vote that happens every four years. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia who wrote a book called The Once and Future Liberal, made the point that Democrats in particular think that electing the president solves everything. It doesn’t work that way. 

AR: So we can change things through consistent participation over time?

TN: Consistent and grassroots participation. When I worked in the Massachusetts State House, I worked for a Democrat, which will probably surprise people, but he was our local guy. I mean, that was back in those days, and I was a squishy, moderate Republican.

AR: And you had local guys to speak of.

TN: Exactly. He was a centrist, Polish, Catholic Democrat. We got along about everything. Almost everything except maybe nuclear weapons, which nobody bothered with at the State House. I think he said for all of his time in politics, he was imploring young people: There are elected positions at city, local, and state levels that you can practically walk into because they’re uncontested. He said young people can have a huge amount of impact, but they all want to run for Congress. They want to start at the top and say anything below that is boring. I gave a talk in Newport to city and county executives, and so many of them walked up to me and said how frustrated they were that they were running unopposed for years. One guy said, “I’ve been serving. I’ve been the County Executive for 16 years and I’ve never faced a challenger because nobody wants to do it.” So that’s where you start.

AR: Let’s talk more about that start, about debates and challengers. In yesterday’s newsletter for The Atlantic, you called the last Republican presidential debate “unserious,” and pointed to what can be referred to as a complete erosion of common decency that we’ve only started to see in recent years. Do you believe that this pattern might be a cause of our growing party polarization, an effect of it, or perhaps neither? 

TN: Oh, absolutely. I have this reputation on social media for being an old grump, about not taking your shoes off in public, and not walking around in pajamas and sweatpants. I think once you have no respect for the public space, these little things become poisonous over time. Because it’s really saying, “I don’t respect myself, I don’t respect the public space and I don’t respect you.” You hear lawyers now constantly having to explain to their clients, “You shouldn’t show up for court in pajamas. The judge does not like that. It’s disrespectful.” And I think that’s why I brought up the Quayle-Bentsen debate in the newsletter. Because I remember that moment so vividly. And the next day it was like, “Wow, what a really nasty shot that was.” For Quayle, his outrage in saying that was uncalled for. But on the other hand, Vivek Ramaswamy did a scummy thing. There was once a time when you just wouldn’t do that. Somebody brings up your daughter and her personal habits, and the whole room would’ve just stopped dead and said, “Why are you even here?” But I think this is part of the attention economy—and I didn’t coin that phrase. There’s a great book on the attention economy, which says that when we have our material needs satisfied, we go looking for psychic income. Ramaswamy is a great example of this. He has no business running for president. He knows he’s not going to win, but he’s just glorying in all of this attention income. That’s what a lot of people have done. They know that they have no place in national politics, but they don’t care about that because they’re not serious about it. One of the most revealing things ever is that Donald Trump, according to all the people who were around him on election night in 2016, never expected to win. The whole thing was kind of a prank that got out of hand and changed American history.

AR: What do you feel when it comes to those who support Trump, whom you refer to as an “ongoing menace to the entire democratic order of the United States”? And why do you feel that such a large part of America has chosen to back someone who represents such a large departure from and a threat against this common order? 

TN: I understood people in 2016 who voted for Trump. I didn’t agree with them. But in 2016, there was the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton. I understood people who simply could not vote for Hillary Clinton. I understood people who felt they could take a chance with Trump and that all of the stuff they had seen was just an act. That once he got into office, he would govern like a normal president. I think that people who voted for Trump in 2020 and especially the people supporting him now with everything we know demonstrate a failure of character. I think that’s a moral flaw. That doesn’t mean they’re evil people. They may be nice to their kids and part of the Parent Teacher Association and good to their pets. But to support Donald Trump in 2024 with everything we know about him leads me to make a judgment about folks like that and their ability to apply moral reasoning to public life. I think it’s a character flaw. The most charitable thing I can say about people supporting Trump to this day is that they’re in denial. I can’t say they’re uninformed because there’s no way to live in this country and not know any of this stuff.

AR: How do you think Trump has contributed to polarization since the 2016 election? Did he divide us further by changing the fundamental structure of the Republican Party, creating a more united coalition—this cult around himself that would do anything for him—or by allowing us to lean into inflammatory rhetoric with fewer consequences, as we saw in the debate from two days ago? Or maybe it’s a combination of these factors? 

TN: Trump has made politics about personal loyalty. In a narcissistic country, he’s the most narcissistic person there is. Narcissists have a hard time being part of a community and thinking in terms of civic involvement because they don’t care about anybody else. And Trump has offered people a very clear choice: us or them—loyalty to me. You’re either with me or you’re against me. You’re my enemy, or you’re my friend. And for a lot of people, that’s a kind of dramatic crusade that appeals to them. You look at Trump rallies, and they’re not about policies. They’re not about ideas. They’re not about politics. They’re about a group of people having a great time wearing t-shirts and hats and whooping it up with a TV star. In that sense, the other thing that Trump has done is he has annihilated the Republican Party as a political organization. I wrote a piece a while back saying that we need a center-right party in America. Functioning countries have center-right and center-left parties. We now have a big, unwieldy pro-democracy coalition led by a center-left party and a complete cult of personality that is led by white nationalists, crackpots, conspiracy theorists, racists, you name it. And the problem is that there are still millions of people who are tuned out. You asked me earlier about Trump supporters. There’s a whole group of people that are the real problem here. They’re not Trump supporters or Biden supporters. They are people who just don’t pay attention to politics. And then on Election Day, they say, “Well, I’m basically a Democrat” or “I’m basically a Republican.” And they’re not comprehending the level of danger we’re in because they think they’re just voting like it’s just any other election year because they’ve checked out of everything.

AR: Shifting gears a little bit, we see a splintering within the Republican Party about whether or not we should send aid to Ukraine and the same within the Democratic Party about aid to Israel. You called the Democratic Party unwieldy and the Republican Party, you mentioned, is in this cult of personality. Do you believe that this split is due to the complexity of these conflicts or an underlying fracturing of both parties? 

TN: I don’t think the Democratic Party is really struggling with aid to Israel. I think that the elected Democrats would pass an aid-to-Israel package in the next 10 minutes if they could. There is a small and vocal group of people that I think are irresponsible. By and large, the Democratic Party is not tearing itself apart over this. This is not to say there isn’t a lot of heartburn about what’s happening in the Middle East. This is a powerful country going up against a terrorist organization. We know that scenario. We’ve lived through it, and it’s difficult when you’re a powerful nation fighting terrorists because you’re fighting against people who have no rules, and everything you do seems disproportionate.

AR: I guess I’m just referring to the young people that seem to not want to send aid to Israel, among the Democrats.

TN: I guess what I’m saying is, those are loud voices but a small number. And when you’re on a college campus, there are disproportionately loud voices. And disproportionately irresponsible voices.

AR: For sure.

TN: The Republicans have seized on Ukraine as a wedge. It’s almost like oppositional defiant disorder. Biden wants to do it, so their answer is no. And I wrote a piece about this in The Atlantic about why the GOP opposes aid to Ukraine. There are three parts to it. One is that a lot of Republicans admire Russia. They think Putin is a white, Christian, right-wing hero, and they’re on his side. Second, some of them are just completely against doing anything Joe Biden wants to do. Although, there are a fair number of Republicans who are in favor of aid to Ukraine in Congress. There’s also a third group that is isolationist by nature, the Rand Paul type. I’ve written about foreign aid where they say, “Look at all this foreign aid we send to these bad guys from around the world,” when in fact, as I keep pointing out to people, foreign aid is 1 percent of the United States budget. 

I think that the Democrats have a small and angry group that objects to aiding Israel because they always do. The Republicans, I think, have a completely unprincipled objection to aiding Ukraine simply because it’s a partisan reaction.

AR: So you wouldn’t say that the group that opposes aid to Israel is a symptom of a splinter; you would say that that’s just a small segment of the party?

TN: They’re always there. They’ve always been in the Democratic Party.

AR: But that doesn’t represent the will of the party?

TN: Certainly not, judging by votes in the House and Senate. In national polls, every time there is a conflict in the Middle East, you see the support for Israel rise initially and then drop with more news exposure. There is also just a hardcore group of people, primarily on the Left, who always oppose aid to Israel, no matter what’s going on. But in this new environment with the Internet and 24-hour news cycle, those voices are also easier to magnify.

AR: I know that you’re currently working on your next book, the 2024 update to The Death of Expertise. Why did you decide to write this follow-up, and what does it cover that the original doesn’t?

TN: I finished and shipped the first version in late 2016. The book appeared in early 2017, just as Trump was coming into office. A lot of people think I wrote that first version about Trump, when in fact, I wrote it mostly during 2014 and 2015. So it was just time. There’s a whole chapter on Covid-19. There are a bunch of new personalities. Donald Trump is a little more present in the book. There are a couple of shoutouts to Elon Musk, Robert F. Kennedy, Joe Rogan, and a few other folks who have really continued to poison our public life with bad information. I think the pandemic was really what made Oxford and me realize that we had to update this book. It sells well and it’s assigned in classes. But how could you talk about the death of expertise and not talk about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic? 

AR: Is there anything that you regret saying in the first book, any predictions that didn’t come true? 

TN: I was too optimistic. I thought that a national crisis like a pandemic would actually bring us back together rather than blow us apart. As I said in the book, I didn’t count on an entire political party using a national disaster as a partisan wedge. During times of national disaster and national stress, the parties came together. I said in the book that a war, an economic downturn, or a pandemic would be things that might alleviate the death of expertise. Yet, none of them did that. It’s remarkable because if you think about it—and I say this in the new edition—there’s a war raging in the middle of Europe, and adept diplomacy has helped to keep defeating the Russians and prevent this from turning into a global catastrophe. This is really a triumph of diplomacy and national security expertise that the Ukrainians are still fighting, that Russia has been pushed back. 

We achieved a lot through a certain amount of luck for sure, but also good economic policy and a soft landing in the economy. If you’d told people that in October 2023, jobs would be up, inflation would be down, interest rates would be stabilizing, people would’ve laughed at you. We were all expecting a global recession, if not a depression. People forget that in late 2020, we were all bracing ourselves for the global depression that was going to inevitably happen when all the supply chains failed. The global economy imploded. Instead of acknowledging adept decision-making, good policy, global cooperation, and globalization—a word that people on the Right hate—globalized responses got us through this to a pretty soft landing. I will shamelessly self-promote here and say that the things that I didn’t see coming in the book are partly why I wrote the next book, Our Own Worst Enemy. I was trying to explain in that book: How is it that we have reached this peace, prosperity, and high living standards, and yet people all around the world gravitate toward charlatans, performance artists, and clowns such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro? How is it that somehow people are just so intently, politically suicidal? And that really came out of writing The Death of Expertise.

AR: What else should we be on the lookout for from you? New projects or ideas you’re passionate about exploring? Anything else? 

TN: Well, I’ve already made my national TV debut, so I don’t think I’m going to get any more of those. I’m still writing at The Atlantic. I’ll be part of a big issue that’s coming in January or February about the dangers of a second Trump term. I was supposed to be retired two years ago but apparently, I was a little ahead of myself there.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.