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May 26, 2022

In Episode 7 of Series 7 of The Rights Track, Todd is joined by Tom Nichols, Professor Emeritus of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and Contributing Writer at The Atlantic. Tom specialises in international security affairs including U.S. - Russia relations, nuclear strategy, and NATO issues. His recent book – Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy is an account of the spread of illiberal and anti-democratic sentiment throughout our culture. 


Todd Landman  00:00

Welcome to The Rights Track podcast, which gets the hard facts about the human rights challenges facing us today. In series seven, we're discussing human rights in a digital world. I'm Todd Landman, in this episode, I'm delighted to be joined by Tom Nichols. Tom is Professor Emeritus of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and contributing writer at The Atlantic. He specialises in international security affairs, including US Russia relations, nuclear strategy, and NATO issues. He recently authored a book - Our Own Worst Enemy; The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy. It's an engaging account of the spread of illiberal and anti-democratic sentiment throughout our culture. So today, we're asking him who's responsible for this, and what we should  do about it. So Tom, it's fantastic to have you on this episode of The Rights Track. So welcome.

Tom Nichols  00:51

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Todd Landman  00:53

So I have a rather unusual question to enter into this conversation with you and it involves Indian food, because in your book, you talk about the idea that you're not a big fan of Indian food. But tell me a little bit of the story. What happened when you just expressed this view that you know what, I don't like Indian food?

Tom Nichols  01:10

Well, I didn't just express that I didn't like Indian food, I added this kind of snarky comment, because it was on Twitter, of course, and someone had said, post your worst food takes here. And of course, people said things like, well, I hate mayonnaise, and doughnuts are bad, and so on. But I said, Indian food is terrible, and we pretend that it isn't. And, of course, I meant my colleagues who would always drag me to Indian restaurants, and then spend the afternoon sweating and gulping water and you know, sweat running in their eyes. And I would always turn to them and say, so you can't possibly be enjoying this. Because I don't happen to like very spicy food. And this Firestorm broke out. I mean, within two days, you know, I was this, you know, genocidal racist maniac. You know, I was in all the Indian papers. I was in The Washington Post -  Russian television mentioned me. I mean, it was insane. All because I'm a middle aged New Englander, who just doesn't happen to like Indian food and is very snarky about it. The coda to this whole story is that finally the former US attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, when the pandemic finally lifted, he took me out and said I challenge you to come to dinner with me. And he took me to an Indian restaurant. And I said, I would sit there and I would just eat Indian food, while people were making donations that we're gonna be used for a COVID ward in India. And this challenge ended up raising about $135,000 for COVID relief in India.

Todd Landman  02:42

That is fantastic. Now, I'm going to pick this apart a little bit, because what's interesting is what looked like an incidental and as you admit a bit of a snarky comment about your food preferences, what you really communicated there is the rapidity and the spread of information, geographically, how it gets picked up, it's a bit unusual how one tweet can be picked up and really run and other tweets just sort of die on the vine, as it were. So this captures this idea that you have in the book around the viral nature of information, regardless of its veracity, how it can spread around the world, and how the originator of that information might be vilified by an anonymous group of people out there. And then how stories get picked up. So is that your sort of summary of what happened there that it was just this kind of, you know, ridiculously rapid thing about it actually, just a personal preference?

Tom Nichols  03:33

Yeah, absolutely. And there's two things to note about it. One is that the nature of hyper connectivity, where, you know, I mean, when I started my career, 35 years ago, in the late 1980s, a viewer mentioned in a newspaper, you know, people clipped that and sent it to you in an envelope and the thing that we used to call the US mail with a stamp on it, and they'd say, wow, you know, I saw that you were mentioned in a newspaper. Now, you can be mentioned in every newspaper in the world in 24 hours, you know, on the one hand, I suppose there's a good side to that, which is that we all have the opportunity to be more informed. But the second part of it that makes that so worrisome, is that the internet rewards negativity. And so instead of people saying, you know, taking that in kind of the light hearted or snippy spirit that I intended it, it was what rewards engagement is to assume that anyone you encounter in the virtual world has the worst intentions, and that it's your job to kind of, you know, reveal that to the world. I mean, I had people within about three days, literally sending emails to my workplace saying, I hope you die.

Todd Landman  04:48

Just because you didn't like Indian food.

Tom Nichols  04:51

And because I had said it in this very dismissive way, if I had said, and because also there were a lot of people deciding that this was an opportunity to show their own, you know, elevated consciousness about a part of the world about India. As I said, you know, many times after that incident, if I had said, you know, French food is overpriced, gluey junk, and we pretend it isn't, people would have shrugged, because there's no psychic income from defending expensive French cuisine. But this was, you know, this narcissism. And this is what I was getting at is that there are some times or some incidents that really speak to this problem that I talk about in the book of the rise of narcissism and people say, 'Uh huh!', you know, instead of reading this article, or tweet or letter, or whatever it is, this is an opportunity for me to say something about myself. And to say it loudly and to say, you know, by being very hostile to someone else, and I think that's kind of made the world crazy. When I wrote a piece initially about this tweet, I said, we've become planet Seinfeld. And famously, the creator said, it's a show about nothing. We are now a global culture that is constantly manufacturing things out of nothing, because that's a way that we generate satisfaction and actualization for ourselves. And it's very worrisome, because you can't sustain democracy on that.

Todd Landman  06:20

Right? We'll get to the effect on democracy in a minute. I mean, I share your pain not in the palette, mind you. But you know, I write books like you do. I write articles for The Conversation for the Guardian, for other other outlets, and they get a modicum of interest and support. And then one time on BBC Breakfast, I was asked to comment on the intelligence reports about Russian interference in the US elections, and I happen to be out of sequence in the studio, I get on the couch, and they're running a story about a Marine who rescued people from Mount Everest. And they turned to me and I think, Wait a minute, they have the wrong guest. So I say 'you have the wrong guest' that got more hits, more attention, the analytics on my website went completely haywire. So that focus on either the negative or the humorous, can actually, you know, go out of control more than, you know, the erudite focused work that I tried to do in the day job, but I'm gonna get back to this point about the undermining of democracy. And I want to really start with a compelling argument you make in the book, and to me it references some really interesting political science literature, most famously published by Ronald Inglehart back in 1977, published a book called The Silent Revolution with Princeton press. And then he followed that up with a book called Culture Shift. And his main thesis was that at times of plenty, in advanced industrial democracies, there's a development of what he calls post material values. So people are not, if they're not concerned about roof over their head, food in their mouth job every day and a paycheck, they turn their attention to other things, like human rights, like nuclear power, like climate change, like women's rights and other issue areas that transcend traditional class issues that, you know, Marxists would want to talk about or those interested in the economy. Now, you're making a really interesting argument in the book, because you're basically saying that in those countries where we've had economic plenty, material progress, technological advance, and now we throw in an ability and a platform for people to share their you know, the thoughts they have, second by second onto a platform has actually created this phenomenon. You say people are too connected and too isolated at the same time. Tell us about that insight from the book.

Tom Nichols  08:33

Right. It's great that you kind of do a touch back to Ron Inglehart, because there was so much that I wanted to think about with this book, and the idea that somehow, once you stop this kind of struggle for your daily bread, that you can actually think about other things, you know, at the time, I mean, now you might people listening might say, Well, that's obvious, you know, but that wasn't really obvious at the time. I mean, you know, people even through the Depression, we went from the depression into World War Two, we started thinking about things like making the world safe for democracy and all that. But then I think we went even further from some kind of post materialist thinking to postmodern thinking, where everything became mediated through our experience of it, that we just decided that the world was just one big TV show. It's kind of like The Truman Show or, you know, kind of virtual reality exercise where we were constantly connected to each other, and snooping in and out of each other's houses all day. You know, when people hear me say connected, I don't just mean by Twitter or Facebook. I mean, things like and I talked about this in the book, I mean, things like Zillow. I just gave a talk the other day where I had a group of I don't know it was talking to about 100 people. And I said, I mean, people here, come on, admit it. You've snooped on your neighbours, and looked inside their houses by going to Zillow and these kinds of hands sheepishly went up, you know, we spend a lot of time being very connected to and very interested in the lives of our neighbours, but not actually interacting with them in any positive way we don't talk, we don't do things with them. We don't. I thought maybe one of the other political science works here, we're going to name check. Here's one that I put in the book, which was Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, you know, where we don't join bowling leagues, we go bowling, and then we post pictures of it, you know, we don't actually interact with that middle stratum of people who are somewhere between close friends or family, and strangers. You know, there are so many people, I learned this, you know, when I decided in my years ago in my 40s, to take up golf to try and you know, get some physical activity. And suddenly, I realised I knew a tonne of people in my community, I didn't know them well. But I knew them enough to be able to have a conversation with them. I mean, I didn't join a country club, it was a public course. And, you know, and having a beer at the bar afterwards. And you know, I got to know a lot of people, we don't do stuff like that any more. And so we are both connected and isolated. And in a way that just rewards negativity, it rewards that using other people and their views and their lives as raw material for us to express our own grievances and sense of entitlement. And you know, gripes and basically again, to make it about us rather than about other people.

Todd Landman  11:18

Yeah. And you know, the reference to Bowling Alone is brilliant, because the thesis of that book, of course, is that because people aren't Bowling Alone, because they're not going to the PTA. They are engaged in chequebook activism, and now we're going to pay pal activism, I think. But actually, it erodes social capital, it erodes the fabric of society, it erodes that connectivity, that chance encounters you, whether it's a golf club, a bridge club, a local social club, or just going down to the local bar and getting a drink. People are now experiencing the world really literally through a screen. And certainly during COVID, that was raised to very high relief that people were isolated. And I wonder if there's going to be a post COVID effect. But what you're describing is a sort of post industrial or post material postmodern resentment, that focuses not only on the negativity, but also I'm going to throw in another term here, this idea of relative deprivation, if you spend all your day, looking at how everyone else is living their life, and we know that's a fiction, we know that what we see on Facebook, and Instagram and any other platform is an idealised, artificial version of somebody as they go about  enjoying their lives. That creates resentment as well and  the sense of relative deprivation. Why does that person have many more fun things to share on social media than me, including a really nice slap up Indian meal I might add, and that resentment that develops creates that ennui that sort of, you know, just this desperate sort of sense of negativity? And what I'm curious then is how does this then connect to a problem for democracy and by extension, a problem for human rights?

Tom Nichols  12:53

What when you think that everyone's living better than you, and you develop that constant sense of entitlement? And we know, by the way, that's spending a lot of time I mean, this psychologists have actually measured this. Spending a lot of time on Facebook actually, will depress you. Because as you say, what do people post on Facebook? Here's my daughter's wedding. Here's my son's graduation. You know, here we are at Disney, nobody posts their, you know, first day out of rehab pictures, their divorce decrees, you know, their court appearances, you know, no one puts that stuff, I can say, Wow, My life sucks. And the conclusion you come to is that somehow this is a failure of government, because government's supposed to fix all these things for you. And therefore, it's a failure of democracy. And I want to anticipate one criticism, I know, that's always out there about this, you know, there are people who will say, but these are legitimate gripes, because of things like income inequality, for example, because of the very rich and the very poor. You know, this is why it takes so long to write a book like this, the data just doesn't bear this out. The two most important things to understand is that the anti democratic attitudes are centred heavily in the middle class. Back in the 50s, you know, the term lumpen bourgeoisie started to peak out a kind of middle class that is bored and restless and hates democracy, because they think they're not getting everything out of it, that they should. The example I use in this in the book is a good, you know, now passed away, unfortunately, but an old friend of mine from school, who literally was complaining to me about how bad things were while he was sitting on his boat, you know, a working class guy with a high school diploma and nothing else sitting on his boat talking about how the world you know, had done him dirt. That's very much the problem - it's not the poor and the dispossessed, and minorities and marginalised people who are giving up on democracy. It is middle class white people in Italy and Britain and the United States and Poland, Turkey and so on. The other problem with the income inequality argument is that most of the anger and most of the dissent in the country is not focused on you know, poor people versus Jeff Bezos, it's the middle class, griping at each other about subtle gradations among them. There's even a thing that social psychologists called the HGTV effect, where people spend a lot of time watching these go home and garden TV shows. And they literally then decide they have to improve their house because they find it intolerable that people they see on television who are like them, somehow have, you know, granite countertops and hardwood floors and recessed lighting, and they look around and they say, How come? These people are just like me, I don't have that. That leads to this anger that says, democracy is a rigged game that's always arrayed against me. And somehow I'm getting screwed in all this. And so the right answer to this is to burn it all down.

Todd Landman  15:45

Right. So that's the crucial point. And I know the work of Robert Pape, out of Chicago has been looking at those people that were most involved with the insurrection on January 6 In the US Capitol. And he actually says, look, a large proportion of these people were actually white collar professionals. You know, people were estate agents from Texas, hiring private aeroplanes to fly to Washington, DC to protest the rigged system, as it were, they got caught up in something they maybe didn't realise they were getting caught up in. And then when they were arrested, they said, Oh, my God, they arrested me. Yeah, it broke the law.

Tom Nichols  16:20

I think this is a really important point. And I think Bob's you know, work on this, that he and his team who just basically just sat down and kind of trawled through all of the arrest records and cross indexed and kind of did the deep dive on each of these people. These were not unemployed factory workers living in opioid decimated wastelands. They just weren't. That's a comforting thought. And I say comforting, because people think that if that were the case, it's something you can fix with better social policy. But they weren't. They just were not those people. What they were were people who were again, bored, narcissistic, grandiose, one of them, the person you're talking about, the real estate agent from Texas basically said something to the effect of, I'm just too white and blonde and pretty to go to jail or something, you know, and she turned her jail term, which was only I think, 45 days, she turned it into a stunt. Which, you know, for a lot of us, I think it's always bothered me that these people got, you know, these kind of piddly 30 and 45 day jail sentences, you know, six months in prison in a federal prison might have sobered her up a little bit.

Todd Landman  17:27

And I think more controversially, what of him said, You're treating us like black people. Now that of course as the racist dimension to that observation. But if we get back to the topic of the digital, then, the technology that you talk about and being too connected, the platforms that technology like WhatsApp and Parler and some of the other things that were available, of course, did allow for a collective action and one might even say connective action that these groups were able to communicate with each other to plan and coordinate. I don't need to tell you this. You're a national security affairs professor at the US Naval War College, you know, how groups organised but the sort of organising infrastructure, if you will, of the digital world allowed for this to happen. There was chatter, there were security agencies that absolutely knew there was chatter, and yet there was an absence of response, at least in a timely fashion to prevent this from happening. And of course, so we see, for example, you know, pro democracy movements organised in the same way, anti democracy movements, organised in the same way. And the recurring theme on our podcast, this series has been this kind of, you know, technology is neutral. It's whatever people do with it, that you have to be worried about. So what can you say about that?

Tom Nichols  18:35

I hope people understand I am not a technophobe, I actually, I'm 61. So I came of age when the internet did, and I loved the internet, I have a huge social media account. And, you know, I was the geek tweaking some computers and doing all that stuff in the 90s, and even into my dotage. But I agree that the problem is what you do with the technology. The other technology that really made a lot of this possible that I think we need to say, give a shout out to are mobile phones, which allowed people to kind of track each other and stay in touch with each other during this moment. But of course, in a lovely kind of, you know, karmic irony here, it also allowed the government to be able to pinpoint exactly who was where, you know, by checking that data from cellphone towers and locators and all that other stuff that put a lot of these people in jail. But again the problem is the social normality underlying it - when it comes to the connectivity, when it comes to things like email and chat rooms and social media, the way I kind of stole this from a writer named Yevgeny Simkin who said 'Every town had an end of the world guy right? That every town had a guy with a sandwich board saying the end of the world is coming. What the Internet did was make every one of those guys  able to reach out to every other one of those guys in every one of 100,000 towns and to believe hey we're a movement instead of saying I happen to be the one guy who's just kind of a bit off and you know and paranoid about the end of the world. No we're a movement - we're a social force and you see this with a lot of other things and sometimes with really tragic effects. The New York Times reported on a group of people who believed that the Government is watching them which is a problem that peopke with emptional issues have had long before there was an Internet. I mean I grew up with an Uncle who had that exact same problem in the 1950s and 60s. But they have now actually formed a kind of social movement by reaching out ironically through social media to say see it's not us that has the problem it's a real thing because enough of us believe it. That is how extremism grows through this. There is no counterveiling social  pressure. When you're the one guy who is you know an abject Hitlet-admiring racist, it matters that everyone around you says that's a terrible thing to believe. You're wrong. If you can go online and find 100,000 other peopke who believe that same thing, which you always will be able to do because it's a big world, then suddenly, you say, well, maybe I'm not wrong. Maybe I'm part of a movement, maybe everybody else is wrong, because look at all my new friends. That's the real danger here. It takes people out of their social environment, removes them from normal kind of interactions about what might be right or wrong, or good or evil, and lets them go find the community of people who will agree with them about anything. And that I think, is the behaviour we've really seen growing. I'll just add one more point, which is, those of us who write and have any kind of public persona, used to get the occasional crank letter here and there, angry crank letters, and people reaching out in the most hostile and violent way possible. Because again, this used to be something that was socially unacceptable, it required a certain modicum of effort, you actually have to write something down, put a stamp on an envelope, whatever, you know, is now just commonplace. It's just part of the cost of doing business. If you step at all into the public eye, it's just a normal part of being in the public view now, and again, I think, because people encourage each other to do it.

Todd Landman  22:16

Yeah. A couple of keystrokes from a troll, and suddenly you've gone viral in a negative way. So Tom, I want to push you a bit on this then. So we have the socio economic question. We have the middle class point, the post material resentment, point, a bowling along point, all these things which come together and rather tragic and scary ways that undermine democracy that potentially compromise many different sets of human rights. But I wonder in the remaining time, we have together you might say, what are the couple of practical things we can do as a solution to actually curb the worst forms of this behaviour to regain faith in democracy and human rights in ways that sort of mitigate against the developments that you set out in the book,

Tom Nichols  22:54

I'm sorry to say that I got to the end of the book, and I wasn't that optimistic. But I did have a couple of things. One is that we need to concentrate on small scale projects. But all of this, everything I'm about to say requires human beings engaging in an act of will, and self reflection to step away from their screens, and to turn off the TV for a moment. And to take a walk and say, What kind of person am I really and what kind of person do I really want to be? There are a lot of things that need to be done in your community. The problem is that as a very narcissistic grandiose culture, even people who mean well, you know, will say things like, well, we have to change the structure of the US Senate, or we have to do away with the electoral - Well, I have bad news for you, you're not going to do away with the Electoral College as heroic. And as satisfying as you may think that that is that you're going to change the US Constitution tomorrow. That's not going to happen. What you can do is reach out and work with other people in your community to register voters to volunteer at a polling site, to phone bank to help get the potholes filled to go to a city council meeting, to go to a school committee meeting. People don't do any of that because it's boring. And I noticed because my mother was a city alderman, I come from a working class background, uneducated, you know, high school dropout parents, but my mom, one year got very angry about the nature. I tell the story in the book, got very angry about a drug market operating down the street from our house. So she campaigned on it. She went and  got elected to City Council and fixed it. You know, you can do things like that. I was at a meeting recently where I talked to three or four local elected officials, who all told me that they had been in their jobs forever because they had no opposition because literally they were getting reelected every year or two years as Selectmen or Assemblyman or assessors or treasurers or whatever. It wasn't their town, because nobody wanted the job.

Todd Landman  24:49

No one else was running against them.

Tom Nichols  24:52

Yeah and because again, even well, meaning people say well, that's beneath me, that's too boring. I'm going to reform In the United Nations one day and you know, solve world hunger, and that's unfortunately, what we do. So that's one thing. I think the other is that if you are involved with a political party, at least here in the United States, and I think this probably would hold true for Britain, and other places as well, parties need to mean something. You know, in the United States, we had two prominent political figures, one of whom hijacked his party, the Republican Party under Donald Trump, and one of whom nearly hijacked the Democratic Party away from their nominating process, Bernie Sanders, who never joined the Democratic Party, he wasn't even a member of the party, you know, and I think that parties used to have some kind of coherent, ideological content to them. And now they're just tribal flags of convenience. And I think people ought to think about that. But I'm a former Republican, I worked for a Democrat, I'm now an independent, I'm not joining a party at this point in my life. But if you are younger, and you feel strongly about parties, then you know, they should mean something, and they should stand for something. But all of these mean, stepping away from the constant censoring stream of the internet, putting your own ego a little bit on hold, being kinder and thinking better of other people, and working on projects at a scale where you can start building up Todd, you mentioned social capital, and start rebuilding that Bank of social capital, those little interactions that give a society the resilience to hold on through bad times.

Todd Landman  26:28

That's brilliant. And those examples are great, you really have highlighted this tension between, you know, hyper narcissism and community really . And you know, I was struck listening to you that what you're really saying, it goes right back to Alexis de Tocqueville, and his assessment of the strength of American democracy was in the natural inclination for Americans to join things and to help one another. And I think that in this current period, we've lost sight of that. And what you're saying is step outside yourself, step outside your home, get off the grid, help somebody, invest in your community. And you know, don't take yourself so seriously, actually, the technology will always be there, as we've been discussing on this series of the podcasts, technology advances, if it does follow Moore's law, it doubles every year, and it's likely to continue to do so. But really, there's a human story here that you need to step outside yourself, step outside your home, and engage with others and rebuild that social capital and social fabric in order to hold on to the institutions that have so well governed. Our society is not just the American society, but also democracies around the world. And we are seeing this democratic backsliding taking on at the moment, and you know, your views around joining, helping, reaching out and stepping away from the narcissistic self that is somehow isolated within this electronic bubble is the first step. So thank you so much for appearing on this episode of the Rights Track with us. It was absolutely brilliant listening to you and engaging with you. And for now, all I can say is, thanks very much, and have a great day.

Christine Garrington  27:59

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Rights Track podcast, which was presented by Todd Landman and produced by Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts with funding from 3di. You can find a full transcript of this episode on the website at together with useful links to content mentioned in the discussion. Don't forget to subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts to access future and earlier episodes.

Tom Nichols  27:59

Thanks for having me.