Diagnosing Contemporary America’s Ills: Where Did We Go Wrong?

In ‘Our Own Worst Enemy,’ Tom Nichols suggests ‘selfishness’ is the culprit but fails to distinguish it from enlightened self-interest

Pro-Trump protesters storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Image Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

For most of my lifetime—except perhaps for a brief period after the end of the Cold War—Americans have been convinced that we are living in an era of crisis. But the current era can claim at least one bona fide crisis distinct to itself: the resurgence of authoritarianism and the widely acknowledged weakness of “liberal democracy,” particularly compared with the triumphal confidence of liberal democracy in that post-Cold War era. So, what went wrong?

The latest attempt to grapple with this crisis is a new book by Tom Nichols, “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy.” Nichols is best known for lamenting the death of expertise, but in this book he broadens the scope of his concern. “Maybe the rejection of knowledge wasn’t just about people not knowing very much. Maybe it was just one of many arenas of social conflict threatening to undermine the foundations of civic life in the democracies. Maybe it was one of the many accumulating symptoms of the decline of liberal democracy itself.”

The best part of Nichols’ answer to what went wrong, as the book’s title suggests, is that there is plenty of blame to spread around. We are what went wrong.

Living in an Italian Village—But Not in a Good Way

Our crisis is, in one respect, the crisis of believing that we are in a series of artificial, invented crises—the temptation among a wealthy and prosperous people to rebel against their soft lives by declaring that everything has gone wrong and the system under which they live has failed them. If they believe everything is broken already, it gives them an excuse to find meaning in their lives by tearing it all down. “The diminishing of threats and the elevation of expectations,” Nichols writes, “coupled with the dullness of daily life in a society gorged on more forms of leisure than it can comprehend, is both a triumph of liberal democracy and a danger to it.”

Hence the spectacle of “plutopopulism” among a “lumpen bourgeoisie”—well-off Americans who cannot be bothered to engage seriously with political issues and instead look for a celebrity figurehead to solve all their problems through means that are never clearly specified.

Nichols’ real target is the public’s lack of serious engagement, the fact that so many of us are bad citizens who don’t do the work of cooperating with our neighbors or taking our own initiative to solve problems. His central comparison is the cautionary tale of an impoverished Italian village featured in a famous 1950s study by the American social scientist Edward Banfield. It is a town that flounders in permanent poverty because everything is treated as somebody else’s problem:

There is not enough food for the children, but no peasant or landed proprietor has ever given a young pig to the orphanage.

There are two churches in town. . . . The churches do not carry on charitable or welfare activities, and they play no part at all in the secular life of the community.

The doctor, although he has called upon the government to provide a hospital, has not arranged an emergency room or even equipped his own office. The pharmacist, a government-licensed monopolist, gives an absolute minimum of service at extremely high prices.

Most people say that no one in Montegrano is particularly public-spirited, and some find the idea of public-spiritedness unintelligible.

Banfield’s conclusion is that this village is held back by a narrow, short-range conception of self-interest—“amoral familialism”—that mostly manifests as envy of others. The result is a general refusal of its inhabitants to cooperate with their neighbors, even if such cooperation would leave everyone better off.

Self-Interest Properly Understood

Nichols condemns this kind of amoral familialism as “selfishness,” but what immediately leapt to my mind was the contrast of this village to what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say about the role of self-interest in early 19th century America:

The doctrine of self-interest properly understood is not new, but it is among the Americans of our time that it has come to be universally accepted. . . . You hear it as much from the poor as from the rich. . . .

The Americans . . . enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest properly understood. It gives them pleasure to point out how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state. I think that in this they often do themselves less than justice, for sometimes in the United States, as elsewhere, one sees people carried away by the disinterested, spontaneous impulses natural to man. But the Americans are hardly prepared to admit that they do give way to emotions of this sort.

But if rational self-interest is the traditional American alternative to Banfield’s Italian village—a self-interest “enlightened” by consideration of long-term consequences—then part of the problem in contemporary America is the lack of rationality. Nichols points out that part of our problem is increasing polarization, not between coherent ideological alternatives but between incoherent ideological alternatives, ever-changing grab bags of slogans and policies that are mostly just rationalizations for tribal loyalties.

Self-interest is the normal engine of normal human day-to-day behavior, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Only the saintliest of us do things all day long purely out of the goodness of our hearts; the rest of us have bills to pay. . . . When there is nothing else but raw self-interest, however, liberal democracy is impossible—especially if we define our “interest” as including the psychic gratification of defeating enemy tribes and dividing the spoils.

Nichols spends a lot of time examining this tribal mentality, introducing us to useful concepts like ressentiment—a form of envy so poisonous it has to be expressed in French—and “existential envy,” a hatred of another person merely for being who he is. He also lays some of the blame on the internet and social media, or at least on our abuse of it. “We entered the Information Age as adults; we are leaving it, and heading into the Hyper-connected Age, as children entranced by colorful pictures flashing in front of us while we jab at the ‘Like’ button.”

Along the way, he effectively punctures various rationalizations built to cover these less noble motives. For example, some claim that their complaints against liberalism are a reaction against lost prosperity. But we are obviously better off materially today than we were in that golden age, the 1970s. The “darker themes” in our popular culture began to be adopted during the late 1960s, when the perceived problem “was not unemployment or decline but sterility and decadence. Prosperity was ubiquitous.”

To use my own examples, it didn’t start with the factories closing in Allentown. It started with paving paradise to put up a parking lot—a song written in 1970, inspired by a jet-age trip to a resort hotel in Hawaii, the very essence of late 20th century hyper-abundance.

Nichols also punctures the pretensions of those who point to illiberal models as an alternative:

The history of the past century has been a story of increasing liberty and increasing prosperity. Even with the reversals, mistakes, and corruption among the democracies, the autocracies have been the systems that have faced the need to change or perish. They are the regimes that failed to provide for their citizens, whose successes were unsustainable, and whose citizens have repeatedly risen to destroy them.

By his own admission, though, Nichols is short on solutions to our current problems, or at least easy solutions, as opposed to a dose of good old-fashioned “moral hectoring.”

How Should We Reform Ourselves?

I tend to agree that there might be no better alternative to moral hectoring. What is needed is nothing so small as a political reform or the restructuring of one or two institutions. What is needed is a wider moral reform movement. But in what way do we need to be reformed?

Nichols directs a lot of his hectoring at “selfishness” and “narcissism,” and he admits to having a bias against individualism. “Rightist critiques often point an accusing finger at ‘individualism’ and ‘liberalism,’ and I sometimes find myself nodding in agreement with such charges. I am a product of a more community-oriented time.” At the same time, he keeps bumping up against this issue of “enlightened self-interest” yet never fully engages it or gives it the attention it deserves.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the problem with scolding people for being “selfish” because they refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated is that they just might believe you. They might be encouraged in the delusion that it really is in their self-interest to refuse to take precautions in the middle of a pandemic. Similarly, the problem with scolding people for their “selfishness” in indulging in tribal political warfare at the expense of the long-term good of the country is that they just might believe you. They might be encouraged to regard a short-term win for their tribe, or for the blustering leader of their tribe, as more important than any long-term consequences that flow from the precedents and norms that he sets—or from the ones that he knocks down in his quest for power.

If it is true, as Nichols told me recently, that our society runs on enlightened self-interest, it strikes me that we should take enlightened self-interest a lot more seriously. We should devote more time to asking what really is in our long-term self-interest and by what principles and methods our self-interest can be enlightened and properly understood. A re-evaluation of self-interest would almost certainly be an easier sell to the general public than the implication that to save the republic, they have to be the first ones to step forward to take a loss and volunteer to be sacrificed for the public good.

If a moral reform is needed, maybe that is the unexpected direction it needs to go. At any rate, Nichols’ reluctance to explore this avenue might explain why the solutions he offers tend to seem either too small or too difficult to implement.

In its inquiry into what’s wrong with us, “Our Own Worst Enemy” is a good report on the symptoms, but more discussion is needed about the diagnosis and the cure.

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