In This Review

Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy
Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy
By Tom Nichols
Oxford University Press, 2021, 272 pp

If liberal democracy is failing, who is to blame? To illiberal populists, it is the elites who are the villains: globalists, bureaucrats, journalists, intellectuals, politicians. In this spirited polemic, Nichols argues the reverse: it is ordinary citizens who are failing the test of democracy. Populists fan the flames of fear and dissatisfaction, but it is the voters who put them in power. Nichols notes that in the twentieth century, liberal democracies survived multiple global conflicts, defeated fascism and totalitarianism, and weathered multiple depressions and recessions—and yet today, they seem unable to overcome less complex challenges, even within an overall context of relative peace and prosperity. Large segments of the publics in the United States and European countries have lost faith in democratic institutions, and growing numbers tell pollsters that they do not think it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Nichols argues that in an era of jaundiced self-absorption, citizens in Western societies have lost their appreciation of democratic values and the virtues of civic engagement. Still, Nichols acknowledges that any renewal of liberal democracy will rely on ordinary people, albeit ones who possess the civic knowledge and virtues needed to make the system work.