Review of Our Own Worst Enemy, by Tom Nichols (2021)
In recent times I have found the current American ethos best described as “I’ve got mine; you can go fuck yourself.” American individualism, rampant consumer capitalism, and the breakdown of any sense of community – the erosion of fundamental values necessary for a democracy to function – have all contributed to the deplorable and continuing decline of America’s liberal democracy. Due to the United States’ physical isolation from and ignorance (and indifference) of the world beyond its borders, most Americans know nothing about European social democracy, where governments serve their people more than private business and where the average citizen enjoys a standard of living increasingly higher than most Americans.
Nichols frames his book as an introspection, and suggests all Americans need to reflect on the part each of us has played in contributing to our situation. We have reached this point, not because we are suffering, but rather because of the triumph of our prosperity, peace, and health – the very things Donald Trump seeks to save his cult followers from. Trump and his enablers in government, his wealthy circles, and authoritarian friends abroad follow the Nazi playbook, dissected by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism. Totalitarian leaders exploit prejudices of the “superfluous people” (what Nichols, borrowing the term from Balzac, calls “the insignificant folks”), using terror to subjugate mass populations, victimizing the very people they claim to be helping. Propaganda is also used to transform “classes” into “masses.” Totalitarian leaders use front organizations, fake government agencies, and “esoteric doctrines” to conceal the nature of their aims. Trump and his enablers employ all these techniques today. The primary difference is that they do this openly. Employing Orwellian Newspeak, whatever they assert is true is true – because they say so.
Arendt also argues that loneliness, resulting from social isolation, is a necessary precondition for those who are drawn to totalitarianism. When I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), I found what I had been observing all around me and experiencing in my own life clarified. Postman asserts we have become a Huxleyan society, distracting and medicating ourselves with endless entertainment Today we live in a society even more immersed in mass media distractions – cable news, vacuous Hollywood movies, video gaming, and social media, which produces immediate intimacy between strangers. (My experience with “connecting” with strangers on social media has been only the illusion of intimacy.) Putman ascribes the collapse of community to the disappearance of in-person social interactions. Truer now than before, social media seduces isolated individuals into believing they are in a community of like-minded people. Rather than coming together for mutual aid or working for the common good, social media fans the flames of anger and paranoia.
Since Reagan, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has been accelerating, as the transfer of wealth to the wealthy continues to shrink the middle class. Wealth, power, and fame have become the dominant values, separating the “winners” from all the Average Joe “losers.” While elite education continues to train America’s ruling class in how to manage their power and wealth, these same people have used their political power to dumb down public education, essentially producing politically passive consumers, with no understanding of how American government works or how to think critically. “Informed citizenry,” a prerequisite for a democracy to function, has been replaced with consumers, who increasingly believe in “alternative facts,” that truth is merely someone else’s opinion, and that they have the freedom to do whatever they choose, with no sense of responsibility or the welfare of their fellow citizens. To make matters worse, Nichols points out, 20% of Americans believe military rule is good, 33% believe violence is justified to advance political goals, and that someone other than elected officials should make national decisions.
Those on the right see democracy as a game for suckers and use voting as a weapon. Laws exist only to protect one favored group and punish everyone else. The populist right, according to Nichols, is motivated by nostalgia for an America that never existed and by a desire for social revenge. Americans in general have become short-tempered and embracing of self-centered fantasies about politics. This is the narcissism, anger, and resentment that have replaced the values and attitudes that are the underpinnings of democracy. Nichols reminds the reader that people are responsible for their own happiness and the safety of their own freedoms. He concludes Our Own Worst Enemy on a hopeful note, presenting three proposals to get the US back on track As I write this, Trump’s cronies continue to follow Trump’s orders to break the law, most Republican leaders continue to cynically peddle Trump’s Big Lie to save their own political careers, and continue to undermine American government and society in their quest to make themselves the permanent ruling party. Here’s hoping Nichols’ optimism will prove right.