Tucker Carlson’s Civic Nihilism

The journalist’s deference to Russia reveals a profound deficit in American civic education
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures as he speaks during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures as he speaks during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

Earlier this month, Tucker Carlson went to Moscow. The media personality and former FOX News bigshot did his best Walter Duranty impersonation—fawning over Moscow’s grocery stores and subway system, while declaring that, “The city of Moscow is so much nicer than any city in my country.” (For readers under a certain age: Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his star-stuck coverage of Stalin’s Soviet Union, in which he defended the Soviet gulags, denied that millions died during the great Russian famine, and celebrated Stalin as “guardian of a sacred flame.”)

Carlson was particularly wowed by the Russian grocery store he visited. He was thrilled by the store’s cart system, in which customers deposit a coin to release the cart and only get the coin back by properly returning the cart. He was taken by the store’s shopping-cart escalator. (One hates to point out that plenty of multistory U.S. grocery stores have those, too.) The whole performance had me thinking that Carlson is being intentionally dishonest, just because it’s tough to believe he’s really that ignorant.

What’s any of this have to do with education? Quite a bit, actually. We seem intent on turning the citizenry of the most prosperous, successful, and blessed multi-ethnic democracy in history into a clutch of angry, polarized, nervous, jealous chumps. For much of my life, this was the kind of thing I expected from the wilder precincts of the sky-is-falling campus left.

Today, it’s become a remarkably bipartisan exercise.

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Back to Carlson, as Charles Cooke aptly observed at National Review:

I daresay that Carlson did, indeed, have a nice time when he visited Moscow. As a rich foreign tourist who was being carefully minded by the Russian government, he was undoubtedly exposed to the Moscow that its champions wanted him to see. And that city, I’ll wager, is pretty swell. But still. . . .

Were he pushed, I suspect that Carlson would defend his apologia by pointing to American cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — all of which are, indeed, extremely badly run. But he would still be wrong. [They] need to get their act together, no doubt, but if I had to choose between living in Moscow or in any of those places, I’d choose any of those places in three seconds flat. Any American who wouldn’t is a fool. Moscow is a drab mausoleum in an economic backwater that is ruled by a dictator.

There, that wasn’t so hard. All it takes is a little honesty, knowledge, and perspective to spot Carlson’s ludicrous apologia for the nonsense it is. Unfortunately, there’s far too little of Cooke’s clued-in candor today: in public discourse or our schools. That’s how we’ve arrived at a place where young Americans are depressed about living in a nation marked by a historically remarkable degree of peace, prosperity, political stability, freedom, and opportunity.

They’re channeling the dupes who used to prattle on about the supposed superiority of Cuban health care and literacy efforts, or bought into the agitprop about China’s “miraculous” management of Covid. You see it among the deranged right-wingers who think America’s elected officials sacrifice kids at a D.C. pizza restaurant or that our elections are rigged by Venezuelan vending companies. It’s also on display when the Republican presidential front-runner reacts to the death of a heroic Russian dissident by ranting, “Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are DESTROYING AMERICA. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION!”

Am I overstating things? You be the judge. Last summer, the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether the United States was the greatest country in the world, one of the greatest countries in the world, or not a great country at all. Among Americans 18 to 29, just 9 percent think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, while 43 percent think the U.S. lags the pack.

Duranty would have loved this collapse of confidence. It’s what he sought. And the truth is that it’s easy to take things for granted, to long for the greener produce in the grocery store on the other side of the world (even when it’s just as green in our neighborhood bodega). Anyone who gazes enviously upon Russia or Cuba or China needs to get out more. And hit the books. Of course, only the tiniest sliver of high school or college students today have the vaguest clue who Duranty is. Hell, many have little or no familiarity with the victims of communism, the Holocaust, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It’s hard to have a measured take on the state of the world, much less on simple-minded TikTok tirades about anti-colonialism, absent this context.

A big part of the problem, I fear, is the degree to which education has become a masterclass in navel-gazing. For the New York Times’s “1619 Project” to deem the U.S. a “slavocracy” is to exhibit a mind-numbingly blinkered grasp of history. The U.S. is a hugely imperfect nation, but those imperfections are grossly distorted when we shut our eyes to the rest of the human experience.

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The U.S. Constitution, informed by the Magna Carta and the musings of scribblers like Montesquieu and Locke, established the first stable republic since the fall of Rome. It’s important to know that American democracy was circumscribed, racist, sexist, fragile, and that the franchise was extended only to white male property holders. But it’s also crucial to appreciate that the American Revolution was the irreplaceable spark that brought chatter of democracy and liberty to life, and how profoundly we have built upon and expanded that foundation. Teaching students about the U.S. without helping them to grasp that represents a moral and intellectual failure.

Today’s energetic assault on American self-confidence is just weird. After all, we’ve spent the past few decades in education talking about the importance of inclusion—of ensuring that schools respect the families, communities, and customs of all students. Given that, it’s bizarre that so many educators (under the tutelage of Howard Zinn and his heirs) take so much delight in deriding the founders, history, and traditions of the nation these students call home.

I’m all for “true history.” But the true history of the U.S. is a grand one, with much cause for gratitude and optimism alike. Why Tucker Carlson and his fellow travelers are so bent on convincing Americans that America sucks is something that, I suspect, will preoccupy armchair psychologists for many decades to come.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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