Last week I mentioned in my review of on Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine I’d also read her most recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. As a huge fan of her work, I was excited to read what she had to say about the global creep of right-wing authoritarianism and how it threatened democracy in America and around the world. Imagine how pleased I was when I spotted a copy of her 2020 book at my public library. Grabbing it with zero hesitation I soon added it to the small stack of library books by my bed. Later that weekend I went to work reading Twilight of Democracy and once again Applebaum did not disappointed me.
As bad as this global threat to democracy is, at least it’s inspired a number of intelligent and talented to people to speak out against this trend. There’s been some excellent concise but hard-hitting books over the last several years by Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Even somewhat more higher profile figures like Ian Bremmer and Madeleine Albright have gotten in on the act, weighing in the risks faced by our democracies and the established international order. Applebaum, together with Gessen and Snyder approach this challenge through the lens of their professional experience. All three are historians and/or journalists specializing in the ravages wrought by authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and the lands of the former USSR and therefore more than qualified to defend democracy.
Applebaum, author of Gulag, Iron Curtain and Red Famine is no stranger to the horrors of tyranny. She’s also experienced the rise of authoritarianism first hand in her adopted Poland where she holds dual citizenship and is married to the country’s former foreign minister. For years a proud and active Republican she renounced her membership afterJohn McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. While living in the United Kingdom and working as a journalist she identified with the Conservatives, but by 2015 found herself disillusioned with the party, a disillusionment which only grew worse after Brexit.
Twilight of Democracy marks a departure for Applebaum in that it’s a personal account based on her experiences and not a history book like its predecessors. It begins with a housewarming party on New Year’s Eve in 1999 Applebaum and her husband held at their rustic farmhouse in western Poland. In attendance was a lively mix not just from Poland but also the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. (So lively in fact one guest, a Pole “pulled a pistol from her handbag and shot blanks into the air out of sheer exuberance.”) This polyglot gathering, while culturally diverse nevertheless possessed surprisingly political uniformity. Those in attendance saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Reagan and Thatcher and after witnessing the implosion of the Communist Bloc were optimistic believers in democracy and elections free and fair. They were also globalists, lovers of both free trade and international bodies like NATO and the EU. While Francis Fukuyama might have declared the end of history to them to future looked rosy and the path to freedom and prosperity clear and unobstructed.
But over time Applebaum and her husband would grow estranged with many of those who’d attended their winter soiree. In varying degrees and in different countries bitter feuds materialized with their former friends and political associates not over personal matters, but political ones. Some of their Polish friends grew enamored with the country’s Law and Justice Party, cheering heartily after it turned both Poland’s independent judiciary and nonpartisan state media into its lackeys. Conservative Brits she rubbed friendly elbows with for years became cheerleaders for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán while others threw in their lot with Boris Johnson, despite his boorish nature, allegations of Islamophobia and racism, extreme English nationalism and enthusiastic support of Brexit. As for their conservative American friends, after leaving the Republican Party 2008 over its inclusion of Sarah Palin on the ticket, Applebaum’s dislike of her former party deepened exponentially after Donald Trump secured the Presidential nomination eight years later, a man who would make the above-mentioned Boris Johnson look like an urbane and sophisticated statesman.
Applebaum eventually realized these fallings out with her former idealogical soulmates were merely symptoms of something much larger. From Warsaw to London to Washington, DC a civil war was raging for control of center-right political parties around the globe. On one side were traditionalists committed to governing, respectful of established institutions and norms and willing to compromise with political rivals from across the aisle. Opposed to them were upstart culture warriors angry over immigration, increasing LBGTQ acceptance and perceived threats to national sovereignty. They saw their struggle as an existential one, making political compromises with opposition parties impossible. With the entire system seen as broken and corrupt independent judiciaries were either ignored, abolished or packed with subservient justices. Similar measures were taken against media outlets with any critical stories ridiculed as “fake news.” Election results were doctored, or if unsatisfactory declared bogus thus robbing them of legitimacy.
According to Applebaum this internecine battle for the soul of conservatism has been driving the global rise of authoritarianism. As party elites battle for control, each side strives to enlist plebeian foot soldiers promising them a share of the spoils, with culture warriors appealing more to religious conservatives and xenophobes. If this is the case, Applebaum’s schema is similar to that of evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin, who believes when societies begin running out of resources rival elites will fight for control. In the United States, this rivalry between elites was won by the upstarts when the Trump White House became a haven for Ivy League educated but nevertheless second and third tier administrators, none of which could have served in similar capacities in Democratic or even past Republican administrations. Referred by Applebaum as clercs (from the early 20th century works of French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda) these intellectuals and specialists hitch their wagons to the authoritarian train in hopes of advancing their careers. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham was a middling media personality until she sang Trump’s praises, denouncing immigration in all its forms (even though all three of her children are adoptees from abroad, including one from Guatemala) and was rewarded with a prime-time slot on Fox News. Across the Atlantic Conservatives within Boris Johnson’s inner circle continue to back Brexit even though they know deep down it will damage the UK in the long run, the price they’re willing to pay for being close to the corridors of power.
Of course one can’t put the blame solely on a bunch of upstart conservative elites seeking to overthrow the old guard. Other factors have helped put democracy on the defensive. In the past our political discussions took place in person in our churches, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations and community get-togethers. Forced to interact with our friends, neighbors and friendly acquaintances our discussions were civil, frequently finding common ground even in our disagreements. Today those discussions have migrated online, where trolling and vitriol are the norms instead of civility and politeness. Social media platforms like Facebook have replaced newspapers and broadcast television as the primary sources for news. This explosion of often contradictory sources robs us of a common narrative, promoting even more divisiveness. In addition, online platforms are easy prey for those seeking to spread disinformation, a tactic the Russians employed with considerable success beginning with their adventures in Ukraine around 2014. European far right groups soon began their own targeted disinformation campaigns with those in American soon afterward. Both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 American presidential election would be plagued by online disinformation campaigns orchestrated by authoritarian elements. Lastly, as many Americans have retreated from politics, seeing it as hopelessly corrupt and controlled by unaccountable elites, it becomes easier to accept authoritarian leaders who trash accepted norms and institutions and refuse to honor free elections.
Applebaum makes it clear democracy isn’t necessarily permanent, even in places like America and the United Kingdom. More than jealously appreciated it must be actively defended. Perhaps a good way to start is by simply reading Twilight of Democracy.