Thomas Nichols
Contributing writer, "The Atlantic" | Professor Emeritus of National Security Affairs, Naval War College
Foreign Affairs
Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic magazine and Professor Emeritus of national security affairs at the Naval War College. His career included deep engagement on a range of foreign policy issues including Russia, nuclear weapons, and the role of war in international affairs. He also worked in government and public policy in the Massachusetts House and in the U.S. Senate.

Today he writes on the fight for democracy in America and around the world. He is a prolific author. His most well-known book, 2017’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, examined the collapse of trust in experts and the increase in social attacks against science and learning from a public that thinks it knows as much as experts. He makes the case that that this false egalitarianism is dangerous to democracy. The Death of Expertise has been published in fifteen foreign edi­tions, including Chinese (complex and simple), Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Finnish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Romanian, Vietnamese, and Arabic.

Tom’s current book, Our Own Worst Enemy, examines the decline of democracy and the rise of illiberal, anti-democratic movements in the United States and elsewhere, and he challenges voters in the democracies to recognize how they themselves, after years of peace and prosperity, have endangered their own system of government with their own lack of civic involvement, their sense of entitlement, and their unwillingness to support basic values such as the rule of law and the equality of others, in a work that Publisher’s Weekly called "a searing critique of contemporary political culture and the rise of illiberalism on both the right and the left."

Tom is a well-known national commentator on political affairs, and a familiar face on television and on social media, where he has well over a half-million followers on Twitter. Tom is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion and was once listed as one of the top 100 players of the game.

What are we talking about? We’re talking about democracy and the role of the citizen. These are dark time for democracy, and underlying both books is the problem of widespread narcissism in a entitled society. The democratization of knowledge and the expansion of public participation have great achievements, but Nichols notes the destructive nature of claims that everyone’s opinion should have equal weight, that nothing important distinguishes professionals from lay people or teachers from students. This “epidemic of narcissism,” the aggressive rejection of expertise, endangers the very foundations of our republic.

What are the causes? Changes in the role of higher education and media, and the internet. Colleges have become intellectual boutiques designed to satisfy the self-identified desires of students, rather than institutions that teach them what they need to know. The media has become a forest of echo-chamber silos in which you are told what you want to hear rather than what you need to know and even that information is mostly entertainment. The internet has put all this on steroids.

In the case of the threat to democracy at large in Our Own Worst Enemy, Nichols notes that thirty years of peace after the end of the Cold War, affluence, and remarkably high living standards – along with social hyperconnection through the media – has made us partisans of our own egos, unable to process news and create normal connections with others that stabilize democratic communities.

Why does it matter? Society doesn’t work without real knowledge. To run things well, you actually have to know what you’re doing. When ignorance and opinion shoulder expertise aside, the system collapses. Populist anti-expertise inevitably ends in disaster. And society requires trust and fidelity to basic principles, such as the rule of law, secular government, equality in the political system, cooperation and other norms that are difficult to maintain in societies riven by entitlement and resentment.

What’s the solution? To avert disaster, we must take responsibility for being better informed as citizens. And experts must defend themselves. They must make the case that experts are not the masters but the servants — the necessary and valuable servants — of real democracy. We must concentrate as well on local and regional issues that better our lives rather than arrogating to ourselves the role of savior or hero. Non-partisan projects that benefit towns and cities are a good place to start.

Credentials. Tom Nichols is a professor emeritus at the Naval War College, where he taught for over 25 years. He still teaches at the Harvard Extension School. He remains a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University. He is a contributing writer and has a regular newsletter “Peacefield” at The Atlantic; previously he was a columnist for USA Today. He was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and served on Senator John Heinz’s defense and security affairs staff. Tom is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion who played in both the 1994 Tournament of Champions and the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions.

In 2017, Tom was named by POLITICO magazine as one of the POLITICO 50, the “key thinkers, doers, and visionaries reshaping American politics and policy.”

His other books include:
No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security
Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War
Winning The World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War
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