Published at 09:02 on 25 September 2021
I have not read his most recent book, but I do follow his Twitter feed, so I have some idea of what Tom Nichols’ underlying theory is for the current fascist political tendency in the USA. Namely, it is a theory of decadence, decadence fostered by decades of progress and affluence: many people are bored and want something exciting and edgy, like a president who is a boorish real estate huckster and reality TV star.
I find this theory unsatisfying. Why are the problems of democratic decline so much worse here in the USA than in, say, Scandinavia, where there is even more security for the masses, thanks to decades of social-democratic-inspired policies? Should not there be even more “boredom” and its resulting decadence and growing support for authoritarianism there? Yet there is less!
Part of it is I think that the theory is personally satisfying for Nichols to propound. Part of his self-image is of a curmudgeonly conservative (he even lists “curmudgeon” as one his personal attributes on his Twitter profile), and this theory is great for such a self-image.
This is because the theory does a great job of trolling liberals and leftists, whom Nichols can then school. You see, despite our problems with sharing the gains of our economic growth equitably, there still has been a tremendous amount of it since the end of World War II, so much growth in fact that even those on the short end of the stick have seen their material affluence rise. So lefties slip up and say “nuh-uh, it’s worse now!” and Nichols can rattle off a near-endless supply of statistics and anecdotes that demolish the objection. And virtually nothing feels better than continually seeing oneself proven correct.
The correct challenge starts with a more nuanced and factually correct objection. Thankfully for Nichols, badly-made arguments outnumber well-made ones online. So the warm fuzzies keep on rolling in.
I don’t mean to be bad-mouthing the guy here. I am merely pointing out that he is human, that is all. One could probably quite easily find instances where Yours Truly has done similar things, for similar reasons, with arguments that I have made. Everyone likes the warm fuzzies of seeing one’s pet beliefs affirmed.
If anything, Nichols is a pundit of higher than average moral integrity, since he has in recent years allowed evidence to convince him that the political cause he devoted most of his life to up to this point, conservatism, has seriously rotten aspects which he allowed himself to be blind to, and has as such started revising his beliefs to accommodate the new evidence. Most pundits in such situations just deny the obvious and cling to their pet beliefs.
What do I think the cause of our decline is? I don’t think there is any one single cause. Rather, I see it as the nexus of a number of causes that have built over the years.
- An incompetent establishment center-left party that values weakness and timidity over firm commitment to principles.
- A ruthlessly competent establishment right-wing party that values winning over propriety.
- A subcultural radical left that values pursuit of in-group status over engaging and convincing society as a whole.
- The contradiction of being a nation founded by the act of, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, drivers of Negroes making yelps for liberty.
- The general tendency for any new forms of media to present challenges to the existing social order.
- The particular tendency of electronic social networking to foster bigoted, authoritarian, right-wing movements.