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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 214

Tom Nichols — Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy

Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy (book cover)

Over the past three decades, citizens of democracies who claim to value freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law have increasingly embraced illiberal politicians and platforms. Democracy is in trouble, but who is really to blame?

In Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols challenges the current depictions of the rise of illiberal and anti-democratic movements in the United States and elsewhere as the result of the deprivations of globalization or the malign decisions of elites. Rather, he places the blame for the rise of illiberalism on the people themselves. Nichols traces the illiberalism of the 21st century to the growth of unchecked narcissism, rising standards of living, global peace, and a resistance to change. Ordinary citizens, laden with grievances, have joined forces with political entrepreneurs who thrive on the creation of rage rather than on the encouragement of civic virtue and democratic cooperation. While it will be difficult, Nichols argues that we need to defend democracy by resurrecting the virtues of altruism, compromise, stoicism, and cooperation — and by recognizing how good we’ve actually had it in the modern world.

Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs, US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of The Death of Expertise (Oxford 2017), No Use: Nuclear Weapons and US National Security (2013), and Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War (2008). He is also an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and an adjunct professor at the US Air Force School of Strategic Force Studies. He is a former aide in the US Senate and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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Shermer and Nichols discuss:

  • why 74 million people voted for Trump,
  • why Trump is not a conservative,
  • what happens if you watch three straight hours of Fox News,
  • liberalism, classical liberalism, and illiberalism,
  • Afghanistan,
  • Is terrorism really an existential threat?
  • nuclear weapons as an existential threat,
  • the Hobbesian trap, the security dilemma, and why we may never get to global nuclear zero,
  • Are there good wars? (John Mueller’s The Stupidity of War)
  • January 6, 2021, QAnon, rigged election,
  • assaults on democracy/death of democracy: recency effect/availability heuristic?
  • liberal / illiberal, conservative / populism / authoritarianism,
  • Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson, Hungary as a “serious country,”
  • nostalgia for the “good old days” (they sucked),
  • BLM, antiracism, #metoo, woke gender and race (American Marxism?)
  • Cold War/proxy wars,
  • globalization,
  • Is social media eroding our civic discourse?
  • Federalist Papers and good governance,
  • Does a liberal democracy and self-governing people need religion (an internal self-governor)?
  • the appeal of the apocalypse.
Quote Shermer read during the podcast, from George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf, The New English Weekly, March 21, 1940:

“Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode is sponsored by Brilliant:

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